For Friday, July 4, 2003


Trust Is Important

Five and a half days after a U.S. strike against a convoy of vehicles on the road near the Iraq-Syria border, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff and the secretary of defense claimed they had no details of the action.

That's not believable.

This attack was deemed so important that the president was notified of it in advance, so it is simply not believable that a full report of the incident had not been sent up the chain of command. Private journalists had already interviewed survivors and reported that the convoy, instead of carrying high-ranking Iraqi officials, contained nothing more than common sheep smugglers. U.S. forces in a nearby village also killed a young mother and a little girl. The Pentagon was probably too embarrassed to admit that they killed innocent people for no good reason.

That is no excuse for lying. If there are national-security reasons for not discussing the incident, all Gen. Richard Myers and Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld have to say is, "No comment."

Instead, they stood there and expected the press to believe that some junior officer who no doubt commanded the raid had not filed an after-action report five and a half days after it was completed, or if he had, it had not gone up the chain of command connected, of course, electronically. Bull.

Lying, directly or indirectly, is a mortal sin for a public official in a free society. It erodes trust, which is the glue that holds society together. And it is entirely unjustifiable. When I was flacking for politicians, I always told my clients they had two, and only two, choices if asked a question: tell the truth or say "No comment." It was part of my agreement from the get-go that I would give them the best advice I could, but I would never, under any circumstances, lie for them.

Unfortunately, most Americans don't seem to care if their public officials lie to them. Many seem to expect it. No wonder we are coming unglued at the seams of our society. Trust is imperative. And trust is based on truth.

We have no right to expect public officials to be infallible or omniscient, but we do have the right to demand that they always tell us the truth. That means that when they say something, they themselves must believe it to be true even if it turns out later to be in error. That is an honest mistake. A lie is when they tell us something that they know at the time of the telling is not true.

I have no respect for Rumsfeld. He's arrogant and contemptuous of the American public. His claim not to know the details of the raid is typical of his style. It's pointless for anyone to attend or listen to a Pentagon briefing. Officials never tell the public anything important.

While it's true that Iraq might be better off without Saddam Hussein, it's also true that the United States is much worse off if it turns out that the Bush administration persuaded Americans to go to war by deceiving them. The administration said Iraq was an imminent danger to the United States. It implied cleverly that Iraq had ties to al-Qaida. Nine weeks after the major combat is over, there is not a thimbleful of evidence to support either proposition. On the contrary, the evidence is that the regime in Iraq was far, far weaker than we thought. Even Saddam's palaces turn out to be ersatz. I read one report that said the chandeliers are plastic, not crystal, and the floors are concrete with only a thin veneer of marble. Saddam, it turns out, had more in common with the Wizard of Oz than with a real menace like Hitler or Stalin.

The Republicans in the House and Senate, to their discredit, are blocking a real investigation of the claims that led up to the war. They and the administration folks are slip-sliding all over the place. Pretty soon they will be saying, "We never said Saddam had weapons of mass destruction." Bull again.

As far as I'm concerned, the Bush administration has lost all of its credibility, and an administration no one can believe is an administration that needs to be replaced.

2003 by King Features Syndicate, Inc.