Guest editorial: Some lies worse than others

Let me be clear at the outset. It bothers me a great deal when I am lied to, by anyone. It upsets me even more, when our political leaders lie to the American people. Last week, James B. Comey, the head of the FBI told us that in her public remarks about her private email server, former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton made assertions that are not true. Evidently, she did send and receive emails on her private server that had been marked classified.
In testimony before an “emergency” meeting of the House Oversight Committee (emergency because Republicans are desperate to torpedo Clinton’s presidential candidacy), Comey expanded on this point. He said there were three emails that included “portion marking” in which certain paragraphs of a document are marked indicating the material is classified — in this case with the letter “c” in parenthesis, meaning it was “confidential” (the lowest level of classification). The State Department last week said those markings were included by mistake.
However Comey also talked about one “chain” of emails in which Clinton had typed a message on a subject classified as “top secret.” It has been widely speculated that this involved the use of drone strikes in Pakistan. The Obama Administration had tried to keep these strikes a secret — but even then it was no secret to the people of Pakistan or many others. Such strikes are now publicly acknowledged by the White House.
Although the Republicans on the Oversight Committee tried repeatedly to shake Comey’s bottom line — they did not succeed. Asked by a Democrat on the committee if Clinton had “intentionally violated the law,” Comey answered, “We did not develop clear evidence of that.” Did she obstruct justice? “We did not develop evidence of that.” And would her actions rise to the level that would warrant prosecution? “No Justice Department, whether under Democrats or Republicans, would have prosecuted that case,” said the FBI director.
As to the argument, advanced by Donald Trump, among others, that Gen. David Petraeus had received much harsher treatment by the Justice Department than had Clinton, Comey indicated the Petraeus’ case was actually much worse. The famous general, later CIA director, had given highly classified documents to his lover, who was writing a biography about him. When confronted by the FBI, Petraeus lied about this. Actually the professionals in the Justice Department had recommended a much tougher sentence for Petraeus but then-DOJ head Eric Holder (a Democrat ) reduced the charge to a misdemeanor — a fine with no jail time.
The purpose of this column is not to be an apologia for whatever sins Clinton has committed. But what I want to do is to keep things in perspective. Lies are not good. But some lies, are worse than others, and have greater consequences.
When Bill Clinton said, “I did not have sex, with that woman, Miss Lewinsky,” House Republicans voted for his impeachment.
But what were the consequences for a Republican president who a few years earlier had looked the American people in the eye and said, “I did not exchange arms for hostages?” This, of course was the basis of the Iran-Contra Scandal, in which not only were U.S. arms sold to Iran in violation of an American embargo by using the Israelis as intermediaries, but in exchange for the release of Americans taken hostage in Beirut, the proceeds from these arms sales were used to support the Contras fighting the government of Nicaragua, which had been explicitly forbidden by an act of Congress.
I thought it would be helpful to revisit perhaps the most extraordinary mea culpa speech ever made by any American president. It was given by President Reagan from the Oval Office on March 4, 1987. It followed the release of the Tower Report, an investigative commission headed by former Republican Sen. John Tower, former Democratic Sen. Ed Muskie and former National Security Adviser Brent Scowcroft. This is part of the speech including the most historically significant elements.
“My fellow Americans:
First, let me say I take full responsibility for my own actions and for those of my administration. As angry as I may be about activities undertaken without my knowledge, I am still accountable for those activities. As disappointed as I may be in some who served me, I’m still the one who must answer to the American people for this behavior. And as personally distasteful as I find secret bank accounts and diverted funds — well, as the Navy would say, this happened on my watch.
Let’s start with the part that is the most controversial. A few months ago I told the American people I did not trade arms for hostages. My heart and my best intentions still tell me that’s true, but the facts and the evidence tell me it is not. As the Tower board reported, what began as a strategic opening to Iran deteriorated, in its implementation, into trading arms for hostages. This runs counter to my own beliefs, to administration policy, and to the original strategy we had in mind. There are reasons why it happened, but no excuses. It was a mistake.”
The Tower report and subsequent congressional investigations were all impeded when large volumes of documents were shredded or withheld by the Reagan White House.
Defense Secretary Caspar Weinberger, National Security Adviser John Poindexter and NSC staffer Oliver North were ultimately indicted for their roles in the scandal but were later pardoned by incoming President George H.W. Bush. No member of Congress, from either party, threatened to impeach or otherwise punish the president for flatly lying to the American people and flouting the law that prohibited financial aid to the Contras.
And no one suggested Reagan’s security clearances be revoked, as House Speaker Paul Ryan is now demanding should happen to Hillary Clinton.
Whose lies and what kind of lies? You be the judge.
Editor’s note: This commentary by retired ABC News diplomatic correspondent Barrie Dunsmore first appeared in the Barre-Montpelier Times Argus and Rutland Herald Sunday edition. All his columns can be found on his website, www.barriedunsmore.com. 

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