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The Conservative Curmudgeon
September 20, 2013

When Government Lies to the People,
the Fabric of Representative Democracy Itself Is the Victim

by Allan C. Brownfeld
fitzgerald griffin foundation

ALEXANDRIA, VA — Without trust in the truthfulness of government officials, it is impossible for the elected representatives of the people to conduct public business in a manner the public can consider honest.

Recent revelations about government surveillance programs, and the inaccurate statements made about them — some under oath — indicate that we have a serious problem.

In July, the top lawyer in the U.S. intelligence community made a rare public appearance and pointed out that much of the information being distributed about government surveillance programs was wrong.  "A lie can get halfway around the world before the truth gets its boots on," said Robert Litt, citing a line attributed to Mark Twain. "Unfortunately, there's been a lot of misinformation that's come out about these programs."

Litt, general counsel for the Office of the Director of National Intelligence, was talking about news organizations. But details have emerged from the exposure of hundreds of pages of previously classified National Security Agency (NSA) documents indicating that public statements about these programs by senior U.S. officials have often been misleading, erroneous, or simply false.


Recent revelations about government surveillance programs, and the inaccurate statements made about them — some under oath — indicate that we have a serious problem.


The same day that Litt spoke, the NSA removed from its website a fact sheet about its collection activities because it contained inaccuracies discovered by lawmakers.

A week earlier, President Obama said in a television interview that oversight of the surveillance programs was "transparent" because of the involvement of a special court.  "It is transparent," Obama said of the oversight process. "That's why we set up the FISA (Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act) court."

A remark by Director of National Intelligence James Clapper, Jr., drew the most attention. During a congressional hearing in March, Senator Ron Wyden (D-OR) asked whether the NSA collected data on millions of Americans. Clapper, under oath, replied, "No, sir."


Telling less than the truth to the American people and their elected representatives is hardly new. We were led to war in Iraq because of alleged "weapons of mass destruction" which, we later discovered, did not exist.


According to the Washington Post, "... an examination of public statements over a period of years suggests that officials have often relied on legalistic parsing and carefully hedged characterizations in discussing the NSA's collection of communications. Obama's assurances have hinged, for example, on a term — targeting — that has a specific meaning for U.S. spy agencies that would elude most ordinary citizens."

On PBS's "Charlie Rose Show," President Obama said, "What I can say unequivocally is that if you are a U.S. person, the NSA cannot listen to your telephone calls and the NSA cannot target your e-mails."

Still, the Post points out, "... even if it is not allowed to target U.S. citizens, the NSA has a significant latitude to collect and keep contents of e-mails and other communications of U.S. citizens that are swept up as part of the agency's court-approved monitoring of a target overseas. The law allows the NSA to examine such messages and share them with other agencies if it determines that the information contains evidence of a crime, conveys a serious threat, or is necessary to understand foreign intelligence."

President George W. Bush at times engaged in similarly careful phrasing to defend surveillance programs. In 2004, while calling for renewal of the Patriot Act, Bush sought to reassure critics by saying "the government can't move on wiretaps or roving wiretaps without getting a court order." At the time, it had not been publicly disclosed that Bush had secretly authorized NSA surveillance of communications between U.S. residents and contacts overseas while bypassing FISA.

When the wiretapping operation was exposed in the media two years later, Bush defended it as a program "that listens to a few numbers, called from outside the U.S. by al-Qaeda affiliates." Later revelations made clear that the scope was far greater than he suggested.

Members of Congress tasked with overseeing national security policy say that a pattern of misleading testimony by senior Obama administration officials has weakened the ability of Congress to properly oversee government surveillance. Officials, they report, have either denied the existence of a broad program that collects data on millions of Americans or, more often, made statements that gave the impression that the government was conducting only narrow, targeted, surveillance operations.
Two Democratic members of the Senate Intelligence Committee, Senators Ron Wyden (OR) and Mark Udall (CO) say that, even in top-secret briefings, officials "significantly exaggerated" the effectiveness of the program that collected data on Americans' e-mail usage.  

At least two Republican lawmakers have called for the removal of intelligence chief James Clapper. A letter to Clapper sent in June from 26 senators from both parties complained about a series of statements from senior officials that "had the effect of misleading the public" and that "will undermine trust in government more broadly."

"The national security state has grown so that any administration is now not upfront with Congress," said Rep. Jerrold Nadler (D-NY), a senior member of the House Judiciary Committee. "It's an imbalance that's grown in our government, and one that we have to cleanse."

