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Lying in Public Life

Not content with forcing U.S. President Richard Nixon to resign following the Watergate scandal, former Washington Post editor Ben Bradlee has been shaking things up over at the Kennedy School. In his weekly study group “Lying in Public Life,” Bradlee hosts fellow journalists and political figures who explore lying by past and current public officials. The group was founded on the premise that lying in public life appears to be accelerating and the group discussions explore possible causes.

In previous sessions, Bradlee has said that journalists are too polite to call officials “liars” even if that is clearly the case. “The culture in Washington is such that…it is worse to call someone a liar than to be a liar,” Bradlee has said.

Today is Election Day and the guest of honor is Seymour Hersh, winner of the Pulitzer Prize for his expos‚ on the My Lai massacre during the Viet Nam war. More recently, Hersh wrote painfully detailed pieces in The New Yorker disclosing behind-the-scenes accounts from unidentified military officials on how torture was introduced and carried out in an Iraq prison called Abu Ghraib.

The small conference room is packed. Bradlee and Hersh appear in the doorway and struggle to get into the room to sit down.

After the introduction, Hersh talked about his most recent book, Chain of Command : The Road from 9/11 to Abu Ghraib, and predicted that Kerry would win the election. Bradlee declined to speculate on the outcome. A student asked why the public and the press seemed so willing to accept “lies” by the current administration.

Hersh doesn’t offer an explanation but says, “It’s a whole new category in terms of lying.” Bradlee interrupts to ask whether he means “lying” or “spinning”.

Hersh responded with an example where the administration “redefined” torture as “leading to a loss of limb or life,” effectively rendering many of the worst forms of torture as acceptable.

“Lie almost seems like a puny word,” said Hersh.

Later on, an Army Colonel in the audience took Hersh to task for claiming that the Army runs their supply operations at night because it’s safer, but had run over unsuspecting Iraqis when driving the vehicles at 70-80mph without lights. The Colonel said the supply operations are run 24 hours and don’t wait until it gets dark (He did not dispute Iraqi injuries and fatalities from the vehicles.)

Hersh and the Colonel did agree on one thing: that some of the GIs who participated in the torture at Abu Ghraib were placed there with no training and no support and were then pressured heavily to take part “for their country,” essentially making them victims of the practice.

The rest of the hour moved quickly, with some expressing the opinion that the outcome of the election would be somehow indicative of how willing the American public is to tolerate lying by their leaders.

Other notable guests of Bradlee’s have included Gerald Rafshoon, Assistant to President Carter for Communications, author David Halberstam, and journalist/author Eric Alterman. The study group takes place on Tuesdays at 4pm at the Kennedy School, Littauer building, room 166 on the first floor.

Go to //ksgnotes1.harvard.edu/ksginfo/enews.nsf/KSGToday.

November 15, 2004
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