Ethics and Public Officials


When, if ever, are public officials justified in lying?  The answer likely depends on the kind of public official (e.g., elected versus appointed) and the nature of the deception. Who is being deceived? Why are they being deceived? Lying to the public about covert operations, for example, is the only way for those operations to be effective. Still, one can question how long the secrecy should remain after an operation is complete. But the deception in the Iran-Contra Affairs was much more widespread. As Gutmann and Thompson note in the relevant chapter in their book Ethics and Politics: “The targets of deception included not only journalists and the American public but also many high-level executive branch officials and congressman who would normally have been informed about foreign policies of this importance.” Both Poindexter and North acknowledged and defended their various deceptions in the Iran-Contra Affairs. Senator Trible (D-VA) later remarked on “the unapologetic embrace of untruth.” Several public officials were eventually convicted of lying to Congress.

Lying To Congress

Col. North testified that he was proud of his actions. He also testified the “lives of the American hostages” were what justified lies about the operation. North further justified deception to Congress on the grounds that Congress could not be trusted to keep a secret—even the few members of Congress with oversight responsibilities for covert operations. “We have had incredible leaks from discussions with closed committees of the Congress,” North testified. The validity of that claim has since been questioned. Later in the exchange, however, North allowed that “there has to be a way of consulting with Congress.”

George Van Cleve, Chief Minority Counsel to the Joint Congressional Committee, summarized North's deceptions and then asked an obvious, but uncomfortable, question: given this history, could North assure the committee that he was “not here now lying to protect the Commander in Chief?”  “I came here to tell the truth,”

Lying to Investigators

Col. North was criticized (and eventually prosecuted) for taking actions to hinder the U.S. Attorney General's initial investigation into these matters. North prepared phony timelines, doctored documents, and organized an infamous “shredding party.”

North's testimony about shredding documents demonstrates his remarkable ability as a witness to take over the proceedings and project his own positive image. Consider this exchange, where North testified (in a roundabout way) that shredding documents was a routine part of his job. Eventually, he allowed that “part of what was shredded” on November 21 was because the Attorney General's staff was going to examine documents at the NCS that weekend. “I do not preclude that as being a possibility, not at all.” Later, he testified that he did “not deny” that documents were shredded over the weekend to avoid the political embarrassment of having them seen by the Attorney General's staff.

Other witnesses were more apologetic. Robert McFarlane, for example, when pressed by Senator Mitchell on his complicity in obstructing the investigation by the executive branch, allowed that he should have taken action to try to prevent the destruction of documents.

Discussion Questions

  • Were any of the lies by public officials in this case justified in moral terms?
  • Can you separate your answer from your underlying view of the merits of “The Enterprise”? Or are the lies justified if you support the Reagan Administration and unjustified if you do not?
  • What standards or criteria are appropriate for deciding whether lying to Congress is ever justified?
  • Even if North was justified in covering up the operation in real time, was he also justified in shredding documents the day before the Attorney General's staff was going to examine them? How do you differentiate the two kinds of deception?

Additional Resources

  • Sissela Bok, Lying: Moral Choice in Public and Private Life (Vintage, 1999).