Today’s LA Times story about the decision by the U.S. military in Iraq to have a uniformed officer flatly lie on camera as a means of deceiving the enemy took me back a quarter of a century to my time in the Criminal Division of the Justice Department.
I remember the incident because it’s the only time in four years there that I saw David Margolis, the legendary boss of the Organized Crime Section, angry. Dave was an odd mix of drive and calm: imagine a Type A Zen monk. He once attended a meeting with the Attorney General wearing a Waylon Jennings t-shirt. He was tough as nails, but he was also really hard to rile.
And yet he was fit to be tied. That morning’s newspaper carried a somewhat jocular story about a brilliant “sting” just brought off the the Immigration and Naturalization Service. Someone had the bright idea of taking the list of fugitive aliens — people who had been ordered deported but then skipped out — and sending letters on official Department letterhead to their last known addresses.
The letters informed them of an amnesty program for which, the letters said, they were eligible, and said that to claim the amnesty the recipient had to show up in person at a named time and place. Of course, all the relatives and roommates who had sworn up and down they had no idea where Cousin Jose was living had no problem getting Cousin Jose the amnesty letter, and hundreds of people, some of them quite nasty, showed up at the appointed time and place: and were duly arrested, handcuffed, and shipped back home.
That was when law enforcement agencies were just learning to do “stings,” and I thought the idea was both highly creative and extremely funny. Naturally, I expected Margolis, who had a sardonic sense of humor and whose troops notoriously played rough in their (successful) fight against the Mafia, to fully approve.
Not on your life. He was madder than a wet hen, but he calmed down enough to explain why. Fooling the bad guys was fine, as far as he was concerned. Send them letters signed by the New York Giants inviting them to meet the team? (Yes, that had already been done, with a very high yield.) Terrific, as far as Margolis was concerned.
But send out a letter on official letterhead, making a false promise on behalf of the United States of America? Abso-frigging-lutely no way! “The word of the Government of the United States is good,” said Margolis. “Period.”
That struck me then, and strikes me now, as obviously right. There are lots of ways to deceive an enemy, and no moral onus for doing so: “In war, force and fraud are the two cardinal virtues.” Make sure a reporter finds, or is given by someone else, a bunch of phony operational plans? Why not? In addition to whatever successful deception is achieved, that will reduce the credibility of future leaks of operational plans, which is all to the good.
But for someone wearing the uniform of the United States to go on camera to tell a flat-out lie dishonors that uniform.
In world of PR, it will sometimes be necessary to lie to protect operational secrets. That’s not fully avoidable. But telling avoidable lies is not, even in the medium run, good policy, or good morals. And, as we discovered in Vietnam, once the military machinery gets used to lying, it’s not just the outside world they deceive; they also wind up fooling their civilian superiors, and eventually one another.
At West Point they say, “We will not lie, cheat, or steal, or tolerate among us those who do.” Not a bad operational principle, that.