BILL MOYERS:There couldn’t be a more timely book than this one -- "935 Lies: The Future of Truth and the Decline of America’s Moral Integrity," by Charles Lewis, one of our premier journalists who has inspired many of us in this craft to aim high and dig deep.
First and foremost an investigative reporter, Chuck Lewis produced some of “60 Minutes” hardest-hitting stories. He left CBS News to found the Center for Public Integrity, one of the largest, nonprofit, investigative reporting publishers in the world. He wrote this "New York Times" bestseller "The Buying of the President 2004" and four other investigative books.
As for his new one, those “935 Lies” in the title were uncovered in a three-year study of the rush to war in Iraq by the Center for Public Integrity and the Fund for Independence in Journalism. It is, Lewis writes, a record of what “…US government officials said to cause most Americans and their elected representatives to completely ignore facts, logic, and reason…”
Timely, too, for another reason: 50 years ago this August, President Lyndon Johnson, at whose side I was then working, seized on obscure and unverified events on the other side of the world to rush Congress into the Gulf of Tonkin Resolution, a motion that he turned into a blank check for escalating the war in Vietnam. As Chuck Lewis rightly says, it was “a monumental misrepresentation.” Welcome.
BILL MOYERS: Welcome.
CHARLES LEWIS: It’s great to be here.
BILL MOYERS: Do you think George W. Bush lied about Iraq? Do you think Lyndon Johnson lied about Vietnam?
CHARLES LEWIS: Yes. I do. You know, I've, I tried very hard. You know, in the case of Bush, I actually was trying to give him the benefit of the doubt.
Because if someone believes it, if it's a matter of conviction and they've persuaded themselves of something that's untrue, is that a lie? Or do they just have misguided beliefs that, you know. And I tried to give Bush the benefit of the doubt there.
But over time, each passing year, I've decided that I was way too generous. And the-- I look at flatly: did they make statements that weren't true? The answer is yes. Did they decide they were going to willfully do that over a period of two years? And was it an orchestrated campaign? And it was false statements.
Those were not coincidental. If you look who said what, when. And the when, especially, is quite relevant. This was an orchestrated campaign. Which, of course, Scott McClellan, the press secretary to Bush, publicly essentially said in his memoir after our report, “Iraq: The War Card” came out, by the way, a few months later. So, yeah, I believe in both cases, Lyndon Johnson and George W. Bush, they knew what they were saying was not right. They knew it was not precise or accurate. And they knew it would mislead the American people but also do what they wanted to do. In both cases they had an agenda. That's what I believe.
BILL MOYERS: Well, you've said that we should never underestimate the capacity for self-delusion. Who was it who said that convictions are more dangerous enemies of truth than lies? I mean, they can believe it so completely, be so self-deluded, right? That--
CHARLES LEWIS: Wow, exactly. All the Bush folks. Bush, Cheney. No one has done a candid interview with them where they actually pin their ears to the wall and ask them the tough ques-- I have not seen anyone do that. That's not coincidental. They’ve never been called before Congress. Now what is that about? We used to have this idea of checks and balances. We don’t have any checks and balances.
The Bush administration also destroys tens of millions of emails that no one could see. So, I mean, and no one said anything about it. They had 69 emails accounts that were done through the Republican Party while they were conducting business, knowing that's a private corporation, not part of the United States government.
So, all of this deceit and elaborate efforts to deflect the public from, oh, yeah, the truth, it's pretty outrageous. And we don't-- and so we'll never see some of those emails, ever, I think. And that, to me, is tragic. But, I have enough, I've seen enough now to make a conclusion. Yes, we were absolutely misled, and yes, they did lie. And they, maybe they were lying to themselves. Maybe they actually have come to believe what they're saying. They probably, many of them, some of them, at least, probably do. But they'll never say it on television. And I don't even know if they'll tell their spouses. Who will ever say? I don't know.
BILL MOYERS: Your book traces from the Gulf of Tonkin right on through the Vietnam War. And it traces from the buildup to Iraq to the aftermath of Iraq. And in both cases you clearly outline a pattern of deception that was continued over a long while.
