I live in the Washington,D.C. area, and I often say that deceit is the official language here. Deceit is an artful form of lying in which literally truthful statements are made in a manner, tone and context designed to deceive others into believing something that is not true, by playing on their assumptions, hopes or trust. Like any other lie, it allows the liar to gain tangible benefits, but with less risk than with a normal lie. If a deceitful statement is unmasked after an individual has relied on it, the originator of the deceit can and often does blame the duped listener, who “misunderstood” or “jumped to conclusions.” That’s the special upside of deceit.
The downside of deceit is that it is the calling card of especially slippery people, the preferred device of the verbally adept and the unconscionably manipulative. Effective deceit takes work and talent; show me someone who can be deceitful easily, and I will show you someone whom neither of us should trust.
That is why this statement by President Obama from last week is so discouraging, and perhaps, a tipping point in his relationship to the American people:
“I think all of us here in the United States were surprised, disappointed, and angry about the release of the Lockerbie bomber. And my administration expressed very clearly our objections prior to the decision being made and subsequent to the decision being made. So we welcome any additional information that will give us insights and a better understanding of why the decision was made.”
The Lockerbie bomber, as we all know, is a mass-murdering terrorist who killed 270 people, most of them Americans, by blowing a TWA airliner out of the sky. He was released from a Scottish prison and returned to Libya, supposedly as “compassionate release” because he was—supposedly— dying of cancer. Critics in the U.S. have accused the British government of making a cynical deal with Libya, and recently several Democratic senators have suggested that the oil company BP lobbied to have the bomber released after agreeing to use its influence in order to get access to Libyan oil reserves. This seemed like a safe follow-up to the Obama Administration’s opportunistic “villify BP–oil companies—oil—energy exploration–capitalism—big corporations” PR campaign designed to build public support for everything from more taxes and financial reforms to cap-and-trade legislation.
Then a leaked document surfaced in the Australian press, showing that Richard LeBaron, deputy head of the U.S. embassy in London, had written to Alex Salmond, Scottish First Minister, before the release of the Lockerbie bomber. In the August 12, 2009 letter, the senior U.S. official appeared to consent to “a conditional release on compassionate grounds” of convicted Libyan terrorist Abdelbaset al-Megrahi, if Scottish officials were determined to proceed with the release of al-Megrahi against the wishes of Washington, saying, “Nevertheless, if Scottish authorities come to the conclusion that Megrahi must be released from Scottish custody, the US position is that conditional release on compassionate grounds would be a far preferable alternative to prisoner transfer, which we strongly oppose.”
President Obama’s statement clearly suggested, and was clearly intended to suggest, that the release blindsided the U.S. Why? The United States surely could have stopped the release if it really wanted to do so, and apparently decided that keeping diplomatic peace with the British was more important than making a stand for justice against the killer of so many U.S. citizens. That is a legitimate decision balancing several diverse, long and short term, international considerations; I may not like the choice, but governments have to make difficult trade-offs of such considerations all the time. It was, however, guaranteed to be an unpopular choice, and one that played neatly into the narrative of Obama’s political opponents on the Right. Obama sympathizes with the radical Muslims… He wants to mollify the insurgents and terrorists… He’s weak on terrorism. The decision could be defended in diplomatic circles, but not to American voters.
So President Obama lied. He was not, obviously, “surprised.” He may have been “angry” about having to deal with the issue, but not about a decision that he ultimately condoned before it was made. He definitely couldn’t have been “disappointed,” when the course of compassionate release, endorsed by his own official representative, took place. And he and the United States know exactly “why the decision was made,” because they were involved with the process.
Since his statement last week was classic deceit, the President has some wiggle room. He didn’t say “I” was surprised, after all: he said “all of us,” as in “the whole country.” The country was generally surprised, and disappointed, and angry. “I was just accurately stating the nation’s reaction to the release,” he can explain. And he is certainly right that his representatives “expressed their objections“; he just failed to mention the part when his representative conferred U.S. approval when those objections alone didn’t work. As for the last part, why wouldn’t we “welcome any additional information that will give us insights and a better understanding of why the decision was made” ? Who doesn’t want insights and better understanding ?
