Barry Eisler

Monday, December 31, 2007

Liars: Expert and Inexpert

Lately I've been struck by the attempts of Barack Obama's opponents to frighten voters by falsely suggesting Obama is Muslim, and by emerging details of how the CIA went about destroying its torture tapes.* Perhaps unsurprisingly, Obama's opponents' efforts, while disgusting, are calculated to be effective, while the CIA's cover-up, also substantively reprehensible, was woefully inept.

For a pitch to be maximally effective, it has to be stated indirectly -- in other words, hidden. Think about those Cialis ads. They don't directly trumpet, "Cialis will give you a four-hour hard-on!" Instead, they insidiously *warn* customers that in the rare event of a priapism -- an erection that sticks around for over four hours -- you should call your doctor. ("Call my doctor?" a friend of mine commented. "I'm calling everybody!") The customer concludes for himself: if this stuff is capable of causing that kind of tumescence, surely it'll give me at least the boost I need. And is persuaded thereby. The Hollywood variation, by the way, is here.

So it would be crude -- and ineffective -- for Obama's opponents to come right out and claim, "Be afraid -- this guy is a closet Muslim!" Instead, they know to obscure the real message inside an ostensible one. That's why former Nebraska Senator Bob Kerrey couched his "Obama is a Muslim" message in the guise of praise: "I like the fact that his name is Barack Hussein Obama, and that his father was a Muslim and that his paternal grandmother is a Muslim. There's a billion people on the planet that are Muslims, and I think that experience is a big deal." Nice! Were any fence sitters persuaded by this? "Hmmm, I hadn't thought about the benefits of Obama's remote Muslim connections." Or is it more likely that people who weren't aware of of any of this concluded, "What? This guy's middle name is *Hussein*? Holy fifth columnist, Batman!" With a master's flourish, Kerrey followed up with an apology, which kept his original words and their insidious meaning in the news cycle. Which is exactly what Kerrey knew would happen, and exactly what he intended.

When Clinton aides forwarded hoax emails similarly preying on the Muslim theme, they said they were doing so just to show how dirty politics was getting. Ah, chutzpah. And when the Clinton campaign fired the offending aides, the firings were designed both to disassociate Senator Clinton from the sleaze and to keep the "Obama is a Muslim" meme in the news cycle.

Top honors for effective use of this type of rhetorical head fake go to Daniel Pipes, who expressed his confidence this way: "'If I were a Muslim I would let you know,' Barack Obama has said, and I believe him... He is not now a Muslim."

Is a suspicious voter reassured by Pipes' confidence? Or does the voter say, "Wait a minute, not *now* a Muslim? You mean he *used to* be one?" Which is exactly what Pipe wanted.

Maybe all the discussion about Obama being Muslim is an honest accident. But to believe that, you'd have to believe that all the people engaging in it, including former and sitting Senators, who know a thing or two about public relations, know less about it than I do. And I'm no expert.

Well, at least when it comes to effective deceit, we should be able to count on the CIA, right? After all, deceit is the name of the intelligence game. If you're in the business of deniably toppling third world dictators and the like, surely you could invent an effective cover for destroying a few internal tapes. Heck, "cover for action" is one of the most fundamental elements of tradecraft, taught to every spy who's ever graduated from the Farm.

Uh, no. Read this New York Times account of how the CIA came to and carried out the decision to destroy the Abu Zubaydah torture tapes (and note how hard the NYT tries not to use the word "torture," preferring terms like "coercive interrogation"). The Agency's efforts were so inept that even though Alberto R. Gonzales, the White House counsel; David S. Addington, legal adviser for Vice President Dick Cheney; and John B. Bellinger III, the top lawyer at the National Security Council all met with Agency officials to discuss the tapes, no one at the Agency seems able to use the White House's involvement (and possible direction) for political cover. When it comes to cover-ups, it seems, intelligence personnel are no match for politicians.

I can't help wondering, at a purely tactical level, why the Agency didn't just implement some new general regulation regarding, say, the "orderly disposal" (better an oblique nominal construction than a direct verb like "destroy") of "records no longer current," something like that. Get the White House to sign off on the bland new directive. Allow a decent interval to elapse. Dispose of some innocuous records, then the incriminating tapes, then some additional items. Then, when the whole thing comes to light, put on your most innocent and perplexed face and say, "Destroy the tapes? Let me check... oh, they were just subject to orderly disposal pursuant to regulation number whatever, along with hundreds of other items. It was just routine. And anyway, the White House signed off on the whole thing." Conceal the murder in a massacre... how hard is that? Apparently, too hard for the CIA.

Well, at least the Agency isn't totally oblivious to public relations issues... according to the article, the CIA no longer calls its interrogators "interrogators," preferring to call them "debriefers," instead.

Happy new year.

*Sorry, make that "enhanced interrogation," for as President Bush has assured us, "This government does not torture people." Although, given that Vice President Cheney has similarly assured us that the office of the Vice President is not part of the executive branch, I can't help but wonder what the president means when he says "this government," and even what he means by "people." It's enough to make you miss what the meaning of is is.

P.S. Forgive me for not responding as often as before to comments here. I also post these pieces on my discussion board, and have been spending more time there. It's a fun forum with a lot of interesting people talking about writing, the Rain books, politics, single malt whisky, and anything else that strikes people's fancy, and we do a monthly chat on writing, too, so if you have a chance, stop by and say hello. It would be good to see you.
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