Lying by the Book
By John Horgan
Scientific American October 1992
One might think that such prevarication -- whether justified or not -- is done on an ad hoc, seat-of-the-pants basis. That might have been the case previously, but no more. The Bush administration has actually drafted regulations on the use of deception to provide cover for secret programs. Bureaucrats' passion for secrecy, it seems, is exceeded only by their passion for codification.
The regulations are part of the National Industrial Security Program Operating Manual, which sets forth agencies and contractors involved with classified programs. Recently the Department of Defense generated a supplement to the manual for "special access" (also called "black") programs, whose existence cannot even be acknowledged. Dated May 29, 1992, and stamped "draft," the supplement states:
"Cover stories may be established for unacknowledged programs in order to protect the integrity of the program from individuals who do not have a need to know. Cover stories must be believable and cannot reveal any information regarding the true nature of the contract. Cover stories for Special Access Programs must have the approval of the PSO [Program Security Officer] prior to dissemination."
The supplement also notes that special access programs must have "nonattributable" telephone lines, also called "Hello lines," connecting them to the outside world. Personnel who answer such a telephone must "state the proper salutation, e.g. Good Morning or Hello. Do not use the company name."
Steven Aftergood of the Federation of American Scientists, which made the supplement public, professes to be shocked at the cover-story policy, which he calls "officially sanctioned lying." "One can see situations where this might be warranted, maybe in the midst of wartime," he says. "But this is not sufficiently well defined to convince me that it is limited. It's obviously a very dangerous practice, because it can corrupt the public discourse."
Susan Hansen, a spokesperson for the Pentagon, grumbles that the document on cover stories was confidential. "Whoever sent it to you was unauthorized," she says. She points out, furthermore, that the document is an unapproved draft version that "does not represent the policy of the federal government."
But does this statement itself represent a cover story? According to a Senate staff member specializing in security issues, the Bush administration has already implemented the cover-story policy -- with the complicity of some congressional oversight committees. Indeed, the administration has consulted with Congress before disseminating cover stories about several "major programs" to the media, the staffer says. Such as? "Sorry, I can't tell you that," he replies.
The staff member emphasizes that Congress, although it gives its approval to cover stories when the need for security seems clear, does not actively participate in the deception. Indeed, Congress is trying to reduce the need for such deception by cutting the number of black programs to a minimum. "It's a very uncomfortable situation in the democratic framework to lie about what you're doing," he acknowledges.