This approach might be effective for, say, Bill Clinton, who never pretended to be a straight talker. This President, however, promised to forge a new transparency in the office, and to eschew “politics as usual” in Washington, which means means rejecting the official language of the city, deceit. His undeniable embrace of the dishonest tactic of deceit in this instance to avoid accountability for an unpopular diplomatic call raises serious questions about his integrity, courage, and honesty. For this President, there is no upside to deceit, only the downside.
There is only one thing he can say now, and that is, “I’m sorry.”
UPDATE: Shortly after this was written, the Administration released the complete text of the LeBaron letter, and sadly, is apparently going to defend it it as not inconsistent with the President’s comments, described above.
I had hoped for better.
The full text of the letter follows:
– We greatly appreciate the Scottish Government’s continued willingness to solicit the views of the United States and the families of its victims with respect to a decision on Megrahi’s transfer. This issue is of great importance to the United States.
– We understand that Scottish law permits the Scottish Government to release individuals in Scottish custody on license if there are compassionate grounds justifying the release, and that as a matter of practice such release is not granted unless the prisoner has a life expectancy of less than three months. We also understand that the Scottish judiciary has the ability to grant bail, and in the case of Megrahi the judiciary has indicated that it is prepared to entertain a renewed bail application on compassionate grounds if Megrahi’s prognosis worsens and becomes more certain.
– The United States respects that decisions concerning compassionate release and bail are reserved to Scottish authorities and are to be made in accordance with Scottish law and policy.
– The United States is not prepared to support Megrahi’s release on compassionate release or bail. We understand that Scottish authorities are ensuring that Megrahi receives quality medical treatment, including palliative care, while incarcerated. The United States maintains its view that in light of the scope of Megrahi’s crime, its heinous nature, and its continued and devastating impact on the victims and their families, it would be most appropriate for Megrahi to remain imprisoned for the entirety of his sentence. This was the understanding and expectation at the time arrangements were made for his trial in Scottish Court in the Netherlands, were he or his confederate to be convicted and their appeals upheld.
– Nevertheless, if Scottish authorities come to the conclusion that Megrahi must be released from Scottish custody, the U.S. position is that conditional release on compassionate grounds would be a far preferable alternative to prisoner transfer, which we strongly oppose.
– If a decision were made by Scotland to grant conditional release, two conditions would be very important to the United States and would partially mitigate the concerns of the American victims’ families. First, any such release should only come after the results of independent and comprehensive medical exams clearly establishing that Megrahi’s life expectancy is less than three months. The results of these exams should be made available to the United States and the families of the victims of Pan Am 103. The justification of releasing Megrahi on compassionate grounds would be more severely undercut the longer he is free before his actual death.
– Second, the United States would strongly oppose any release that would permit Megrahi to travel outside of Scotland. We believe that the welcoming reception that Megrahi might receive if he is permitted to travel abroad would be extremely inappropriate given Megrahi’s conviction for a heinous crime that continues to have a deep and profound impact on so many. As such, compassionate release or bail should be conditioned on Megrahi remaining in Scotland.
– Again, while we are not able to endorse the early release of Megrahi under any scenario, we believe that granting compassionate release or bail under the conditions described (i.e. release with a life expectancy or less than three months and with Megrahi remaining in Scotland under supervision) would mitigate a number of the strong concerns that we have expressed with respect to Megrahi’s release.
– We appreciate the manner in which the Scottish Government has handled this difficult situation. We recognize that the prisoner transfer decision is one that the Scottish Government did not invite, but now must take. We hope that the Scottish Government would consider every available alternative before considering the granting of Megrahi’s prisoner transfer application.