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The Duty of Lying

February 28, 2002

Wartime always brings expansions of state power, together with erosions of moral and constitutional standards. No sooner had the 9/11 attacks occurred than the Federal Government started assuming new powers and abridging old freedoms in the name of national security. And voices in the press were quick not only to defend these measures, but to call for even more of them.

Last fall an essay in the Wall Street Journal pointed out that Presidents Abraham Lincoln, Woodrow Wilson, and Franklin Roosevelt had, during wartime, grossly violated the Constitution they were sworn to uphold. Was the author warning that a new war might also endanger constitutional law? No! On the contrary, he was arguing that the “war on terrorism” might also justify violations of the Constitution like those of these three “great” presidents. Past violations serve as precedents for new violations.

Of course this begs the question by assuming that a president who disregards his oath of office can deserve to be called “great.” From a constitutional point of view, by the measures of limited government, personal freedom, and the rule of law, Lincoln, Wilson, and Roosevelt were our three worst presidents.

Oddly enough, the arguments for lower moral and constitutional standards in wartime are coming not from the liberal and socialist media, but from the allegedly “conservative” press, which you might expect to defend the Constitution, the rule of law, and basic morality. The Weekly Standard has all but endorsed the use of torture against enemies — not just to extract information, but to inflict punishment. National Review has run several articles calling for toppling foreign governments and for assassinating foreign rulers.

Now the Journal has weighed in again with a piece by Joseph E. Persico arguing the merits of government lying during wartime. He offers as a model the lies Roosevelt used against Germany during World War II. Persico plays down the fact that Roosevelt didn’t just plant lies to fool the Germans during the war; he lied to Americans to draw them into the war in the first place! His first lie was his oath of office, which he never intended to honor. And he never stopped lying.

[Breaker quote: Is 
journalistic integrity a casualty of war?] Not that Persico seems to mind; he thinks lying in whatever he deems a good cause is a positive virtue. Another of his heroic liars is Winston Churchill, who forged documents to convince Roosevelt that the Germans had designs in the Western Hemisphere. He even supplied “proof” that “the Germans already had 5,000 troops in Brazil poised to threaten the Panama Canal.”

“It was all a tissue of lies fabricated by the British,” Persico writes. “But Roosevelt was not about to scrutinize to death intelligence that would help him lead American public opinion along the course he wanted, war against Germany.” Roosevelt cited this “intelligence” in his speeches and fireside chats. These lies were welcome to his ears, and he gladly relayed them to Americans who trusted their president to tell them the truth. After all, their lives and their sons’ lives were at stake.

In retrospect, and after six decades, you might think people would draw the lesson that “democracy” and “self-government” are meaningless if government officials can deceive the electorate in such vital matters. After all, aren’t “We the People” supposed to be making the big decisions, on the basis of accurate information?

Maybe honorable people do draw this lesson. But the lesson drawn by the Wall Street Journal is just the opposite: that lying to the public can be a legitimate and desirable government policy — even a governmental duty.

And if lying to the public — in a good cause, of course — can be a right and duty of government, may it not also be a right and duty of journalists? Isn’t it the patriotic duty of journalists to support and if possible assist their government in wartime?

Last week we learned that a Journal reporter had been horribly murdered by terrorists in Pakistan. This was a shocking violation of the immunity journalists are traditionally entitled to as noncombatants whose role is to report facts honestly and impartially. Is it possible that the killers of Daniel Pearl saw him not as a noncombatant, but as an active agent of the U.S. Government? Nothing can excuse or justify such savagery, but compromising the neutrality of journalists could furnish it with a deadly pretext.

Joseph Sobran

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