the Solution to Prevaricating Public Servants
November 8, 2003
By Dennis Hans
The problem: A president and senior officials who get their jollies deceiving the public.
The solution: A system of hand signals that alerts the public to the nature of the impending deception.
First, let’s consider the problem.
Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld’s leaked memo is the latest in a long line of indications that he and other senior officials of the Bush administration — including President George W. Bush — say things in public that don’t match what they think and say in private.
On September 10, several weeks before the memo leaked, Rummy matter-of-factly told a gathering of reporters at the National Press Club that he doesn’t always tell the truth. “[S]ometimes I overstate for emphasis,” he said.
The context of his admission was a question from NPC president Tammy Lytle about his cocky assertion way back on March 30 that “We know where [the Iraqi WMD] are.” Rummy conceded he didn’t “know” any such thing; he only knew the locations of a number of sites where banned weapons could be. He told Lytle he should have said “I believe” or “Our intelligence tells us” — that is, he should have made it clear he didn’t really “know.”
Rummy did on March 30 what his president does as a matter of routine: engage in unjustified “certitude.” That is, you pretend to “know” something is true when in fact you think either it’s probably or possibly true — or at least hasn’t yet been definitively proven to be false.
If unjustified certitude was the only form of deceit Bush and Rummy practiced, we would have a serious but manageable problem. Alas, it’s not. Both employ other forms, including the classic “bald-faced lie.” In the very same answer where Rummy admitted to “sometimes” overstating for emphasis, he delivered this version of Bushist blarney:
“What we had . . . is a long list of suspect sites. And they were sites that the inspectors had been in the process of looking at when they concluded that the inspection process really wasn't working, because of lack of cooperation on the part of Saddam Hussein's regime.”
In fact, the U.N. inspectors had concluded no such thing. They had unimpeded access since November 2002 to any site they cared to visit, including all the worthless ones the U.S. and Britain urged them to inspect. Hans Blix wanted the Iraqis to make a greater effort to document their claims that they had destroyed in the early 1990s all of the “unaccounted for” WMD weapon stocks as well as chemicals and biological agents, but he and nuclear inspector Mohamed ElBaradei were asking for additional time to complete a very productive inspections regime.
On Sunday, November 2 we saw another side of the secretary: Slick Rummy. He appeared on three talk shows and spoke words that were technically true but intended to mislead. His aim was to show that even in the pre-war period, Iraq was a legitimate target in the War on Terror, in part because of the presence of the deadly Islamist group Ansar al-Islam. Slick Rummy told Fox News Sunday that Ansar “was in Iraq when Saddam Hussein was there, it was functioning, and Saddam Hussein knew all about it.”
Quite true. But what Rummy knew, and kept from viewers lest they get the right impression, is that Ansar opposed Saddam and operated in an area beyond his control in the Kurdish-controlled northern no-fly zone near the Iranian border. It was the U.S., not Saddam, who had the ways and means to attack Ansar, and a number of U.S. senators were dumbfounded throughout the fall of 2002 as to why the Bushies hadn’t acted against a group that Bushies alleged was operating a “poison factory” in its enclave.
Slick Rummy wanted his non-expert viewers and pea-brained questioners at Fox, NBC and ABC to form a picture of Saddam harboring Ansar’s Islamist terrorists. So he told the technical truth while withholding the context that would show his example to be fraudulent.
(For quotes from all three broadcasts and an insightful critique, see this entry by Matthew Yglesias at the American Prospect weblog.)
Now let’s consider a solution.
Rummy, Bush and their cabinet cronies are too old and too set in their ways to develop the honesty habit. But if we make it fun for them — like a game — they might be willing to offer us hapless citizens a visual clue whenever they’re about to say something that’s not quite kosher.
Bush loves baseball, and one of its great traditions is the hand-signal communication between third-base coach and batter. If the coach wants the batter to take the pitch, he might tug on his cap. If he wants him to bunt, perhaps he’ll touch his left elbow. If he wants him to swing away, he might touch his nose.
I propose that we have a hand signal for every form of rhetorical deception. We won’t know until we ask, but I believe Bush would jump at the chance to spruce up his public chatter with coded messages delivered by his somewhat more articulate hands — just like a real live Major League third-base coach.
Yes, Bush could balk; he could say no. If he does, we sweeten our offer by granting him the right to wear official Major League duds at all public appearances. We know from that “Mission Accomplished” soiree he simply adores playing “dress up” and donning uniforms he’s not qualified to wear, so how could he resist the chance to strut around as a Texas Ranger on Tuesday, a New York Yankee on Friday, a world champion Florida Marlin on Sunday?
We’ll give Rummy, Rice, Cheney and Powell the same deal as the president. But in return, each must execute the appropriate signal before he or she deceives:
• Overstatement: right hand tug on right ear.
• Understatement: left hand tug on left ear.
• Deception by cutting out the crucial context: slit-throat motion with index finger.
• Third-degree certitude (saying that something is definitely true when you only believe, but don’t know for a fact, that it’s true): “thumbs-up” with the right hand.
• Second-degree certitude (saying it’s definitely true when you think there’s only a 50-50 chance it’s true): thumbs-up with both hands.
• First-degree certitude (saying it’s definitely true when you strongly suspect, but don’t know for a fact, it’s false): two thumbs WAY up.
• Fact-based lie (technically true but designed to leave a false impression): right hand raised while left hand is placed on imaginary Bible, as if taking an oath, followed by eye wink.
• Unjustified ambiguity (pretending something might be true — Saddam was involved in 9-11 — despite having no untainted evidence to support the claim): circling motion of the right forefinger at the side of the head to indicate impending “crazy talk.”
• Bald-faced lie: touch nose with forefinger, then extend that finger outward a foot to symbolize Pinocchio-style prevarication.
• Whopper: pantomime taking a big bite out of a big sandwich, which you’re holding with both hands.
My favorite whopper is Colin Powell’s Feb. 5 statement to the U.N. Security Council: “My colleagues, every statement I make today is backed up by sources, solid sources. These are not assertions. What we are giving you are facts and conclusions based on solid intelligence.”
Under the current system, only Powell, CIA director George Tenet and a few others were in on that world-class whopper. But a democracy works best when ALL the citizens know what they are being fed. That is why we must induce President Bush and his top aides not merely to deliver whoppers, but to identifty them as such at the moment of delivery.
Dennis Hans is a freelance writer who has taught courses in mass communications and American foreign policy at the University of South Florida-St. Petersburg. Prior to the Iraq war he published “Lying Us Into War: Exposing Bush and His ‘Techniques of Deceit’” and “The Disinformation Age.” He can be reached at HANS_D@popmail.firn.edu.