A distinct odor of fish

Claude Allen’s resignation statement was a lie. The White House stood behind it. That ought to be a problem, but apparently it isn’t.

Perhaps lying from George W. Bush and Scott McClellan is such a well-established pattern by now that any specific incident no longer counts as “news” (on the dog-bites-man principle), but there’s a feature of the weird Claude Allen story that has yet to attract any mass-media or bloggic comment that I’ve seen so far.

The publicly-known facts seem to be:

1. Allen was being followed around by the police by last fall.

2. He was arrested in early January.

3. At that time, he informed the White House counsel and Chief of Staff about the arrest, denied wrongdoing, and assured them that everything would be straightened out.

4. More than a month later, he abruptly quit, employing the usual “spend-more-time-with-the-family” formula.

5. More than a month after that, he was indicted.

6. He still denies all wrongdoing.

7. Mr. Bush is shocked, shocked about the indictment. (But note that he isn’t saying the sort of nice things about Allen that he is about Scooter Libby, just musing about what could have “gone wrong” in Allen’s life.)

The White House line is that Miers and Card believed Allen’s assurances that it was all a misunderstanding, and the implication is that they were getting the bad news at the same time the rest of us were.

Doesn’t anyone else see the problem I see?

It’s transparent that Allen’s resignation statement was false. Of course he wasn’t going to say that he was quitting because he was about to be indicted for felony theft, but he could have just said “for personal reasons.”

At the time, of course, the White House went along with the “time-with-the-family” story. But it seems overwhelmingly likely that senior people there, and presumably Bush himself, knew it was false: knew, in fact, that Allen was about to be indicted and (probably) that the evidentiary base under that indictment was solid.

Allen’s access to the White House depended on his having passed a background check. A habit of shoplifting, if known, would certainly have been a disqualification. (This may seem silly, but it’s actually not unreasonable to worry about having someone with chronic light fingers and/or severe money problems walking around amid all that burn-before-reading material.)

So unless Miers and Card were completely asleep at the switch, someone from the Secret Service should have been on the Allen case the day after he told them about his arrest. Knowing from Allen himself where the arrest took place, it wouldn’t have been hard to get to the store security officer who busted him, who would have provided plenty of detail to put a hole in Allen’s “misunderstanding” story. (That’s even assuming that the Montgomery County cops and State’s Attorney wouldn’t talk to the Secret Service.)

So either the White House was intolerably lax about security in letting Allen keep his West Wing pass until he voluntarily decided to quit, or the White House knew a couple of months ago that Allen had a real problem, asked for his resignation, and made no objection to his resigning “to spend time with his family” instead of “for personal reasons” or “by mutual agreement.”

That wasn’t a big lie, as Washington lies go, but it was a lie nonetheless.

Lying is frequently advantageous in a specific instance; that’s why people do it. But &#8212 putting the moral question to one side for the moment &#8212 an individual or institution with an established pattern of lying operates at a persistent disadvantage compared to one with established credibility.

I know Jimmy Carter discredited the truthfulness issue with his “I will never lie to you” campaign, but that was thirty years ago. Couldn’t someone revive it now? It would be a distinct improvement if we could start relying on official statements as truthful, which would only be the case if a convention were established that an American official caught deceiving the public, like a British official caught deceiving Parliament, must resign.

That doesn’t mean letting it all hang out. There’s nothing wrong with saying “No comment” or telling less than the whole truth, in this case by letting Allen resign “by mutual agreement” or “for personal reasons.” But flat mendacity should carry a penalty.

The alternative &#8212 the current situation, in which lies are routine and do not draw any negative consequences on the teller &#8212 is grossly unfair to the innocent. Remember, it was widely suspected when Allen quit that there was something discreditable behind it, just as the resignation of Gale Norton is causing some people to predict her indictment in the Abramoff scandal. The same thing is happening to Trent Duffy. You ought to be able to quit your job in Washington without people asking “What did he get caught at?”

Author: Mark Kleiman

Professor of Public Policy at the NYU Marron Institute for Urban Management and editor of the Journal of Drug Policy Analysis. Teaches about the methods of policy analysis about drug abuse control and crime control policy, working out the implications of two principles: that swift and certain sanctions don't have to be severe to be effective, and that well-designed threats usually don't have to be carried out. Books: Drugs and Drug Policy: What Everyone Needs to Know (with Jonathan Caulkins and Angela Hawken) When Brute Force Fails: How to Have Less Crime and Less Punishment (Princeton, 2009; named one of the "books of the year" by The Economist Against Excess: Drug Policy for Results (Basic, 1993) Marijuana: Costs of Abuse, Costs of Control (Greenwood, 1989) UCLA Homepage Curriculum Vitae Contact: Markarkleiman-at-gmail.com