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HANSON: When dishonesty undermines democracy

Institutional deception has become the norm

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Truth is the lifeblood of democracy. Without honesty, the foundations of consensual government crumble.

If the Internal Revenue Service acts unlawfully, our voluntary system of citizens computing their own taxes implodes.

Yet Lois Lerner, one of the top IRS officials, would not answer simple questions about her agency's conduct, instead pleading the Fifth Amendment during congressional testimony. Any taxpayer who tried that with an IRS auditor would end up fined and in court.

Almost everything that IRS officials have reported about the agency's unlawful targeting of conservative groups has proved false. IRS malfeasance was not limited to the Cincinnati office, as alleged, but followed directives sent from higher-ups in Washington. Ms. Lerner confessed to the scandal only through a rigged public query by a planted questioner, designed to pre-empt a critical inspector general's report. There is legitimate dispute over the number and purpose of former IRS Commissioner Douglas Shulman's visits to the White House and nearby executive office buildings, but he did his credibility no good by remarking snidely to Congress that he also might have visited for an Easter egg roll with his children.

Attorney General Eric H. Holder Jr. — who already had been held in contempt by the House of Representatives for declining to turn over internal Justice Department documents in the Operation Fast and Furious investigation — swore to Congress that he had no knowledge of any effort to go after individual reporters. But Mr. Holder had done just that by signing off on a search warrant to monitor the communications of Fox News reporter James Rosen. In other words, the attorney general of the United States under oath misled or lied to Congress.

Director of National Intelligence James R. Clapper was asked by Sen. Ron Wyden, Oregon Democrat, whether the National Security Agency collected the phone and email records of millions of ordinary Americans. Mr. Clapper said it did not. That, too, was an untruth. Mr. Clapper's supporters argued that Mr. Wyden should not have asked such a sensitive question in public that threatened the needed secrecy of the program. Mr. Clapper did not demur or request a closed session, though, and instead found it easier to deceive. He later dubbed his response as the "least untruthful" answer possible.

Washington reporters and spin doctors argue whether newly appointed National Security Adviser Susan E. Rice knowingly lied when she wove a yarn about a single video maker being responsible for spontaneous violence that led to the deaths of four Americans in Benghazi, Libya. Yet no one disputes that her televised fables — as well as those of President Obama and Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton — were untrue, and demonstrably so, at the time. Yet Mrs. Rice was promoted, not censured, after her performance.

In November, White House press secretary Jay Carney was asked point blank whether the administration had altered CIA-produced intelligence memos to fit the administration's narrative of a spontaneous riot in Benghazi. Mr. Carney answered unequivocally that the administration had made only one stylistic change. That, too, was not accurate. At least 12 drafts reflected substantial changes by the administration of the original CIA talking points.

As Environmental Protection Agency administrator, Lisa P. Jackson created a fake email identity — "Richard Windsor" — to conduct official business off the record. But Ms. Jackson did not stop with that ruse. She turned Richard Windsor into an entirely mythical persona, her own alter ego who supposedly took online tests and was given awards by the EPA — a veritable Jackson doppelganger who was certified as "a scholar of ethical behavior" by no less than the agency that the unethical Ms. Jackson oversaw.

Deception is now institutionalized in the Obama administration. It infects almost every corner of the U.S. government, eroding the trust necessary for the IRS, the Department of Justice, our security agencies, and the president's official press communiques — sabotaging the public trust required for democracy itself.

What went wrong with the Obama administration?

There is no longer an adversarial media establishment in Washington. Spouses and siblings of executives at the major television networks are embedded within the administration. Unlike with Watergate, the media now hold back, thinking that any hard-hitting reporting of scandals would only weaken Mr. Obama, whose vision of America the vast majority of reporters share. But that understood exemption only encourages more lack of candor.

There is also utopian arrogance in Washington that justifies any means necessary to achieve exalted ends of supposed fairness and egalitarianism. If one has to lie to stop the Tea Party or Fox News, then it is not quite seen by this administration as a lie.

Mr. Obama swept up an entire nation in 2008 with his hope-and-change promises of honesty and transparency. That dream is now in shambles, destroyed by the most untruthful cast since Richard M. Nixon, H.R. Haldeman, Ron Ziegler and John Dean left Washington in disgrace almost 40 years ago — after likewise subverting the very government they had pledged to serve.

Victor Davis Hanson is a classicist and historian at the Hoover Institution at Stanford University.

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