“In wartime, truth is so precious that she should be attended by a bodyguard of lies” –Winston Churchill, 1943.

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(Editor’s note: As a gubernatorial press secretary, I was accused of lying by a few members of the media. I will go to my grave convinced that I was telling the truth, but in the way that I wanted to tell the truth. It is hard to conceive the high stakes involved and the pressure upon presidential press secretaries as literally hundreds of lives could be compromised by loose lips and a lack of judgment. Read on.)

Jody Powell “The Other Side of the Story” and Larry Speakes “Speaking Out” were Presidential press secretaries of sequential administrations (Jimmy Carter, 1977-1981) and (Ronald Reagan, 1981-1989). They hailed from opposite sides of the great American political divide, but their experiences working with difficult US political media, particularly the White House Press Corps, unites them based upon common experience. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Jody_Powell. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Larry_Speakes

They also were both guilty of lying to the media and by extension the general public to protect the lives of American service men and women as well as civilians. Are their actions any more acceptable or deplorable today nearly two decades later?

Both Powell and Speakes were placed in remarkably similar, extremely delicate positions involving the confidentiality of imminent American military intervention: Powell, the American rescue mission of hostages taken by Iran in April, 1980; and Speakes, the American invasion of Grenada in October, 1983.

Despite the similarities, there is one key difference: Powell was briefed about the rescue mission in advance and was compelled to lie to protect its confidentiality and with it, American lives; Speakes was misled by the National Security Advisor and subsequently was accused of deliberately lying by the media.

Jack Nelson, the LA Times Washington, D.C. bureau chief, confronted Powell point-blank during the Iranian hostage crisis asking: “You aren’t thinking about doing anything drastic like launching a rescue mission, are you?”

“This was the moment of truth, or more accurately, of deception,” Powell remembered. “Now I was faced with a direct question. With a swallow that I hoped was not noticeable, I began to recite all the reasons why a rescue mission would not make any sense.”

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Even though there were similarities about the need to protect lives and not jeopardize an American military operation, the Powell and Speakes dilemmas were not exactly the same. Speakes stated categorically: “(National Security Advisor) Rear Admiral John Poindexter hung me out to dry, and I didn’t even know it.”

Instead of Jack Anderson of the LA Times, it was Bill Plante of CBS News asking the direct question. Speakes relayed Plante’s question to Poindexter, the president’s National Security Advisor, and was told that an invasion of Grenada was “preposterous” and that he (Speakes) should “knock it down hard.”

Later Plante asked a second question of Speakes, after hearing reports of US mobilization in the Caribbean. This time, White House Chief of Staff James Baker, told Speakes to “be careful about what you say” and asked him to report to the White House mess the following morning at 5:45 am. Speakes was finally told the truth at this meeting and asked to announce the invasion to the media at 7 am.

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“Not only was I furious about having been deceived, but I had been given just an hour or so to go through dozens of pages of material and prepare myself to present it to the press and to the world in some coherent fashion,” Speakes said. “That was treatment about as unfair as I had ever received. I had never been so mad in my life, but I knew there was nothing I could do except choke it down and head out there in front of the press and try to do my job.”

Powell even asked Plante what he would have done if the Reagan White House was truthful and confirmed the Grenada invasion plans: “I don’t know; we would have tried to find some way to use what we know without endangering the operation.” That answer begs the question as to exactly how CBS could air that story without alerting the Marxist rebels and compromising the US invasion and the lives of American military personnel and civilians on the island.

“That in itself would seem to confirm the wisdom of the White House judgment,” Powell said. “You cannot expect government to leave such questions in the hands of the fourth estate. The consequences for error are too severe.”

These two situations, not identical but similar, bring up another intriguing question: Is it best to keep the press secretary in the dark about highly classified national security matters, thus not putting that individual in the position of having to deliberately lie?

Or is it better to brief the lead spokesman and leaving it to her or his judgment as to when it is permissible and even wise to lie?

“I have always preached to members of the White House staff, ‘Tell me everything, so I’ll know not only what to say, but what not to say,” Speakes said. “…Ninety percent of the politicians deal with press secretaries in the same fashion. Two exceptions were Jimmy Carter, who gave extraordinary access to Jody Powell, and Dwight Eisenhower, who did the same with Jim Hagerty. It’s no accident that Hagerty and Powell were two of the best press secretaries of all time.”

Powell sympathized with Speakes predicament stating: “Mr. Speakes made it clear if a lie was required and he was sent out to tell it, he wanted to know what was at stake. And he was exactly right. Keeping the press secretary in the dark can create serious problems.”

Powell said this unfortunate practice erodes the effectiveness of the press secretary. “Putting the guy whose business is information in a position that makes him appear to be uninformed, out of touch, and not trusted makes no sense over the long haul.”

More to the point, Powell said: “…If a secret is worthy lying about to protect, it makes sense to come up with the most effective lie possible…Dealing with the press, particularly in ticklish situations, is very much an art. You cannot treat the press secretary like a robot and then expect him to perform like an artist.”

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