Why do politicians try to cover up their mistakes?

Scooter Libby has been indicted today on five counts (one count of obstruction of justice, two counts of perjury and two counts of making false statements). He has resigned. Note that an indictment contains only charges and is not evidence of guilt. Libby is presumed innocent and is entitled to a fair trial; the prosecution has the burden of proving guilt beyond a reasonable doubt.

Looking at the big context of this indictment, there are four distinct allegations of wrong-doing that have been levelled against Libby (as well as Karl Rove, Dick Cheney and others).

1. Knowingly revealing the name of a covert CIA agent.
Libby has not be charged under the 1917 Espionage Act or the Intelligence Identities Protection Act, which is what the Special Prosecutor was originally established to investigate. It has been said that, in Valerie Plame’s case, the importance of this is exaggerated, as she was not under cover in the field at the time. But if we take seriously the idea that the US is at war, and that intelligence is at the centre of the war effort, exposing a US agent would be a serious charge. During the second world war a Government official who had revealed the name of a secret agent would have been shot for treason. (This blog claims that at least one CIA agent died as a result of Valerie Plame being unmasked.  If so, that would be rather serious.)

2. Misleading the country about the case for war in Iraq.
Scooter Libby was briefing the media about Joseph Wilson because Wilson alleged that the Administration had exaggerated the case for war. In particular, the US and UK Governments had claimed that Iraq was trying to get nuclear materials from Niger. It is said that this was part of a wider effort, under the auspices of the White House Iraq Group, to ‘market’ the case for war.  The popular blog Huffington Post concludes on this basis: "I’m not saying that Plamegate is the same as Watergate. I’m saying it’s worse. Much, much worse. No one died as a result of Watergate, but 2,000 American soldiers have now been killed and thousands more wounded to rid the world of an imminent threat that wasn’t."  Of course, it is not, in itself, illegal to have given a misleading account of the case for war in Iraq, though it may turn out to be politically damaging.

3. Misleading the media and the public about what they knew about Valerie Plame.
Is is alleged that Vice President Cheney may have misled the press, and thus the American public, about what they knew and when they knew it about the decision to send Joseph Wilson to Niger.  According to the New York Times, Mr Cheney told NBC’s "Meet the Press" on Sept. 14, 2003 "I don’t know who sent Joe Wilson.", some three months after Mr. Cheney had been told that Valerie Plame was employed by the CIA and may have helped arrange her husband’s trip.  Again, this is not a crime, though it may be politically damaging.

4. Perjury and making false statements
This is what Scooter Libby has actually been charged with. If found guilty on all five counts in the indictment, he faces a maximum of 30 years in prison and a $1.25m fine for each charge.


Now you don’t have to be a political geek to know that it is always the cover up that does you.  In America, the articles of impeachment of Nixon over Watergate scandal related to the attempted cover up; and the attempt to impeach Bill Clinton rested on his efforts to cover up his affair with a White House intern.

In the UK, the resignations of David Blunkett and Peter Mandelson (twice), and the imprisonment of Jeffrey Archer and Jonathan Aitken, were the result of their attempt to cover up, not the original wrongdoing.

So the question is, why do they do it?  They must know that their eventual downfall lies in the attempt to cover up their mistakes.  So once the investigation begins, why don’t politicians and officials just tell the truth? 

I have a hypothesis about the answer to this. It is hard to prove, but it is the only rational explanation I can come up with.   The reason that politicians and officials would risk their careers, and sometimes their liberty, by covering up mistakes and wrong-doing is that most of the time they get away with it. 

Our politicians are making the following call: the expected cost of lying and perjury – a small chance of a catastrophic outcome (in this case, 30 years in prison) – is less than the expected cost of coming clean every time something goes wrong.  And if they are right, this means that they must be getting away with it rather a lot.

Does anyone have a better explanation?

Regular readers will note that there appears to be an inconsistency between this and my view (expressed here) that politicians – at least in the UK – are generally decent people.  I do not think these are necessarily contradictory: it might be that only a small number of politicians and officials are engaged in this sort of cover-up, and it is just that group for whom the calculus above applies.

6 thoughts on “Why do politicians try to cover up their mistakes?”

  1. James

    Not quite. The position as I understand it is that the intelligence reports on which this claim was based was “well founded” (which is not quite the same as saying that they were “correct”.)

    In 2003, the British Government asked Lord Butler to chair an inquiry into the intelligence relating to Iraq’s weapons of mass destruction. The full text of the report is here. As far as I know, the conclusions of that review are the basis of the UK Government’s position.

