Frequent liar program

Russell Baker

September 03, 1993|By Russell Baker

THE government's story, which may be a lie, is that the scheme to make illegal loans of $5 billion to Iraq was the work of five branch-bank employees in Atlanta. They worked for the Atlanta branch of Italy's Banca Nazionale del Lavoro with headquarters in Rome, and the deed was done back during the Bush administration when Washington still thought Saddam +V Hussein was one of the good guys.

Five billion seems a considerable sum for an American branch of an Italian bank to be dispensing without so much as an "OK by you?" to the home office in Rome, but the Justice Department says, believe it or not, that's the way it happened.

Naturally, patriotic Americans will assume the government is lying. That's because the government is supposed to lie about such matters. Throughout the Cold War it lied about matters far more scandalous because it had to protect the national security. was lying for the public good.

Complaining too shrilly about it was bad form. Didn't you know there was a Cold War on? What did you expect the government to do? Let you in on the secret tricks it was playing to protect the country?

To protect the country the CIA was licensed to spread lies abroad. Never mind that the world had become so small that these patriotically motivated lies would be circulating back to the U.S. before they were a day old.

Sometimes the CIA even had to lie, without official license, of course, to Congress. Who had the loosest lip in America? Congress. Tell Congress what was up, and you might as well broadcast it to Moscow Station.

Sure, lying to Congress was deplorable, but sometimes it had to be lied to for good patriotic reason. Not all Americans, of course, reasoned this way, but enough did so that presidents could treat Congress with contempt and get away with it by pleading "national security."

Since the country has become hardened to the assumption that the government is a frequent liar, bad things have followed. There has been the loss of faith in government as an honorable enterprise. This has strengthened the know-nothings by reinforcing their slogan that "government is the problem, not the solution." Once a government is widely recognized as a frequent liar, it is undeniably a problem, all right.

It has also added to the growing public disgust with politics and government, which repels people from taking part in public affairs. This amounts to subverting democracy itself.

Moreover, it has created a corrosive cynicism. "Fool me once, shame on thee; fool me twice, shame on me," goes the old rule of self-preservation. Thus we are inevitably tempted to assume that Attorney General Janet Reno was not leveling with us the other day when she defended the Justice Department's handling of the Atlanta bank loan to Iraq.

Last year, President Bush's attorney general, William Barr, declining to have an independent counsel investigate it,

declared that justice had handled it correctly. In effect, the Bush people insisted that branch-bank small fry had engineered the Iraq loan on their own and that Bush administration heavyweights had not conspired with Italy to arm Iraq before the Persian Gulf war.

Federal Judge Marvin Shoob, who tried the Atlanta case, is skeptical. Only "in never-never land," he said last week, could a small branch bank have carried out the loan scheme without the home office's knowledge. He has sentenced the five Atlanta employees to probation or home detention, saying: "It would be the height of hypocrisy to sentence these defendants as if this were a simple case of wrongdoing by a branch's employees."

It's depressing being forced to ponder that Attorney General Reno may not be giving it to us straight from the shoulder. Still, with speculation involving the CIA and an Italian government already in grave trouble, this is precisely the kind of matter in which the government has felt obliged to lie in the past for "national security."

It's one more example of how our Cold-War heritage corrupts and poisons relations between government and people.

Campaigning for president, Bill Clinton promised a review of the Italian banking case if elected. Ms. Reno's statement last week said "a thorough independent investigation" had given justice no reason to change its opinion. Case closed. Quit grinning.

Russell Baker is a columnist for the New York Times.

Baltimore Sun Articles
Please note the green-lined linked article text has been applied commercially without any involvement from our newsroom editors, reporters or any other editorial staff.