Truth as a tactic

The Baltimore Sun

Here's some bold advice for Bush administration officials caught in an obvious misstatement, intentional or not. Admit the mistake, clarify the facts, apologize and move on. With any luck, everyone else will, too.

We offer this suggestion after watching Attorney General Alberto R. Gonzales and the president himself Tuesday both valiantly and creatively trying to defend falsehoods but succeeding only at making themselves look ridiculous.

To his credit, Mr. Gonzales politely endured hours of grilling by infuriated senators; however, they would not have been so angry but for the deviousness of his approach.

The attorney general was trying to defend himself against charges that when he was a White House aide, he and another Bush aide visited ailing Attorney General John Ashcroft in the hospital to pressure him into approving a warrantless wiretap program rejected by Mr. Ashcroft's deputy and many others in the Justice Department. Mr. Gonzales came armed with two new conflicting cover stories.

One was that top congressional leaders of both parties called together shortly before the hospital visit wanted the wiretap program to continue, which Mr. Gonzales thought might persuade Mr. Ashcroft to overrule his deputy. Democrats who took part in that meeting told reporters there was no such consensus.

In a separate gambit, the attorney general claimed that this internal Justice Department dispute, during which several top officials threatened to resign until Mr. Bush interceded on their behalf, was not related to the domestic eavesdropping program but to other unidentified "intelligence activities."

No one bought it. In fact, Republican Arlen Specter warned Mr. Gonzales that he was flirting with a perjury charge.

Meanwhile, President Bush was down in Charleston, S.C., still trying to make the widely discredited case that by invading Iraq, the U.S. was defending itself against the perpetrators of the 9/11 attacks. "Some will tell you al-Qaida in Iraq isn't really al-Qaida," Mr. Bush said. Then, he offered a confusing metaphor about a bank robber and asserted, "We are fighting bin Laden's al-Qaida in Iraq."

In fact, there wasn't even a local franchise of al-Qaida in Iraq until after the U.S. invasion converted that nation into a recruitment ground for anti-American terrorists.

Old lies don't become truths no matter how often they are retold. With so much at stake, Americans deserve a government that is honest with them. At this point, straight talk is no risk for either Mr. Bush or Mr. Gonzales and might - though it's a long shot - begin to repair their tattered reputations.

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