When the government talks, what should you believe?

When the government talks, what should you believe?

Summary: Our ZDNet Government columnist takes a deep dive into the question of leaks, background briefings, and the believability of government statements.


When it comes to government transparency (or the lack thereof), it's been quite the season, hasn't it?

Week after week, we've had the slow dribble of reports from the Edward Snowden collection of purloined documents. Week after week, we've had clarifications and denials, official statements, and on- and off-the-record background briefings from government officials.

We've also seen some of the most ridiculous (and no, I'm not linking to them) conspiracy theory claims from the nutball fringe of the blogosphere and from mainstream media who should have known better.

Who can you trust and what is the truth?

I've given this question a great deal of thought, going all the way back to 2007 and my work exploring the missing White House emails reported by the Bush administration. I even wrote a book about it.

In that book, I pointed out one example of how popular media distorts official statements for editorial gain. In an episode of The Daily Show, Jon Stewart's team cut together statements from two White House briefings.

They took a statement from one briefing on one specific topic that occurred on a Monday and edited it so it played right before a statement (on a completely different topic) that had actually been made on the prior Friday. When the two statements played together, in their cut-and-out-of-order form, the White House sounded like it was saying something completely different from what actually was said.

What was disappointing about this set of altered-statement editing cuts was that both statements were disturbing on their own, and could have provided a base for editorializing on their own, without having been altered in order to make whatever point Stewart and his team were trying to make.

Ever since I discovered The Daily Show's alteration of the public record, I've established a set of guidelines for where and how I will accept statements, and what I will consider fact and what I will consider unsupportable hearsay.

I will only accept a government statement as official if I can get it straight from the source. For example, I would consider the contents of a White House briefing as official if I watched that briefing via the White House's own feed. I will accept Congressional testimony as official if I retrieved the transcript from an official government repository.

What is official?

Before I go further, let me explain what I mean as "official". I'm not saying I accept these statements as fact. Statements by public officials are not, as we all know, necessarily the truth. But an official statement by a public official does become part of the public record and can be attributed with confirmation to that speaker.

Going back to the misleading Jon Stewart cuts from 2007, if a historian or political scientist were to try to base an analysis of the events of that particular weekend on the statements from The Daily Show, that historian would get an externally-altered view of what the government said.

Take, at the very extreme, a case where a reporter is claiming that the government lied about something. Quoting a potentially altered record like The Daily Show cut wouldn't make the case for the reporter, and might, in fact, backfire.

But if that same reporter made the case for a government lie based on official Congressional testimony, that story would be potentially far more explosive -- and possibly alter the future of the nation.

That brings me to two classes of government information that sometimes winds up in the public record: leaks and "on-background" statements. Let's do leaks first.

The unprovable veracity of leaks

We're now all too familiar with WikiLeaks and Edward Snowden. Bradley Manning, now convicted, stole documents which WikiLeaks then published to the public. Edward Snowden stole documents from the NSA and provided them to the British Guardian newspaper.

These two sets of leaks have ignited a firestorm of press. But can we trust them as historical fact and can we consider them undeniable elements of the public record?

The answer to that is "no," even though the overwrought blogosphere and weak-willed mainstream media has had a feeding frenzy on these documents.

While it is likely that the NSA does much of what the documents indicate, we have no proof whatsoever that these documents are being provided to us in pristine, unaltered, preserved-chain-of-evidence state. They're probably accurate, but even though just about everyone is treating them as fact, they're all sourced from one individual (who happened to run first to China and then Russia), and there's just no externally verifiable evidence of truth.

On-background briefings

That brings me to "on-background" briefings. These are briefings that some reporters and analysts get from high-ranking government officials, but which can't be officially attributed to those officials.

I reported on one of these briefings just a few weeks ago. I had the opportunity to talk to a few, specific, high-ranking members of the U.S. Intelligence Community about one of the NSA issues and get some detailed information.

While I know who I spoke to, I made the promise that in return for the rather open and unrestricted Q&A session, I would not attribute the statements made to any specific individual or individuals.

The good part about this sort of briefing is it does help us understand what happened. The bad part about this sort of briefing is it can't enter the public record as fact. After all, I restated what a government official said, and I withheld the specific information about who said it.

While the historical record on this particular NSA issue can report that I reported it, it won't ever hold the weight of truth that a statement that could have been attributed to a particular public official would have had.

Another example of this is the Stuxnet story where the NY Times claimed US released Stuxnet with Israel and it accidentally escaped.

