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General News    H3'ed 11/21/19

Tomgram: Karen Greenberg, Making Alphabet Soup in Washington

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Willful Ignorance: Hiding or ignoring facts has been yet another tactic integral to the deception of these years. The Bush administration, for instance, purposely disregarded then-CIA Director George Tenet's comments about the striking lack of certainty regarding the presence of nuclear and biological weaponry in Saddam Hussein's Iraq. Instead, they relied on false claims about the presence of WMDs in Iraq as the premise for invading that country.

Sometimes, Bush officials quite deliberately put their heads in the sand rather than face reality. For example, when the first accounts of the grim abuse of Iraqi captives at the American prison at Abu Ghraib in Iraq were reported by CBS News (and later even by Fox News) in 2004, according to journalist Andrew Cockburn, Undersecretary of Defense Douglas Feith "sent an urgent memo round the Pentagon warning officials not to read [such reports], or even discuss [them] with family members."

More recently, upon the release of the Mueller Report, President Trump expanded on this strategy, applying it to himself when he boasted that "I have not seen the Mueller report. I have not read the Mueller report. I won. No collusion, no obstruction."

Unabashedly choosing to bury his head in the sand in a similar fashion, Republican Senator Lindsey Graham told the media that he wouldn't read the transcripts of witnesses at the initial closed Congressional impeachment proceedings when they were made public. "I made up my mind... There's nothing there." Several Republican senators, including Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, have similarly said that they won't be watching the House impeachment hearings, claiming they have "better things to do."

Withholding Evidence: In addition to ignoring facts and embracing ignorance, withholding evidence has been one obvious path to blunting awareness. From the first Abu Ghraib photos to today's military commissions at Guantanamo, evidence of torture has, for instance, been purposely withheld or misrepresented. Likewise, the Trump administration has consistently withheld documents and records about its migrant detention system and the methods used in it, as illustrated by a determination to claim absolute immunity for officials refusing to testify in Congress on the subject. Similarly, ICE has refused to release records of the agency's surveillance and data-collection methods, including the use of facial-recognition software at the border. It's no surprise then that the White House has employed the same tactic -- not allowing officials of all sorts to testify before Congress -- in the ongoing impeachment hearings. As the whistleblower in the Ukraine quid pro quo bribery scandal has informed us, White House lawyers were directed "to remove the electronic transcript [of Trump's phone conversation with the Ukrainian president] from the computer system in which such transcripts are typically stored for coordination, finalization, and distribution to Cabinet-level officials."

The Destruction of the Record: A fifth tactic meant to confuse and enable governmental lying in these years has been the destruction of the facts themselves. Worse than linguistic sloppiness, omissions, and willful ignorance has been the actual destruction of potentially incriminating documents. (We, of course, only know about examples of this that have come to light.) The Bush administration pioneered such tactics. We know, for instance, that Jose Rodriguez, director of the CIA's National Clandestine Service, destroyed tapes of sessions with war-on-terror prisoners in Agency "black sites" around the world in which so-called enhanced interrogation techniques (acts of torture) were used. Prosecutor John Durham, who is now tasked by Attorney General Barr with looking into the origins of the Mueller Russia investigation, was asked by Bush Attorney General Michael Mukasey and then Obama Attorney General Eric Holder to look into the destruction of those tapes, only to conclude that there wasn't enough evidence to pursue charges.

Under Trump, a strategy of destroying government records has evolved into one of not creating such records to begin with. In 2017, for instance, the National Security Archive and Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington filed a suit charging the Trump administration with violating the Presidential Records Act (PRA) by using an encrypted application designed to delete the contents of the president's email messages. This May, the two groups, along with the Society for Historians of American Foreign Relations, filed a complaint against the White House for violating the PRA and the Federal Records Act by failing to create records of conversations with foreign leaders. Last month, the plaintiffs intensified their efforts by asking a judge for an immediate injunction to require the White House to preserve the records of all calls with foreign leaders.

Spreading Conflicting Facts: Trump and his team have added a new layer of confusion to all of this by making the spreading of contradictory stories a normal part of everyday life in Washington. The impeachment hearings are a case in point. Potential administration witnesses say one thing one day, only to contradict it without blinking soon after. Acting White House Chief of Staff Mick Mulvaney, for instance, said that there had indeed been a "quid pro quo" in Trump's dealings with Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky, only to retract his statement hours later. Gordon Sondland, the U.S. ambassador to the European Union who became a key figure in the Ukraine negotiations, first claimed that there was "no quid pro quo," only to later revise his testimony. "I now recall" otherwise, he acknowledged, in a supplemental declaration issued three weeks later. Military aid had, in fact, been withheld pending a Ukrainian agreement to investigate Hunter Biden and Burisma.

This is increasingly the norm and not just in relation to the impeachment hearings either. Only recently, for instance, White House economic advisor Larry Kudlow told reporters that China and the U.S. had reached an agreement about reducing tariffs, only to be contradicted within hours by the president's senior trade advisor who swore that no such agreement existed. And so it goes in Washington as 2019 comes to an end.

The New Norm in Washington

Of course, neither George W. Bush nor Donald Trump invented such methods of compromising truth and facts, but in recent years this has become something like the new norm. Through the centuries, as Orwell and Arendt made clear long ago, the connection between the integrity of language, the validity of facts, and the strength of any country has been acknowledged. The Greek historian Thucydides, writing about the Peloponnesian Wars thousands of years ago, associated the gutting of language with the dissolution of the state. "Words had to change their ordinary meaning and to take that which was now given them. Reckless audacity came to be considered the courage of a loyal ally... moderation was held to be a cloak for unmanliness; ability to see all sides of a question, inaptness to act on any."

Historically, the degradation of words has gone hand in hand with the undermining of stability for which the accepted meaning of things remains essential. Armed with the integrity of words, knowledge can be shared among a citizenry, otherwise chaos becomes the order of the day. In his farewell to the nation, George Washington, himself an admirer of the classical thinkers, tied such diffusion of knowledge, the means by which the government could "give force to public opinion," to the strength of the republic.

Today, in Donald Trump's Washington anything goes, linguistically speaking. Sadly, words are more important than we as a nation seem to believe. They are the bedrock on which facts are built and facts are the bedrock on which nations stand in order to make decisions. The Trump administration has little respect for the integrity of words, no respect for educating the public with the facts, and every intention of clouding the space between fact and fiction, certainty and uncertainty.

Perhaps the best strategy for finding our way forward is to hold one another accountable, first and foremost, for the very words we use.

Karen J. Greenberg, a TomDispatch regular, is the director of the Center on National Security at Fordham Law, as well as the editor-in-chief of the CNS Soufan Group Morning Brief and the foreign-policy blog Vital Interests . She is the author and editor of many books, among them Rogue Justice: The Making of the Security State and The Least Worst Place: Guanta'namo's First 100 Days. Julia Tedesco helped with research for this article.

Follow TomDispatch on Twitter and join us on Facebook. Check out the newest Dispatch Books, John Feffer's new dystopian novel (the second in the Splinterlands series) Frostlands, Beverly Gologorsky's novel Every Body Has a Story, and Tom Engelhardt's A Nation Unmade by War, as well as Alfred McCoy's In the Shadows of the American Century: The Rise and Decline of U.S. Global Power and John Dower's The Violent American Century: War and Terror Since World War II.

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Tom Engelhardt, who runs the Nation Institute's ("a regular antidote to the mainstream media"), is the co-founder of the American Empire Project and, most recently, the author of Mission Unaccomplished: Tomdispatch (more...)

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