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James Bovard

Why Government Cover-Ups Succeed

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“It’s not necessary to censor the news, it’s sufficient to delay the news until it no longer matters,” Napoleon Bonaparte reportedly said. The same standard helps explain why Washington politicians and federal agencies usually get away with covering up their lies and abuses.

Many people assume that unless the government actively censors, people will learn what the government has done. But most government cover-ups succeed. Daniel Ellsberg, who risked life in prison to leak the Pentagon Papers, related in his 2002 memoirs: “It is a commonplace that ‘you can’t keep secrets in Washington’ or ‘in a democracy’…. These truisms are flatly false. They are in fact cover stories, ways of flattering and misleading journalists and their readers, part of the process of keeping secrets well. The fact is that the overwhelming majority of secrets do not leak to the American public.”

Cover-ups succeed because people defer to promises by government officials to investigate themselves. This was how the Nixon-era Pentagon buried scores of Vietnam atrocities even after confirming the carnage. After the My Lai controversy exploded, many US soldiers reported other atrocities to the Pentagon. Nine thousand pages of documents were compiled confirming more than 300 war crimes, including seven other massacres of civilians by US troops. David Hackworth, a retired colonel and the most decorated officer in the Army, later commented, ‘’Vietnam was an atrocity from the get-go…. There were hundreds of My Lais. You got your card punched by the numbers of bodies you counted.’’ American soldiers faced more legal perils for reporting than for committing atrocities.
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My Time with the FBI

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From the early 1990s onward, I was exposing FBI crimes, lies, and cover-ups. FBI director Louis Freeh publicly denounced me after I wrote a Wall Street Journal piece on the FBI’s killing of an innocent mother holding her baby at Ruby Ridge, Idaho. I continued hammering FBI abuses in the Journal, PlayboyAmerican Spectator, and other publications.

One of the FBI’s biggest blunders occurred when it falsely accused a hapless security guard of masterminding an explosion at the 1996 Olympics in Atlanta. Richard Jewell heroically saved lives by detecting and removing a pipe bomb before it exploded. But the FBI decided that Jewell had actually planted the bomb and leaked that charge to the media, which proceeded to drag Jewell’s life through the dirt for eighty-eight days. The FBI did nothing to curb the media harassment long after it recognized Jewell was innocent. I flogged the FBI’s vilification of Jewell in my 2000 book, Feeling Your Pain: The Explosion and Abuse of Government Power in the Clinton-Gore Years

In August 2001, I took a brief vacation in the mountains of western North Carolina. My then spouse was leafing through a tourist guidebook and swooned over a chalet inn she saw that was far off the beaten path. Alas, the directions to that hideaway were not worth a plug nickel. After futilely roving that zip code for an hour, I pulled up in front of a hardware store in Whittier, a one-stoplight hamlet, to cuss and recheck the map.
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Biden’s Wrecking Ball for Financial Privacy

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The Biden administration is seeking to compel banks to report to the IRS any bank account with more than $600 in transactions per year. This proposal is a linchpin of Biden’s American Families Plan, and will supposedly help generate almost $500 billion in federal revenue over the next decade. But previous catch-all financial reporting requirements have helped spur national disasters, complete with pervasive federal looting.
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Red Light Robberies Across America

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Crime is surging in American cities, but the official data leave out the most frequent source of highway robberies. More than 400 cities have set up red light cameras that are institutionalized racketeering that subverts public safety. Tens of thousands of American drivers have been injured and many people killed as a result of reckless revenue pursuit by local governments. 

Local governments have partnered with private companies to build, deploy, and maintain the cameras that bring bounty hunting to traffic intersections. Violations routinely hammer drivers for a hundred dollars a shot, and California skewers transgressors for up to $500. 

The evidence is clear

Red light cameras have proliferated despite overwhelming evidence of their perils. In 2004, a U.S. Department of Transportation–financed study examined hundreds of red light cameras around the nation and revealed that they were “associated with higher levels of many types and severity categories of crashes.”

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Remember When Conservatives 'Canceled' Anyone against the War on Terror? I Do.

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Life in American changed twenty years ago after the 9/11 attacks. Many Americans became enraged at anyone who did not swear allegiance to President George W. Bush’s antiterrorism crusade. Anyone who denied “they hate us for our freedoms” automatically became an enemy of freedom.

