When is a lie?

Earlier, I asked Is a secret a lie?

What I was interested in there was whether a secret in and of itself, is a lie, and if so, do different kinds of secrets (what I called an ordinary secret and a double secret) constitute different kinds of lies, are not lies at all, or are something else?

Getting these terms straight is not without strong practical consequences, as Matt Apuzzo pointed out:

The point here is that if you lie to Congress, it is a felony and you can go to prison for it. The question is if DNI Clapper lied in his response, rather than made the now infamous “least untruthful” reply, there is a big difference in the supposed outcome. (Speculate away on whether Clapper will be prosecuted by Congress!) Clapper has since admitted “My response was clearly erroneous — for which I apologize.”

Capture

As this story in today’s Washington Post indicates, the media are very reluctant to accuse a government official of lying, and will often fall back on words such as “misinformation.” Nevertheless, the story says:

But details that have emerged from the exposure of hundreds of pages of previously classified NSA documents indicate that public assertions about these programs by senior U.S. officials have also often been misleading, erroneous or simply false.

Determining whether somebody is lying is difficult, because you have to look at intent. If there is intent to mislead or deceive, then it is a lie (which is why a secret could be called a lie). There have been plenty of people who have said Clapper lied to Congress, including our own Senator from Kentucky, Rand Paul. Senators Wyden and Udall also last Monday accused the NSA of being misleading in its fact sheet, which shortly thereafter was taken down and not replaced. (The NSA said citizens would best be advised to go look at “the statute.”)

Speaking of statutes however, a bipartisan group of Senators on Wednesday, lead by Wyden and Udall, sent a letter to Clapper, stating that the government is making “secret interpretations” of the law that differ from an “intuitive” reading.

So we are left with a seeming impasse of government officials, oversight and transparency, truth and lies, and secrets. Jesslyn Radack, the lawyer representing several of the NSA whistleblowers, has a round-up here.

We’ve been here before; twice actually. (Both are described superbly in James Bamford’s last book, the Shadow Factory.) Most recently was in 2004/05 when news of the Bush administration “warrantless wiretapping” came to light, which itself recapitulated the mid-70s revelations about the NSA/FBI resulting in the formation of the Church Committee (and the FISA Court).

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