LYING FOR THE PUBLIC GOOD?
PREFACE

Broadly conceived, case studies in ethics and public policy are exercises designed to help students keep their balance and avoid falling into the pits of apathetic cynicism or naive and morally simplistic activism. Both pits have a paralyzing effect on those who fall into them. Efforts to climb out of one often lead to a fall into the other and few are able to recover their sense of balance in making judgments about politics and public policy unless they develop the patience and discrimination that these case studies attempt to promote.

Lying by politicians is especially unsettling and easily provokes the responses that lead to a fall. Who has failed to hear the sweepingly cynical comment: All politicians lie Almost as common is the sense of outrage by those who put their trust in promises made by a politician whose job is to make the best deal he can in the agreement on which a public policy is based. Outrage in this setting often becomes a trap that makes agreement impossible and forestalls the effort necessary for addressing a public need.

Sifting patiently through the following examples should help students to recall from their moral experience the lines along which they have guided their own struggles in telling the truth and to extend those lines into the choices which public figures face in these examples. The operative questions in each case are: What would you have done and why? Conscientious responses preclude cynicism and reveal moralizing as silly. The only serious and constructive path is the narrow one that unfolds with practice in the slow, steady, but progressive exercise of moral and political judgment. Only then can the larger question be answered: "Is it possible to lie for the public good."

 
"TO TELL THE TRUTH ABOUT UFOs . . . . "

 
 

 

Early Sightings

In late 1954, the CIA began to work with Kelly Johnson at Lockheed’s famous Skunk Works to develop a high-altitude experimental aircraft, which later became the U-2, and by mid-1955 it was testing the craft at altitudes that were three times as high as those flown by commercial airliners of the time. UFO sightings, which had first emerged in mid-1947 and mounted steadily since then, suddenly spiked and a high percentage of these sightings were from commercial pilots or air traffic controllers. [Pedlow. Gregory W. & Donald E. Welzenbach. 1992. The Central Intelligence Agency and Overhead Reconnaissance: The U-2 and OXCART Programs, 1954-1974. CIA History Staff Publication, p. 24.] 

 

 

 

 

Government Response

A little more than a year earlier the first high-level, government-wide study of UFO sightings was started and, to insure objectivity, H. P. Robertson, a noted Cal Tech physicist, was commissioned to head the effort and to include the best civilian scientists available. The panel concluded unanimously that the greatest cause for concern was not in the objects sighted but in the gullibility of the public and its mistrust of government statements on the subject. The Robertson report "recommended that the National Security Council debunk UFO reports and institute a policy of public education to reassure the public of the lack of evidence behind UFOs. It suggested using the mass media, advertising, business clubs, schools, and even the Disney Corporation to get the message across. [Haines, Gerald K. 1997. CIA’s Role in the Study of UFOs, 1947-90. Studies in Intelligence, I/1:4, <http://www.odci.gov/csi/studies/97unclas/ufo.html>] Psychological warfare was the only way to prevent mass UFO reporting from tying up communications and obstructing "the orderly functioning of government." [Haines, 4-5]
 

 

"Tell Us the Truth!"

In 1956, just as production and use of U-2s was being stepped up, a well organized, creditably-led, non-governmental initiative was having a major impact. Marine Corps Major Donald Keyhoe's 1955 book, The Flying Saucer Conspiracy, became a best seller and it argued forcefully for immediate release of all government information and action relating to UFOs. Continuing pressure in this direction came from a civilian group called the National Investigations Committee on Aerial Phenomena, which included on its governing board a former head of CIA, Vice-Admiral Roscoe Hillenkoetter. In addition, Edward Ruppelt, former head of an early Air Force UFO study team, revealed the existence of the Robertson panel plus its report and recommendations. Finally the CIA was directly and publicly challenged to disclose the U-2 as a major source of UFO sightings by Dr. Leon Davidson, a chemical engineer who seems to have stumbled by accident upon the truth and who, along with Major Keyhoe, proved relentless in confronting the CIA with demands for disclosure. [Haines, 5-6] 

 

 
 

 

Half Truths

A debate within the CIA ensued, with predictable opposition to disclosure coming from the operations and assessments directorates, but any chance of real disclosure was doomed by the civilian scientists on the Robertson panel, who were very concerned that their participation remain secret. These civilian scientists, who might reasonably be expected to feel an obligation to the public, instead urged Philip Strong, Deputy Assistant Director of the Office of Scientific Intelligence, to preserve secrecy. As a result, only a "sanitized" version of the Robertson report was released and this version deleted all references to the U-2, to psychological warfare, to the CIA and to civilian scientists who worked with the agency. 

