D E N I A B I L I T Y
The world watched with fascination as Admiral John Poindexter, the former national security adviser to President Reagan, took the role of the fall guy in the Iran-Contra affair. (Why no one thought of tapping Lee Majors for the role is beyond me!). Poindexter testified before the joint congressional committee that it was he who had authorized the diversion of profits from arms sales to Iran to fund the Nicaraguan Contras. The Admiral adamantly insisted that he had deliberately kept President Reagan in the dark about the whole affair so that the President should have ‘deniability’ should news of the diversion were to leak out
To ensure ‘plausible deniability’ (the usual term of art) meant, in this case, reading the secret thought process of the President’s mind and carrying it out as policy without his knowledge but with his unexpressed approval. Poindexter was convinced that Reagan would have approved of what he did if he had asked his permission – with the unsaid corollary that the President would, in all certainty, deny the very notion of such an absurd idea. In the best naval tradition, the loyal Admiral gallantly asserted; “the buck stops here, with me.” Which, of course, was very fine with the President even if he deemed it necessary to deny it.
Coming in the wake of the Ollie-mania generated by the theatrically dramatic testimony of the newly-found patriotic hero, Colonel Oliver North, the revelations of Poindexter underlined the growing prominence of the ‘deniability’ doctrine. The theoretical formulation of the doctrine is simple to the point of absurdity. The rules of the game require, firstly, an excessive addiction to secrecy: it is absolutely essential that no ‘smoking gun’ is ever found. (So, when you ask the consul of your friendly Embassy for half a million Sudanese Pounds in cash, make sure you not being bugged)
An equally important but not necessarily contradictory prerequisite of ‘deniability’ is the rampant and free-wheeling operation of the patronage system. An elected American President can appoint friends, relatives, fundraisers, Hollywood actors, army colonels, Admirals, and even the janitor at the local K-mart, to positions of power and invest them with more authority (including that of mindreading) than they could dream to have even if they have been elected to the Presidency itself. Being unelected they are only accountable to the President. When disaster strikes and they are called upon to take the fall for him he becomes, in a sense, accountable to them.
The idea of ‘deniability’ is in the best tradition of the American democratic process (with the possible exception of Harry Truman’s inexplicable aberration when he naively claimed the ‘buck’ for himself and lived the rest of his Administration Sisyphus-like unable to pass it to anyone else). Most of us recall the ‘I don’t recall’ phenomena of Watergate fame: the parade of Presidential aides who, to the best of their recollection were suffering from a collective memory failure; the Press Secretary’s definitive and authoritative statements that suddenly became ‘inoperative’; and the 18 minutes of tape inadvertently erased by the elongated leg of the President’s private secretary. The ultimate testimony of ‘deniability’ was President Nixon’s historic plea; “I am not a crook.”
The examples of ‘deniability’ are abundant in American politics; one can go back in history to the bizarre affair of George Washington and the cherry tree. What I find incredible is the failure of politicians all over the world to emulate and uphold this fine American tradition More often than not this inexcusable failure led to their ultimate undoing. Would Winston Churchill have lost the 1945 general election if he had denied any role in the defeat of Nazi Germany and put the blame on the over-zealousness of Anthony Eden? (Eden, in any case had to take an involuntary fall a decade later so he might have as well made it in 1945). Would Adolf Hitler have lost the war if he had disclaimed writing Mein Kampf and fingered Rudolf Hess as the fall-guy? (Hess did make the fall when he parachuted over Scotland during the war but that was not what the Fuhrer exactly had in mind.)
What would have been the outcome of the Second World War if General Togo had claimed that the Zeros zeroing in on Pearl Harbor were in fact disguised Soviet planes, or if Stalin had denied that Stalingrad was named after him and renamed it instead Hitlergrad? Mussolini could conceivably still be presiding over a Roman Empire had he been ingenious enough to proclaim that the Axis really referred to a component part of a Fiat convertible.
The ‘ifs‘ of history are endless. But even in our contemporary world, politicians still seem oblivious to the merits or even (perish the thought) the existence of the ‘deniability’ doctrine. Take our own Prime Minister. He could have denied any knowledge of the declaration of a state of emergency within an already existing state of emergency (his deniability would have been more ‘plausible’ since he was outside the country at the time). He could have claimed an undeniable memory failure about authorizing compensation payments to members of his own family. He could have made dissolving Cabinets an art in its own right by denying any intention to dissolve the Cabinet.
Instead, the Prime Minister found himself entangled in justifying the emergency decrees; in suspending the compensation payments (thereby implicitly acknowledging their initial authorization); and in declaring a de Jure dissolution of the Cabinet while, in a futile attempt to retrieve some ‘deniability’, claiming that it did not necessarily constitute a de Facto one.
Apparently, the Prime Minister has never heard of “executive privilege” which gives the executive the privilege of simultaneously accepting full responsibility and denying any part of it.
As a political scientist I regard this blatant disregard of ‘deniability’ as a clear sign of political immaturity. I am seriously thinking of writing a book on the subject which should be made compulsory reading for aspirant non-American politicians. ‘Deniability’ is inherent in human nature; our children practice it all the time. What a pity that grown-up politicians cannot come to terms with it.
Personally, I became so enchanted with ‘deniability’, American-style, that I have been busy applying the theory on a personal level. I have discovered that it can work wonders. Consider, for instance, the time when I returned home at about three in the morning after a (expletive deleted) night in town. My wife was awake and waiting for me.
“Where have you been?” She shouted angrily.
“To the best of my recollection,” I answered, my words slurring, “the car broke down.”
“Do you realize what time it is?” she demanded menacingly.
“I don’t recall. I can’t remember” I answered, honestly. Under the circumstances my inability to recall key facts was rather embarrassing.
“When the car broke down,” she asked pointedly “Couldn’t you walk home or take a taxi?”
“It was not possible,” I answered evasively, “at least not from the middle of the Khartoum-Wad Medani road.”
“What were you doing in Wad Mcdani?” she shouted again.
“I never said I was in Wad Medal,” I answered, truthfully.
“What were you doing on the Khartoum-Wad Medani road, then?” she screamed at me.
“That is where the car broke down,” I replied.
”That is no answer and you know it!” she retorted clenching her fist.
“I don’t recall how the car got there, but it clearly was looking for a signal from me whether or not to proceed along that line,” I replied wondering where I got those words from.
“And did you give it?” she persisted.
“Give what?” I replied, startled that she may be stumbling on the truth.
”The signal!” she said.
“I think It is important to understand my state of mind at the time, and what things were of concern to me,” I said lamely, “But going to Wad Medani was not one of them.”
“I find this incredible, chilling and mind-boggling,” my wife cried.
“I don’t know,” I said, “I just never analyzed it quite the way that you are doing right now, I suppose.”
“Do you expect me to believe that?” she said vehemently.
“Why don’t you ask the car?” I suggested
My wife stormed out and I could hear shouting in the garage and pounding on the hood of the Datsun. After a while she came back and sat in a menacing silence. I was beginning to worry wondering if the Datsun had done a John-Dean on me. I summoned my last reserves of courage and asked haltingly:”What did the Datsun say?”
“Nothing,” my wife replied looking decidedly beaten “But the words ‘Fifth Amendment’ were written all over it!”
SUDAN TIMES Friday 4 September 1987