Plenty of stalwart defenders of liberty quickly found themselves banished from polite company. At the time of the 9/11 attacks, I had been bashing government policies for twenty years. Conservatives relished my battering of the Clinton administration in books such as Feeling Your Pain (St. Martin’s, 2000). But past writing provided no indemnity for subsequent sins.

Regardless, nothing happened on 9/11 to make the government more trustworthy. Two years after the 9/11 attacks, St. Martin’s Press published my Terrorism and Tyranny: Trampling Freedom, Justice, and Peace to Rid the World of Evil, attacking the war on terror across the board. I scoffed, “The Patriot Act treats every citizen like a suspected terrorist and every federal agent like a proven angel.” When the Justice Department launched a PATRIOT Act propaganda website, lifeandliberty.gov, it included an attack on my writing.
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Absolute Power Is No Covid Safety Net

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Since the start of the Covid-19 pandemic, lockdown champions have perennially invoked “science and data” to sanctify any mandate politicians impose. Hard facts have recently shown that neither vaccines nor face masks provide surefire protection against the virus. But no amount of evidence has yet shaken faith in the magic of absolute power.
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Kabul's Collapse and DC's Incurable Arrogance

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After the Taliban captured Kabul far faster than anyone in Washington forecast, secretary of state Tony Blinken went on Sunday morning talk shows and announced that the US mission in Afghanistan had been “successful.” Unfortunately, there will be plenty of robotic civil servants and political appointees who recite that deranged verdict in the coming years.

There is no reason to expect the twenty-year US debacle in Afghanistan to humble Washington policymakers. Korean War fiascos were swept under the rug, paving the way for fresh delusions that led to the Vietnam War. The debacles of the Vietnam War were buried long ago, spurring similar follies in the Afghan and Iraq wars in this century. John Sopko, the special inspector general for Afghanistan reconstruction (SIGAR), reported finding “a USAID lessons-learned report from 1980s on Afghan reconstruction but nobody at AID had read it!” Foreign policy makers will likely remain arrogant and myopic regardless of how many more nations they despoil.

On a winter hike almost a decade ago, I witnessed firsthand both the haughtiness of officialdom and its human cost. I arrived at Great Falls National Park in Maryland early for that Sunday morning jaunt and found a wooden rail fence to lean against as I awaited the arrival of other hikers.
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Pseudo-Omniscience Versus Freedom

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Shut up and submit” is now the favorite Covid cure of some of America’s leading progressives. Paul Krugman, a Nobel Prize winner and New York Times columnist, revealed on Tuesday that since freedom is a mirage, people have no good reason not to comply with endless government commands. Unfortunately, punitive panaceas are increasingly popular among both politicians and pundits.
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The Coming ‘January 6’ Train Wreck

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The January 6 Capitol clash may be the gift that keeps on giving to cynics everywhere. In the coming months, Americans will likely see jaw-dropping bureaucratic debacles, stunning abuses by federal prosecutors, and appalling bloodlust by angry Biden supporters. Perhaps the least likely outcome is that the coming train wreck will restore faith in American democracy. 

The Justice Department declared last week, “The investigation and prosecution of the Capitol Breach will be the largest in American history, both in terms of the number of defendants prosecuted and the nature and volume of the evidence.” The feds are sorting through “237,000 digital tips, 1 million Parler videos and images comprising 40 terabytes of data scraped from the Internet — roughly equivalent to 10 million photos, 20,000 hours of video, or 50,000 filing cabinets of paper documents,” theWashington Postreported. Investigators are also sorting through “cell tower data for thousands of electronic devices that connected to the Capitol’s interior distributed antenna system,” information provided by phone companies, Google, and other data aggregation companies. The problem will be compounded because many government employees are slow readers. 

More than 500 protestors have already been charged in federal court, but their trials will likely be delayed at least until next year. Federal judge John Bates recently warned that evidence snafus could result in judges “going on the warpath.” If judges conclude that the Justice Department is unreasonably keeping January 6 defendants locked up (often in solitary confinement) too long, judicial edicts could unravel prosecutors’ long-term plans.

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No Victory Lap For Governors Who Locked Down America

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There are no fact-checkers for victory laps. Last week, New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo summarized his experience with the Covid-19 crisis: “Speaking for myself, it was a tremendous personal benefit.” Cuomo made that declaration in a speech concluding his one-year chairmanship of the National Governors Association. Because Cuomo’s spiel sought to rewrite history to exonerate politicians who ravaged Americans’ rights and liberties, it requires a rebuttal.
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