Because none of the reports on Stuxnet have actually been attributed to specific American officials, we can't be sure -- 100 percent sure as a matter of record -- that America was involved. Oh, sure. America was probably involved, but the lack of an official statement means there's no smoking gun.

There's no surety.

Some would argue that it doesn't matter. After all, since we can't believe what our politicians say anyway, what does it matter whether the news comes from a hearsay source or from a so-called official source?

It matters. It matters because the historical record is very much like a court proceeding. For us, as a society, to know what happened -- what really, actually happened -- we need reliable source data. A government statement itself isn't necessarily reliable, but as I wrote in my White House email book, if the government is willing to officially state they misplaced five million email messages, you can be sure that's at least the best case for the story.

In other words, while you can't fully trust a government statement, if an official government statement includes a mea culpa, you can reliably expect that the worst of what the statement released is at least the least of the actual badness.

That brings me back to the original question of this column: when the government talks, what should you believe?

The answer has two parts. Part 1 is this: if the government makes an official statement and you can confirm that the statement is, in fact, from the government and not altered by the media, that statement can become part of the historical record.

It's not necessarily the truth about whatever incident the statement is about, but it's truth in the sense that it can reliably be attributed to the government.

Part 2 is this: if a government statements admits culpability, you can reliably assume that the baseline of the culpability is what is covered in the statement. It might be a lot worse, but at least you have a baseline for the historical record.

So there you go. I will still accept on-background briefings because it provides me with insight I can often share with you that otherwise wouldn't be available. But I will also push for attributable public statements that we can use to build up a better-sourced and potentially more accurate historical record.

Topics: Government US, Government, Privacy


David Gewirtz, Distinguished Lecturer at CBS Interactive, is an author, U.S. policy advisor, and computer scientist. He is featured in the History Channel special The President's Book of Secrets and is a member of the National Press Club.

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  • This has nothing to do with IT.

  • Not the Government, not ZDNET bloggers, not Global Corporations

    Oh boy , oh boy ... first Foremski trying to palm off the financial crisis on bad mathematics and big data ... and now Mr. American Apple Pie Gerwirtz trying to suggest that all the information he receives from Government is not total BS and might actually be true.

    Who to believe?
    I trust my own judgement.

    I saw what happened in Iraq. Did anybody find nuclear armaments ... or did another oil producing nation attempting democracy with an unfavourable religion get squashed by American military might? Heck neighbours Iran (also with oil) and similar could actually have banded together with decent resources, democracy and a Muslim majorities to form a significant power. Cannot be allowed to happen. Send in the army.

    Vietnam. same story. Can't have democracy and socialist ideologies transforming Indo-China now, can we.
    Central America.
    The list is horribly long, starting after the 2nd World War when the rest of the world had crippled itself, ideal time to step in and take over.

    And the financial crisis? Well I destroyed Foremski here:

    When you get a message from the Government, a global corporation or a biased ZDNET blogger; the first job is to work out their agenda. Then try to confirm any facts independently.
    And note the 'small' things: so the Bolivian president's jet was held for an illegal search.
    What to make of it?
    American Government and corporations will do ANYTHING to remain in power and wealth ...

    ... except agree a new health bill it seems.
    Closed for any business to do with the general population 'because we can't agree'.

    Are there any Americans with independent will and brains reading who will oppose their hideous corporations and Government? It appears not, for not one of my anti-American rants has been countered by ZDNET bloggers or readers alike.

    • step one: no one trusts a word from almost every gov, step two:

      The only solution today is to change the system: a politician can be only a person 40 years and more and never been connected closely with any politician
  • The principal use of propaganda ...

    ... for an intelligent person, is to determine the hidden agenda of the distributor.
    • For example MSFT, Windows 8, Office 365 and AZURE (for Jean Pierre)

      - limited boot options
      - limited software installs to METRO
      - 30% cut on developer revenues
      - lock out of OEM's in favour of in-house hardware
      - limited, non-maintainable hardware
      - subscriptions to Office 365 (MSFT cloud)
      - Technet gone, no prerelease of OS to developers
      - XBOX options limited
      - expensive options all round
      - Skydrive files replaced by symbolic links: real files in the (MSFT) cloud

      How can you miss the corporate strategy?
      Replication of APPL's monetisation with a locked-down ecosystem.

      Ed Bott and Mary Jo Foley?
      Well I think Ed is still fixing Vista 'one PC at a time' ... and Mary Jo is content to still have NOTEPAD on Surface RT.
      • Sky Drive Files Gone?