CHARLES LEWIS: It's clear. In both cases those in power knew what they were doing. And those in power had a plan. And those in power orchestrated their plan. And the American people, in both instances, were completely in the dark.
And thousands of lives were lost in both cases. And the fact that we did and it's not a partisan thing. They were two different presidents, two different parties, 40 years apart. But guess what, folks? It was the same basic thing. We wanted to do a war of choice.
BILL MOYERS: When the reports came back from the Gulf of Tonkin, Lyndon Johnson believed them. I know that. I was--
CHARLES LEWIS: Right.
BILL MOYERS: --right there by the tragedy is he acted before they could be verified and before--
CHARLES LEWIS: Right.
BILL MOYERS: --he could get it right. And then he started telling himself that he did the right thing even though the initial information was misleading. And the more he told himself that he was doing the right thing, because there was this danger out here, and that he used it to get the Gulf of Tonkin Resolution passed, he then felt he had to keep telling it.
CHARLES LEWIS: Wow. Yeah.
BILL MOYERS: Pretty soon--
CHARLES LEWIS: Then you're a prisoner to your statements.
BILL MOYERS: Yeah.
CHARLES LEWIS: I understand that dynamic.
BILL MOYERS: What have you learned about how Washington goes to war?
CHARLES LEWIS: What I learned is that it's orchestrated. They frame it in a way that’s palatable to the largest possible audience. And they'll say it many, many, many times. That's the most recent way to do it.
BILL MOYERS: Why is the press so complicit in helping them frame it?
CHARLES LEWIS: Well, they basically do the stenography of listening to whatever those in power say and reporting it. They see their first duty wrongly, I think, to just report what's said with very little analysis or critical commentary. And they've been doing that, actually, for a very long time. But they've done it. It's gotten worse over time.
The Washington press corps is a prisoner of what they're assigned to cover. And that's basically whatever officialdom tells them.
But if you say something several times, hundreds of times; there are scientific studies that show we will tend to believe it if we've heard it a lot, even if we actually are not clear at all whether it's true. We just come to assume it's true, why otherwise we wouldn't be hearing this, right? And so we're basically prisoners of whatever folks tell us who are in power.
The problem now is government has more PR people and public relations firms than journalists. And we actually have 1/3 fewer professional reporters. That's a really rotten combination there. No wonder we're easily bamboozled.
BILL MOYERS: So for the last two weeks you could hardly turn on the television set without seeing the architects and the cheerleaders of the invasion of Iraq 11 years ago being asked their opinion now of what the US should do in Iraq.
So there was ABC's Jonathan Karl just the other day turning to Dick Cheney and asking, "What would you do in Iraq?" There wasn't a bit of irony in his voice or in his eyes.
CHARLES LEWIS: Well, it's an abomination. There's a moral problem here. They're not telling the full truth. And they're presenting themselves, the media, a false image. But I know, as a veteran from the networks, actually, I know exactly what that dynamic is. And you are rewarded for the gets you have. The people you-- big names that—
BILL MOYERS: The interview you get. Yeah, the--
CHARLES LEWIS: Right. And if you rip them to shreds, guess what, they're not going to come on your show. I've noticed that, as Mike Wallace's producer.
BILL MOYERS: You've lived in Washington how long now?
CHARLES LEWIS: Boy, wow, it's really scary; 40 years.
BILL MOYERS: So what did you learn in doing this book over the last nine years that you didn't know?
CHARLES LEWIS: Well, it's possible I was in danger of becoming cynical before. But I have to say the extent of the lies. I actually didn't realize the pervasiveness. I just thought that occasionally some turkey would lie. I mean, and but the, it was the extent of this. This is a systemic problem we have here. We have an inability to get the truth in real time. And the media has complete inability to find out the truth in real time. And when it's right in front of their face, they don't always report it. And so we really have a problem here because if we don't know what the truth is in this country, we don't have a country. It's end of story. It's not our country anymore. This is fundamental. And if the public doesn't care about facts then journalists, frankly, are not terribly relevant either. I had a professional crisis. Like, why am I doing this if no one cares and false information is what they believe, not the actual information?