In Sen. Wyden's view, a number of administration statements have made it "impossible for the public or Congress to have a genuinely informed debate about government surveillance. These statements gave the public a false impression of how these authorities were actually being interpreted.... The secret body of law authorizing secret surveillance overseen by a largely secret court has infringed on Americans' civil liberties and privacy rights without offering the public the ability to judge for themselves whether these broad powers are appropriate or necessary."
Rep. F. James Sensenbrenner, Jr. (R-WI), an author of the Patriot Act and former chairman of the House Judiciary Committee, said he thought that he and his colleagues had created a sufficiently narrow standard for seeking information. The government is allowed to collect only data that are "relevant" to an authorized terrorism investigation. "The relevancy requirement was intended to be limited," says Sensenbrenner. "Instead, what we're hearing now is that 'relevant' was expanding."

Calling it a "stretch of the English language" for the administration to consider millions of Americans' phone records to be "relevant," he asked, "How can we do good oversight if we don't get truthful and non-misleading information?"

Telling less than the truth to the American people and their elected representatives is hardly new. We were led to war in Iraq because of alleged "weapons of mass destruction" which, we later discovered, did not exist.


"The national security state has grown so that any administration is now not upfront with Congress."

—Rep. Jerrold Nadler (D-NY), a senior member of the House Judiciary Committee


Decades earlier, the Gulf of Tonkin Resolution led to the war in Vietnam. President Lyndon Johnson put the Gulf of Tonkin Resolution before Congress on August 5, 1964, in reaction to two allegedly "unprovoked" attacks by North Vietnamese torpedo boats on the destroyers Maddox and C. Turner Joy in the Gulf of Tonkin on August 2 and 4. Its stated purpose was to approve and support the determination of the president to take all necessary measures to repel any armed attack against U.S. forces.
Both houses of Congress approved the resolution, the House by 414-0 and the Senate by 88-2. The resolution served as the principal constitutional authorization for the subsequent escalation and U.S. involvement in the Vietnam War.

While the August 2 attack was said to be "unprovoked," it later became known that the Maddox was actually engaged in aggressive intelligence-gathering maneuvers in sync with coordinated attacks on North Vietnam by the South Vietnamese Navy and the Laotian Air Force. In 1995, Vo Nguyen Giap, who had been North Vietnam's military commander during the Vietnam War, acknowledged the August 2 attack but denied that the Vietnamese had launched another attack on August 4, as the Johnson administration claimed.

A later investigation by the Senate Foreign Relations Committee revealed that the Maddox had been on an electronic intelligence mission and that the U.S. Naval Command Center in the Philippines had questioned whether any second attack had actually occurred. In 2005, an internal NSA historical study was declassified. It concluded that the Maddox had engaged the North Vietnamese Navy on August 2, but that there may not have been any North Vietnamese naval vessels present on August 4. The study concluded, "It is not simply that there is a different story of what happened. It is that no attack happened that night."
In 1965, President Johnson commented privately, "For all I know, our Navy was shooting at whales out there." One of the Navy pilots flying overhead on August 4 was Squadron Commander James Stockdale, who gained fame later as a POW and as Ross Perot's vice presidential candidate. He said: "I had the best seat in the house to watch the event, and our destroyers were just shooting at phantom targets -- there were no PT boats there. There was nothing there but black water and American fire power."

As time went on, members of Congress saw the Gulf of Tonkin Resolution as giving the president a blank check to wage war, and the resolution was repealed in 1970.

We have real enemies at the present time, as we have in the past. There may indeed be a need for a variety of surveillance programs. But for democracy to work, the elected representatives of the people in Congress must not be lied to by nonelected government officials. If Americans are to trust their government, that government must be trustworthy. We have been lied to before, and we have paid a heavy price.  Having a society in which citizens question the truthfulness of their own government weakens us. Only our enemies gain from such lack of trust.

The Conservative Curmudgeon is copyright © 2013 by Allan C. Brownfeld and the Fitzgerald Griffin Foundation. All rights reserved. Editors may use this column if this copyright information is included.

Allan C. Brownfeld is the author of five books, the latest of which is The Revolution Lobby (Council for Inter-American Security). He has been a staff aide to a U.S. Vice President, Members of Congress, and the U.S. Senate Internal Subcommittee.

He is associate editor of The Lincoln Reveiw and a contributing editor to such publications as Human Events, The St. Croix Review, and The Washington Report on Middle East Affairs.

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