Can lying serve national interest?

One of the inherent powers of the president, apparently, is the right to lie in the perceived national interest.

In 1960, President Eisenhower had the State Department announce that a plane shot down over the Soviet Union was on a weather mission. He was left red-faced when the Russians produced the U-2 spy plane and its CIA pilot.

In 1962 President Kennedy cut short a trip to the West Coast and flew back to Washington from Chicago, suffering, it was announced, from an upper respiratory infection. The real reason for his hasty return was newly acquired photographic evidence that the Russians were putting nuclear missiles in Cuba - prompting the Cuban missile crisis.

In 1981, the Reagan White House condemned Israel for bombing the Osirak nuclear facility outside Baghdad saying, "The unprecedented attack would add to the tense situation in the Middle East." Left unsaid was that the CIA director, William Casey, had visited Israel and agreed to cooperate in the attack, using American-made planes and American reconnaissance satellites to pinpoint the target.

So now, 25 years later, once again we face the introduction to the nuclear waltz and the question of how far the administration will go in keeping Americans posted on the gathering storm. What we have heard so far leaves a lot to the imagination.

At a news conference last February President Bush said, "The notion that the United States is getting ready to attack Iran is simply ridiculous." He paused, and then added, "and having said that, all options are on the table."

Around the same time, Seymour Hersh reported in The New Yorker magazine that the United States was conducting secret reconnaissance flights over Iran to identify nuclear installations. The Pentagon, as you might expect, denied it.

More recently Vice President Dick Cheney said that Iran was operating "a fairly robust nuclear program" and that Israel might decide to act first if the United States and its allies failed to solve the problem by diplomacy.

"No president should ever take a military option off the table," he said.

So there you have it. Is the administration deceiving us about its true intentions? Or maybe it doesn't know its intentions. Maybe there are divided counsels within the administration. History tells us that a president will dissemble and even lie for his own purposes. I don't know how well the Bush administration is doing in keeping Iranian President Ahmadinejad off balance. But it's doing a fine job keeping the American public off balance.

Daniel Schorr is a senior news analyst at National Public Radio.

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