Lying to the public is all right, says Washington's chief lawyer

By Mark Helm, in Washington

by The Sydney Morning Herald

20 March 2002

"The United States Government's top lawyer has said that officials have the right to lie to American citizens, telling the US Supreme Court that misleading statements are sometimes needed to protect foreign policy interests.

"It's easy to imagine an infinite number of situations where the government might legitimately give out false information," the Solicitor-General, Theodore Olson, told the court on Monday.

"It's an unfortunate reality that the issuance of incomplete information and even misinformation by government may sometimes be perceived as necessary to protect vital interests."

But Jennifer Harbury, an American widow who was misled for years by American officials concerning the whereabouts and condition of her husband, a Guatemalan rebel leader, disagreed. She told the court that US officials should be held liable if they lie.

Her husband, Efrain Bamaca-Velasquez, was captured by the Guatemalan Army in 1992 and died in army custody in 1993.

Ms Harbury, a lawyer, has alleged that the US officials lied to her to conceal the involvement of a Central Intelligence Agency informant in the torture and murder of her husband. She argued that she should have the right to sue the officials responsible for the alleged cover-up.
"If they hadn't lied to me, I might have been able to save my husband," said Ms Harbury, who took the unusual step of representing herself before the court.

The US officials involved say they never intentionally lied to Ms Harbury. Instead, they withheld certain information or simply refused to search for information in order to protect American operations in Guatemala.

Although the case centres on events that unfolded 10 years ago, the court's ruling could have a substantial impact on the war on terrorism. The justices must decide how much information US officials - who are entrusted with foreign policy secrets - must divulge to American citizens.

Since the September 11 attacks, the Bush Administration has made several moves to clamp down on the flow of information. For example, last November the Attorney-General, John Ashcroft, ordered closer reviews of which documents federal agencies release under the Freedom of Information Act.

In a separate effort aimed at confounding terrorists through the use of misinformation, the Administration created - then disbanded - an office within the Pentagon that was to have planted inaccurate stories in foreign media.

An expert on foreign policy and the law at Catholic University in Washington, Antonio Perez, said current events would weigh heavily on the justices as they considered this case.

"The court may well be loath in this time of crisis to do or say anything that appears to hamstring executive energy in the war against terrorism."

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