Deadly Dreams of Omnipotence

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Not So White Lies

In 2012 we all saw on television dramatic photos of President Obama and his senior aides tensely following live “feeds” of the Navy Seals’ daring raid on Osama bin laden’s compound in Pakistan. Early reports told us that bin laden had been killed resisting arrest, and there soon appeared a movie made with CIA cooperation that drove home the point that knowledge of the whereabouts of bin laden’s hideout had been the fruit of the agency’s “extreme interrogation” tactics.

But slowly doubts started to surface. The government conceded that bin laden had been unarmed and did not resist. He could have been arrested, but was killed instead. Also, it turned out that those “tense” pictures of the president had not been taken while he was watching a live “feed” of the raid; there had been no live “feed.” And then an article in the London Review of Books by highly respected investigative reporter Seymour Hersh ( claimed that that the whole government story was a fabrication.

The ensuing controversy persuaded the New York Times to commission Jonathan Mahler to write an article for its Sunday magazine to determine the true facts of the matter. Hersh had contested the government narrative on three major points: (1) how the U.S. learned of bin Laden’s whereabouts, (2) how the raid was carried out, and (3) how bin laden’s corpse had been disposed of. Mahler reasonably refused to make any “definitive judgment” about what actually happened because all the government documents that would tell the true story remained classified.

But I think it is safe to conclude Mahler felt that the government narrative was unpersuasive on two of the three issues Hersh raised. The U.S. did not learn about bin Laden’s whereabouts from information obtained by means of “extreme” interrogation of suspects by the CIA; the source was most likely a “walk-in” Pakistani general who was interested in the 25 million dollar reward. And the raid itself was not a daring combat mission that evaded Pakistani air defenses; most likely the operation had been coordinated with Pakistani officials, or at least the Pakistani government had been give advance notice of when and where it would take place in order to avoid a military confrontation. Mahler appears to doubt Hersh’s claim that the body had been unceremoniously dumped from a plane over the Indian ocean, although he does not give reasons for his doubts.

The conclusion that that the government narrative is false on two of the three major points would seem to be pretty big news, but just as the reader is digesting these facts, Mahler changes the subject. The relevant issue becomes not whether our government “lied to us.” but whether we should “be shocked by such a revelation.” I admit that, at first, I was annoyed that Mahler had switched issues on the reader, but, after some reflection, I think he is right. The crucial issue is not “whether” our government misinforms us; we know or strongly suspect they often do, especially on national security issues. The issue is how we should respond to this well-established practice of disinformation.

Mahler thinks we should not be unduly upset that our government lied to us about the bin laden raid. He argues there were national security reasons for the deception. He points out that Pakistan is an unstable democracy in possession of nuclear weapons. Might not disclosure that the Pakistani government had cooperated with the United States to kill bin Laden lead to a coup placing Muslim extremists in charge of these nukes? I think there are a lot of weaknesses in his argument, but for now will only point out the fact that it in no way justifies the government’s claims that CIA torture of suspects led to bin Laden’s capture. Even if there were reasons to keep the involvement of the Pakistani government secret, there was no reason to lie about the efficacy of the CIA torture program.

Mahler portrays the government’s false statements as a new variety of “white lie,” factually false, but nonetheless benign. Lying to the public is sometimes part of the government’ job. “The more sensitive the subject, the more likely the government will feed us untruths.” But I think these these government lies are not as innocent in intent nor as benign in effect as Mahler implies. American foreign policy since the beginning of the Cold War has been promoted by a master narrative that pictures the United States of America as a superhero engaged in a universal struggle against various forces of “evil.” If the United States should ever stand down from this fight, the world would slowly slip into a state of either slavery or chaos. Mahler himself eloquently summarizes how the coverage of the bin laden raid played its part in this larger narrative:

“Symbolically, it brought about a badly wanted moment of moral clarity, of unambiguous American valor, to a murky war defined by ethical compromise, and even at times by collective shame. It completed the historical arc of the 9/11 attacks. The ghastly image of collapsing towers that had fixed in our collective minds for years was dislodged by one of Obama and his senior advisors huddled tensely around a table in the White House Situation Room, watching closely as justice was finally brought to the perpetrator.”

This image of the United States as the Batman of the global Gotham City certainly appeals to our national vanity, and it is not completely baseless. It fits our national experience in World War II. But increasingly it distracts us from a reality we ignore to our great peril. We have spent much treasure and have lost many lives in endless wars from Korea and Vietnam to Iraq and Afghanistan, and maybe soon in Syria and the Ukraine. Spinning tales of “unambiguous American valor” does not change the fact that we are still engaged in a “murky war” in Iraq and Syria. Such propaganda only fosters dreams of omnipotence that distract us from serious thought about the real situation. And any “moral clarity” the official narrative on the bin laden capture brought us was created by the intentional deception of the American people. “White lies” like these have deadly consequences for American servicemen.

Don’t get me wrong. My point here is not whether or not we should have an aggressive foreign policy. In our system, questions like that are for the voters to decide. But the government should let the voters decide on the facts, not introduce false information to skew the debate. The government story of the bin laden raid itself was worse than an attempt to mislead the public on an important issue; it was a taxpayer-paid advertisement for torture.

Not all guile is good. When the government keeps all the information to itself; it has a special duty not to take advantage of our trust. Our reaction to government lies like these should not be an ironic smile of complicity. It should be a deep and determined anger.


  1. Hi, John,
    I happen to agree with a lot of what you write in this post, but to push you a little based upon the premise of this blog, I would be interested in your views on what the government lawyers could or should have done in this context? Where is the role of “guile” here in this complex mess?


    • Tim,

      Thanks your comment. To answer (in reverse order). this an example of guile that is not “good” in an ethical sense, They should have put out a true factual account, not created a propaganda fiction. If it was important to conceal Pakistani cooperation, so be it, but that was no excuse to use the incident to try justify the CIA interrogations with a false story. When the government has sole access to the facts, it has a special duty not to abuse its power.



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