Another scandal in the executive branch, and once more the reading public gets an earful of phrases like “I don’t recall” and “I can’t remember”. The current tale is of the musical chair variety with Kyle Sampson undermining his former boss by claiming that Attorney General Alberto Gonzales should certainly recall what our chief law enforcement officer says he can’t. Last month a jury rejected Scooter Libby’s claim of memory lapses when they convicted him of lying under oath to a grand jury.
It’s easy to be disbelieving of the obvious nonsense used by politicians to avoid accountability for behavior deemed unacceptable. But the revealing idea here may be that they are actually being honest once they are finally caught.
In his book Secrets, Daniel Ellsberg weaves a chronological history of his personal involvement in Vietnam War policy making during two presidential administrations. The power in the Pentagon Papers, which brought him into the national spotlight as one of the most daring government whistle blowers in history, is all about secrets and lying.
“Once I was inside the government” he writes, “my awareness of how easily and pervasively Congress, the public, and journalists were fooled and misled contributed to a lack of respect for them and their potential contribution to better policy.”
He also describes the players as consummate insiders who by having “the inside dope” felt “important, fully engaged, on an adrenalin high much of the time. Clearly it was addictive.” And like all addicts, he explains the insider turned out by a change within an administration was often looking for an avenue back in for a new fix.
Ellsberg’s personal epiphany wouldn’t come until several years after being wired to the inside. The rationale that allowed him to participate from the start was that “we were doing our very best and that no other team in the running to replace us was likely to deal with all these challenges much better then we could”.
Imagine the power of personal convictions being groomed next to the ability to lie effectively and often, all falling into place to serve a patriotic duty. And the longer one is hooked on “the inside dope”, the farther from reality and truth they might likely venture, all in the name of the national interest. Like the typical addict, and criminal, the inside deceiver isn't just good at what he does, he’s convinced that, for him, it’s not even wrong.
Libby was the best of the best insiders operating almost as high as one can get. He was unaccountable to the voting public and of relatively low interest as a name to be dropped by the press until he was busted. Maybe it was a memory lapse regarding when he learned and to who he revealed Valerie Plame’s identity as a CIA official. Perhaps he had become so accustomed to lying about so much more, and on such a regular basis, that he really couldn’t remember. Maybe because he believed it wasn’t wrong that all the specific lies being told made no impact on his memory. They were each just another vague run of the mill day at the office.
By no means does this exonerate Libby from the conviction he deserves. Neither should it garner any pity for being the scapegoat for an administration that took the country to war on more than a few whopping stories sold to Congress, the media, and the public. But to focus on Libby or the administration is to lose sight of the forest beyond the trees at its edge.
Secrets describes how widespread and “normal” the problem is. Our system is a breeding ground for people like Libby. And of course there’s Dick Cheney and others such as Donald Rumsfeld, who have left a few times then come back for more.
It seems way too few have the integrity of conscience like Ellsberg, who, after only four years on the inside, came to recognize the complete fallacy that lying to the world could lead to meaningful results. But even though his story reveals deceit in the executive branch that seems to parallel what we still see today, it seems doubtful that most of our long term politicians and their staffers and advisors aren’t also inflicted with this ego centric disease.
Can Congress even find the truth about the war and occupation in
What about George W. Bush, who successfully campaigned as an outsider immune to the corruption in
Ellsberg asked “Can you really run the world this way?” It seems our government is doing a lousy job of it. So does the burden of change fall on we the people? Yet like Ellsberg, does it need to feel personal to find the power in the revelation that only the truth will resolve the chaos we’ve created?
Perhaps the meaning of Libby’s conviction is not about high level corruption in the Bush administration or Congress. Perhaps we can’t restore the integrity into our way of life until we’re ready to look at our individual truths and addictions used to preserve our minutely insignificant empires.