 

 

Public Doubts

From then until now, vast public distrust of government and of the scientific community on this issue has persisted. A huge, 95% majority of all Americans are interested enough in UFOs to follow media coverage on this issue and 57% believe they are real [Haines, 1] If anything, distrust seems to be growing, as suggested by high ratings among viewers for July 1997 TV network coverage of the 50th anniversary of the supposed government seizure of extraterrestrial aircraft and beings near Roswell, New Mexico. [New York Times, August 3, 1997, p. 12] 

 

 

 
 

 

Recovering Credibility

Leading figures in government and science have made major efforts to undo the damage caused by earlier duplicity. Since 1993, the CIA has not only combed its files for anything relating to UFOs but has also chronicled government programs that had an impact on UFO sightings and detailed the succession of government efforts to mislead the public. Scientists have been no less forthcoming. James E. Pike, head of space policy at the Federation of American Scientists, has joined the successors of Keyhoe and Davidson in pressing for full disclosure of Federal projects involving advanced aircraft. "The flying-saucer community is definitely onto something," Mr. Pike reportedly said to the New York Times while challenging the Pentagon to address public doubts. [NYT, 7/3/97] 

Can all such efforts after 1955 be dismissed as too little attempted to late? Was there a moment in 1955 when full disclosure, at least by civilian scientists, could have strengthened public rationality on UFOs and saved the government decades of deception and embarrassment. 

 

 
 "NO NEW TAXES!"
 
 
 
 
 

Promise Made 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 

Promise Kept 

 

On a cold February 1988 day in New Hampshire, Vice-President George Bush pledged not to raise taxes if he were elected to the nation’s highest office. Much about the background and intention of the pledge remains obscure, but its utterance could not be clearer—"Read my lips: No New Taxes!" And the press, eager for short, simple, dramatic declarations, featured the pledge. The quoted words formed bold headlines in newspapers across the nation and every network displayed at least one instance of Bush uttering the pledge. Thus encouraged, the candidate repeated it in a variety of settings and at different times, so that intellectuals came to regard it as one of the few continuous, sharply defined issues in a presidential campaign that they considered to be disappointingly muddled. [Anthony King & Giles Alston. 1991. "Good Government and the Politics of High Exposure," in The Bush Presidency: First Appraisals, eds. C. Campbell & B. Rockman. Chatham House, p. 277] 
 

Once elected, President Bush continued to insist on his opposition to new taxes. His 1989 and 1990 budget proposals not only embodied the pledge but went beyond it to offer a capital gains tax cut. [Congressional Quarterly Weekly Report, Feb. 11, 1989. 47/6:251; Jan. 27, 1990, 48/4:218-20] The Congress that Bush faced was, however, very different from the one that Reagan succeeded in pushing along this general direction 7-8 years earlier. First, the number of Republicans in Congress after 1988 was smaller, despite Bush’s respectable 54% victory. Even more importantly, Congressional Democrats were not only more numerous but more united, better organized and better led than in the season of malaise and disappointment with President Carter. Then, Ronald Reagan, as a bearer of national hope and direction, was able to enter Washington with a personal force that had enormous impact on Congress and made the opposition reluctant to act. By contrast, President Bush was a Washington insider, a known player in the vast game of beltway politics, and checking his initiatives was but the first round in a long process of give and take. [Barbara Sinclair. 1991. "Bush and the 101st Congress," in The Bush Presidency: First Appraisals, eds. C. Campbell & B. Rockman. Chatham House, pp. 157-158] 