        If Sky Drive files are gone and replaced with symbolic Links, How come I still have access to the files when I'm not connected?
        • Answer

          You clicked the box 'make available offline'.
          Most sheep = users ... maybe even you ... might do it accidentally.

          You illustrate the problem perfectly ... MSFT(global corporations) are very clever at constructing opacity (= not transparency) so that everything SEEMS to be fine ...

          ... until the day you realise you don't actually own, manage or control anything at all ...

          ... and your next subscription is due.
          If you don't pay you are excommunicated to the wilderness.

  • Rules

    The only time a politician isn't lying is when their mouth isn't moving, except some politicians tweet without moving their mouth and they are still lying.

    Jon Stewart, he's not even a serious person, anything he says is for effect and ratings. That anyone would base anything off of his shtick goes to mental deficiency. The same goes for any other talking head on TV it's not news it's entertainment.
    • Not sure I agree here ...

      ... many are the politicians I've seen talk for a few minutes ... without saying anything at all.
      Does saying nothing, evading the question and so on ... count as lying?

  • Pound or Two of Salt

    History is pop culture (chuckle).
    History as communicated by government is redacted pop culture.
  • Instead of prolonging this thread ...

    ... can we instead just delete it, have David - who I suspect is a decent, intelligent guy who loves his IT - just get on with something productive...

    ... like bringing down the American political system?
    • I suspect also ...

      ... that David loves his people and his country's fine traditions ...

      ... what I can't understand is why he lets the US Government and the corporations get away with murder. (That's where you invade someone else's country and kill the inhabitants because you don't like their idea of democracy, religion, resource usage and socialist tendencies.)
  • Jon Stewart vs. news

    I have friends who use him as their primary news source. For them, I copy-pasted-emailed Jon's own statement that he is a comedian, not a journalist.

    Not all politicians are the same. For example, the role of a federal politician is entirely different than our local representatives, yet they are both elected. At the federal level, I believe persuasive lying and half-truths are an essential skill. In that job, sharing their full knowledge about everything would not serve their elected purpose.

    They are professional actors performing on a world stage; I never ask them for truth.
    • Interestingly enough...

      ...I know people who use talk radio as their primary news source. I figure partisan commentators are just about as reliable a news source as comedians are, but it's very sad that either is used for that purpose. Mostly, it goes to show that We the People need to do a better job of distinguishing between news and propaganda (and satire).

      To David's point, getting a statement from an official source doesn't make it true, but does mean that you know what was actually said in its proper context; which is better than getting a twisted version out of context from a professional propagandist.

      I will take C-SPAN feeds as official sources (but not necessarily commentary thereon).
      John L. Ries
  • As an American

    not believing what the government says is baked into our DNA. At least it used to be. I always take everything that comes out of DC with a heavy does of skepticism, especially when they claim they are doing something for my benefit.
  • .....

    Wow. That was a waste of 10 minutes. Basically you are saying if there isn't absolute certainty we shouldn't give any/much weight to it. I disagree. While very little should ever be considered absolute fact, the fact that something is not 100% accurate does not make it useless.

    You may claim you are saying the same thing but how you worded it is very propaganda-ish. Whether you intended to or not you sound like a government shill on this one.
  • When the government talks, what should you believe?

    NOTHING. Instead, INFORM YOURSELF. Get your information from multiple independent sources and remember that there may be a thread of truth in each opinion you hear but rarely will you find a single source which is not shaped by their own world-view.

    Every action has unintended consequences. Ask enough questions and you can get an idea of what those unintended consequences might be - then decide whether or not it is worth the risk knowing that intentions might backfire.

    For instance, before Obamacare, about 15% of the population did not have employer-provided health insurance. That comes to about 45 million people. A disproportionate number of them are children of poorly-educated parents.

    Some of those people had pre-existing conditions. Some could not afford health insurance. Most healthy people will not buy health insurance on their own. Insurance only works if the vast majority of policy holders do not make claims so if only sick people buy health insurance, the numbers don't work.

    Add to that the inflated cost of healthcare created by the insurance industry itself. (Because the insured are a captive audience, the industry sets both the premium and what it pays to doctors. Like buying food at the movies - or in an airport.)

    Had Obamacare concentrated on access to high-quality low-cost healthcare for everyone instead of focusing on health insurance for the 15%, this law would not be so complex - and it would protect a lot more of the 45 million people without health insurance.

    Still fighting the law is fruitless. A more meaningful approach is to fix it, item by item.
    M Wagner