BILL MOYERS: You know James Risen, "The New York Times" reporter, right?
CHARLES LEWIS: Uh-huh.
BILL MOYERS: He has refused to testify before a grand jury, under subpoena, and reveal a confidential source of information in his book, "State of War," about the secret US campaign against the Iranian nuclear program. The Supreme Court has refused to hear his case. And Risen now says he will go to jail if necessary. What are the stakes in this case?
CHARLES LEWIS: Well, they're very high. I mean, there's very-- they're very high for Jim in particular, obviously. He could end up in prison, found in contempt by a judge for not testifying, not answering some questions the government asks. If it gets to that point. There is a chance that the US Justice Department will choose to not proceed at this point. There's been at least some indication that's possible. I don't know that it'll happen. I'm certainly hoping that happens. But there's a dirty little secret about national security reporting. There's only about 15 or so people that do that full-time in the United States. In a country of 300-plus million people, only 15 or so do it for a full-time job. And Jim Risen happens to be one. And as you know he's the one who co-authored the domestic surveillance stories that won the Pulitzer back in '05.
Today the dirty little secret in Washington is that we have thousands of cameras. Every cell phone has a GPS tracking device. And you also can't check into any government agency and sign in to get into meet with someone because the government has that information, and they'll know who came.
And if you call them, their calls are potentially monitored. And there is a general belief widely shared that your emails are scraped, or at least accessed. And I know journalists who've been told privately by folks in the NSA and elsewhere that that's basically not untrue. And so you have a situation here. They know who his source was.
BILL MOYERS: They do?
CHARLES LEWIS: They do. And they have multiple ways in which they've identified who it is. And that's why they brought a case and they have enough evidence that they hope and they think to convict this person. They've already--
BILL MOYERS: They want to convict the source.
CHARLES LEWIS: They want to convict the source. And they want to have Jim Risen be the one who helps them do it. But they don't want to necessarily betray their intelligence ways that they found out that may or may, they may be legal, because they're government employees, but they're going to appear to be unseemly because they involved monitoring of employees and pulling all kinds of things.
So we have a little-- another strange thing going on here where the government doesn't really want to go anywhere near this subject. And so they would like-- so we're all looking at Jim Risen and whether he goes to prison. And the real issue is actually the government. What are they mad about? Well, he did a story and a chapter in his book, “State of War,” that actually showed that the CIA sent nuclear information to Iran. Oops. And they are livid.
BILL MOYERS: Something we might want to know about.
CHARLES LEWIS: Yep. Yeah, yeah. Exactly.
BILL MOYERS: Right? Might want to know that the government responsible to the people was actually making these serious mistakes?
CHARLES LEWIS: Yeah. It's unbelievable that they were doing that. And it's unbelievable. And so Risen breaks that story in the book. And they are mad that he did this. And they, frankly, embarrassed them. And so they're trying-- this is retribution. I think it has very little to do with anything but retribution.
But I also think what is really disturbing now is the difficulty of doing this type of reporting was never easy. Now it is probably more difficult than it's ever been in US history. And President Obama has used the Espionage Act against journalists more than any president in US history.
BILL MOYERS: I think even Nixon only used it once against--
CHARLES LEWIS: Right.
BILL MOYERS: --Daniel Ellsberg who leaked the Pentagon Papers. And Obama's used it how many--?
CHARLES LEWIS: Eight times. It's unbelievable. And--
BILL MOYERS: The Espionage Act.
CHARLES LEWIS: Right, the Espionage Act. And who would've ever imagined that? This is something Obama never talked about in campaigns. He never publicly said he was going to go do this. And like a lot of things in his administration, he's trying to have it both ways.