Senate Democrats slammed the new president almost immediately by turning down the high-profile nomination of former Senator John Tower for Bush’s new Secretary of Defense, but the White House, and especially Richard Darman, was preoccupied with a budgetary "deal of the century." [CQWR, March 18,1989. 47/11:566-70] While memories of the election campaign were still fresh, Darman and other presidential advisers were determined not to be trapped in a stalemate with Democrats over budget deficits. Bush’s re-election in 1992 would thus be endangered, they thought, if deficits drove up inflation, provoked the Fed to tighten monetary policy, and the economy slid toward recession. Shrugging off the check, Bush sent Tower back to Texas, replaced him with Dick Cheney, who proved to be highly capable if initially less well known, and focused on the play for a budget deal. [CQWR, March 11, 1989. 47/10:530-531] 

In a dramatic gesture, the President made a personal visit to Capitol Hill, a rare event in DC annals. He visited the offices of leading Congressional Democrats in each chamber and reviewed with them his commitment to making advances in policy areas, like education, childcare, and air quality, which were traditional Democratic concerns. The White House mailroom was awash in hand-written thank-you notes flowing out of the Oval Office and into the boxes of even the most obscure beltway Democrats. [CQWR, March 18, 1989. 47/11:566-70] But an "attack Bush" wing among Congressional Democrats refused to acknowledge the value of bipartisan goodwill in budgetary negotiations and no substantial agreement was reached as the first year slipped past. [CQWR, April 7, 1989. 47/17:984; Sept. 23, 1989. 47/38:2441-43; Dec. 30, 1989. 47/53:3540-50] 

 

 

 

 

 

 
 
 
 
 
 

 

Promise Broken? 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 
 

The second year seemed to begin as a replay of the first. The pledge not to raise taxes was repeated in Bush’s 1990 State of the Union message, but pressure on the President for some progress toward an agreement was beginning to mount. Economic news in May 1990 suggested trouble ahead and, in the absence of an agreement, the size of the anticipated deficit mandated automatic, across the board spending cuts on a truly draconian scale. [CQWR, January 27, 1990. 48/4:218-20] The "head-on" attack faction in Congress felt itself on the verge of a major triumph and Congressional leaders reported to the President that they had failed to get enough support even to propose a plan for deficit reduction. [CQWR, May 12, 1990. 48/19:1457-58] In early May, they called on Bush to mount a proverbial "bully pulpit" and convince the public that sacrifices were necessary. A plan for increasing revenue and avoiding drastic cuts in popular government programs was entirely up to him. Initially, Bush held firm, apparently hoping to extract commitments of support in exchange for such a plan. "Who’s got the obligation under the Constitution to raise revenue?" the President asked on May 19th. Nothing but silence came from leaders at the other end of Pennsylvania Avenue. Finally, on June 26, 1990, President Bush issued a statement that reads in part: "It is clear to me that both the size of the deficit problem and the need for a package that can be enacted require all of the following: entitlement . . . reform; tax revenue increases; . . . discretionary spending reductions; . . ." [CQWR, June 30, 1990. 48/26:2029-30] 

The media defined the story in familiar terms. Pledge made. Pledge broken. President lies. Even the Houston Post, which spoke for Bush’s home town, was only slightly more generous than most other media comments when it asked: "Was he lying or did he just not understand the situation." [cited by Barbara Sinclair, 1991. "Bush and the 101st Congress," in The Bush Presidency: First Appraisals, eds. Colin Campbell & Bert Rockman. Chatham House. P. 176]. Even today, in the political vernacular of California, "bushlips" refers to the quivering regard for truth that politicians often seem to display. [Washington Times Weekly Edition, October 12, 1997, pp. 23, 28] 

How seriously must we take such censure of President Bush? 

 
TO TELL THE TRUTH ABOUT HOW MANY . . . ?
 
 
 
 

So few . . . 

So important . . .