    The relevant extracts are:

    494. There was further and separate intelligence that in 1999 the Iraqi regime had also made inquiries about the purchase of uranium ore in the Democratic Republic of Congo. In this case, there was some evidence that by 2002 an agreement for a sale had been reached.

    499. We conclude that, on the basis of the intelligence assessments at the time, covering both Niger and the Democratic Republic of Congo, the statements on Iraqi attempts to buy uranium from Africa in the Government’s dossier, and by the Prime Minister in the House of Commons, were well-founded. By extension, we conclude also that the statement in President Bush’s State of the Union Address of 28 January 2003 that: “The British Government has learned that Saddam Hussein recently sought significant quantities of uranium from Africa.” was well-founded.

    503. From our examination of the intelligence and other material on Iraqi attempts to buy uranium from Africa, we have concluded that:

    a. It is accepted by all parties that Iraqi officials visited Niger in 1999.

    b. The British Government had intelligence from several different sources indicating that this visit was for the purpose of acquiring uranium. Since uranium constitutes almost three-quarters of Niger’s exports, the intelligence was credible.

    c. The evidence was not conclusive that Iraq actually purchased, as opposed to having sought, uranium and the British Government did not claim this.

    d. The forged documents were not available to the British Government at the time its assessment was made, and so the fact of the forgery does not undermine it.

  2. I’m sure we’ve all read Hayek’s Road to Serfdom, and “why the worst get on top”

    Owen – I agree that politicians are on the whole decent, well-intentioned folk, but it does seem that the higher up the system you look, the less appealing they get.

    I can think of countless local MPs that are honest, diligent and good people. But it just doesn’t seem as if they’re the ones that procede.

    Mo Mowlam and Robin Cook, perhaps, are two noticeable recent exceptions.

    Regarding your hypothesis, I’d take a Gary Becker line. They do normally get away with it, but the costs are huge (how many private sector managers get fired for small misdemeaners?). I think the explanation lies in the natural proclivity of those who seek power – we shouldn’t be surprised that their arrogance in the face of misdemeanor leads to their downfall.

  3. Isn’t another factor encouraging cover-up the certainty that every error, however superficial, is going to be mercilessly exploited both by “the party opposite” (i.e. the other major parties) and, especially, by the media (“new gaffe”)? And the more serious the error, the higher the political and personal price that has to be paid for its disclosure. How often does a politician dare to say: “I was wrong”? Even a change of policy, or evidence that a politician has changed his mind, especially if the change constitutes an 180 degree turn, is triumphantly denounced (“Blair’s U-turn”) as if blind consistency and a refusal to respond to changed circumstances represent the highest of political virtues. We pay a price for our savagely adversarial political system, anyway here in the UK: and I suspect that there are similar forces at work in the US also, with Senators’ staffers diligently beavering away to unearth some past inconsistency or admission of error whenever a political rival threatens to grow too tall.

    An error that might involve criminal charges is of course especially difficult for a politician, or indeed anyone else, to admit to, but even in such cases piling perjury onto the original offence in the attempt at cover-up can’t be regarded as a rational course of action, unless there’s an odds-on chance of getting away with both the offence and the perjury. And experience doesn’t seem to suggest that the odds are often favourable to the offender-perjurer. Original offence and subsequent mendacious cover-up are both increasingly easily detected and exposed by media enthralled by their self-appointed roles as ‘investigative journalists’, performing a vital function that parliament has virtually ceased to perform, at any rate in Britain.

    PS: I hold no blazing torch for Peter Mandelson, but I don’t think your assertion that his two forced resignations from ministerial office were the result of his attempts to cover up previous offences is fair. In the case of the second resignation it seems most unlikely that he had committed any offence at all, still less that he had tried to cover it up. And in the first case my recollection is that as soon as the facts about his personal loan, and his failure to declare it to the Cabinet Secretary (probably through lack of awareness of the obligation to do so), became known, he made no attempt to deny them or to cover them up. In both cases he was forced out of office by Tony Blair’s impetuous and premature impulse to punish first and inquire into the facts afterwards.


  4. I lived in Edinburgh for many years and so am giggling at your proposition that Groper Cook was a good egg.

    Owen replies: Quite – that was Anthony not me. I’ve never said any such thing, as far as I recall.

  5. In a moment of charity I try to concede that there have been some politicians with a moral conscience and conviction that have risen to the top…. but you mock me!
    Can I conclude that politicians are, therefore, conniving, ignorant, smelly scumbags that stink all the more the higher they climb?

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