He's supporting a shield law, to some extent, in Congress for journalists. But on the other hand he's criminalizing investigative reporting by going after sources. And so he's throwing a bone, or being accommodating to the national security establishment in Washington, which, you know, in just a couple-year period did 76 million classified documents. Far more than any time in US history. And so he's a prisoner to that community to a large extent. And this is a fellow who didn't know anything about foreign policy. Was a state legislator in Illinois and was a one-term senator. And suddenly he's become more hawkish against reporters than George W. Bush. I don’t know anyone who saw that coming.
BILL MOYERS: What does he know we don't know about?
CHARLES LEWIS: That is really a peculiar thing. And it's not been adequately ventilated. And journalists haven't asked Obama directly the few times they had direct access.
BILL MOYERS: So what's at stake if we do silence and punish whistleblowers?
CHARLES LEWIS: Well, what's at stake is whistleblowers won't come forward. They know they're going to be prosecuted. They know they're being monitored. A lot of sources have dried up. There have been some panels in the last year, too, in the journalistic realm. And folks have talked about how it's harder to find people to talk now because they fear retribution.
They know that the surveillance has gotten incredibly intense. And the stakes are incredibly high. And they get that. And so a lot of folks are who might be inclined to leak and leakers are wonderful. Because they tell reporters what they don't already have and they can't find in any document. They're very essential.
BILL MOYERS: If Edward Snowden had offered you the NSA documents, would you have published them?
CHARLES LEWIS: I would've liked to. He didn't call.
BILL MOYERS: But if he had?
CHARLES LEWIS: I would. I would have. You know, when I ran the Center for Public Integrity, we posted the Patriot Two Act. We were told by the top aide to the attorney general, "Don't do it. You will be sorry if you do." And we quoted them by name in our article and we posted within minutes.
BILL MOYERS: For my younger viewers, what's the Patriot Two Act?
CHARLES LEWIS: The Patriot-- it was called the Patriot Two Act, the Domestic Enhancement Security Act of 2003, to be precise. And they were introducing it just days before the invasion of Iraq, perhaps hoping no one would notice. It took the Patriot Act, which substantially limited civil liberties for large number of Americans and in general, upped the ante about security in America and it took it to a whole another place.
CHARLES LEWIS: The Patriot Two Act was far more restrictive.
BILL MOYERS: When you released this document against the wishes of the government, were there any personal repercussions to you and your organization?
CHARLES LEWIS: There weren't any repercussions from that. But I, you know, I had other things happen. We were sued by Russian billionaire oligarchs for a story we did about Dick Cheney and Halliburton and their business activities in Siberia. That suit went on for five years. It was dismissed.
But, you know, generally, we're not this is a fortunate country in that sense. We don't generally kill journalists or even beat them up, unlike other countries.
BILL MOYERS: Can democracy die of too many lies?
CHARLES LEWIS: I don't think there's any question about it. You're usually the one who quotes scripture. But my only thing I could ever quote, I may not even have it perfectly right, but from Proverbs. "When there is no vision, the people perish." That happens to be one of the all-time, most interesting statements I've ever heard.
And I think if you don't know what's going to happen and you don't know what is happening, how are you going to embrace any problem of our time with any seriousness? If all you're ever doing are two parties fighting over everything and everything is debatable, and you can never reach a consensus on any single thing, and you don't even have common goals anymore, what are we here?
Starting to wonder. And so I actually-- it goes pretty deep here. I think this is so fundamental. And I don't-- I think the only thing we have that we can learn is I do believe that old saw, information is power. I think if we learn what the truth is, we find out what is actually happening, and we have the facts, we can act on them. But there are still many Americans who won't. I reconcile that, myself to that. But there are a lot of Americans who need to frankly, start paying attention.
BILL MOYERS: The book is “935 Lies: The Future of Truth and the Decline of America's Moral Integrity.” Chuck Lewis, thanks for being with me.
CHARLES LEWIS: Thanks for having me.
BILL MOYERS: At our website, BillMoyers.com, we’ll connect you to that Iraq War Card, a searchable database of the “935 Lies” that led us down the path to bloodshed and chaos.
That’s all at BillMoyers.com. I’ll see you there and I’ll see you here, next time.