No abortion procedure is more likely to arouse widespread opposition than is a late-term one pioneered by Dr. Martin Haskell. The procedure is called in medicine "intact dilation and extraction" but opponents in politics often refer to it as "partial birth abortion." Efforts to outlaw the procedure were popular in Congress and with the public in early 1996. Over three-quarters of the public favored a ban on it and margins in Congress on a bill to outlaw it fell short of a veto-proof majority only in the Senate. However, President Clinton vetoed the bill in April of 1996, citing the importance of this procedure for a few hundred women annually whose fetuses developed tragic abnormalities in the early to middle stages of pregnancy. This justification became the standard one, having been offered again and again in debate by members of Congress from both houses and by leading advocates of abortion rights. 
 

 

 
 

That many!

In medical practice, however, the facts were quite different. From the very beginning in 1991-92, as Dr. Haskell reported to the AMA, the procedure was used later, more frequently, and much more for purely "elective" reasons [AMNews, March 3, 1997] than the standard political account indicates. Since the procedure is not taught in any American medical school, those who do it are few and are generally in close contact with one another. The New York Times surveyed them in March 1997 and found that annual frequency was in the thousands. A single New Jersey clinic reported doing over 1200 in 1996 [Weekly Standard, March 17, 1997, p. 9] while a Nebraska clinic performed over 5,000 during the same period. According to Dr. Haskell, over 80% were elective abortions on healthy fetuses that were at or beyond the mid-point of pregnancy. [AMNews, March 3, 1997

 

 
 
 

"I lied . . . ."

The glaring discrepancy between political accounts by advocates and medical accounts by surgeons was publicized by Ron Fitzsimmons, executive director of the National Coalition of Abortion Providers, in an interview with ABC’s Ted Koppel and again on NBC’s "Meet the Press." [New York Times, March 3, 1997] Fitzsimmons told American Medical News staff writers that "I had lied through my teeth" when reciting the standard account given by abortion rights advocates in 1996. Fitzsimmons urged these advocates to make a fresh start in the 1997 replay of same fight in Congress. "The pro-choice movement has lost a lot of credibility during this debate, not just with the general public, but with our pro-choice friends in Congress…. Even the White House is now questioning the accuracy of some of the information given it on this issue." [AMNews, March 3, 1997] 

 

 

Did you?

Abortion rights advocates were unmoved by Fitzsimmons’s appeal. Leaders from the largest advocacy groups stood in solid opposition to any admission or apology. As reported by the New York Times "Kate Michaelman, president of the National Abortion and Reproductive Rights Action League said: `If he thinks he lied, that’s his problem. We have not.’ Vicki Sporta, executive director of the National Abortion Federation, said: `The statements we have been making have been truthful." [February 27, 1997] If you were put in the same position as these advocates, what would you do and why? 

 

 
POSTSCRIPT AND CREDITS
 

The subject of these cases grew out of the work of Sissela Bok and the faculty at Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government. I first discovered the cases on lying as I was researching materials for a new course that eventually became Ethics and Public Policy, now offered annually by the Politics Department. Les Garner was at the Kennedy School when these cases were developed and he demonstrated their effective use in my new course. We both observed, however, that the cases were clearly dated. Most of the cases were from the 1960s, well before many of the students in the course were born. As a result, students had little background to bring to these cases and none of the interest, which comes naturally from events with which they are currently familiar. I thus proposed developing new case studies and the Office of Academic Affairs funded the work under a Category II Research Grant. These three initial cases are the first of two or three times that number which I hope eventually to develop. Various people have helped along the way, including Les Garner’s general encouragement and Susan Prentice’s particular eye for material and expression. The errors and mistakes are mine alone, however.

In Lying [1978. Vintage], Professor Bok argues that truth is so strong a requirement for the existence of human society that there can be no justification for lying. There are only excuses, which serve to mitigate, or, in a very few cases, to remove the blame that would otherwise fall upon the liar. She acknowledges four excuses for lying: 1) to avoid some grave harm to the public, 2) to gain some great benefit for the public, 3) to achieve fairness when it might otherwise be lost due to injustice, exploitation, or disparity of power, and 4) to protect truth when it is obscured by complexity or false appearances. [76-89] Each of these cases, and others to come, can be analyzed in parallel terms and any discussion of these cases is bound to echo Professor Bok’s work.

 
 Revised June 8, 1998
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