Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.
George Santayana/The Life of Reason (1905)
Talk about your go-to phrase. I have lost count how many times over the last five and a half years I have introduced a topic with this quote. That is because it does not matter how many times individuals who should know better ignore Santanaya’s advice, when given the next opportunity to benefit from his wisdom.
On how many occasions have people in positions of power learned a simple truth about transparency in response to a crisis? History tells us, “the cover-up is always worse than the crime.” As evidence, consider the following Top 10 cover-ups going back 130 years.
- Dreyfus Affair (1894)
- Teapot Dome (1922)
- Tuskegee Syphilis Experiment (1932-72)
- Tobacco Industry Denial of the Health Risks of Smoking (1950)
- Thalidomide (1957-61)
- CIA Efforts to Assassinate Fidel Castro (1960s)
- Watergate (1972)
- Ford Pinto (1970s)
- Chernobyl (1985)
- Pedophile Priests Exposed by the Boston Globe (1992)
Each of these cover-ups would have succeeded except for one or more brave individuals pulling back the curtain on these scandals. Or as Nixon aide and Watergate mastermind G. Gordon Liddy once said, “The big problem with conspiracies is that people can’t keep their mouths shut.” With the exception of White House legal counsel John Dean and FBI deputy director Mark “Deep Throat” Felt, few of these “whistle blowers” are household names. More recently, Soviet scientist Valery Legasov’s (pictured) role as someone willing to speak truth to power was highlighted in the HBO mini-series Chernobyl.
However, each of the above scandals have their own lesser-known Dean, Felt or Legasov. Take the Tuskegee experiment as an example. In 1965, government social worker Pete Buxton found internal U.S. Public Health Service reports which documented mistreatment of test participants and raised questions about violations of professional ethics with superiors. After years of inaction, Buxton gave copies of the reports to the Associated Press which finally led to termination of the program in 1972.
Perhaps you are asking, “Dr. ESP, why did you choose this morning to bring this to our attention? Wouldn’t it have been equally relevant during the first Trump impeachment and the administration’s obstruction of justice to prevent public knowledge of the Ukraine quid pro quo?” The answer to your question appears on this week’s front pages of the Washington Post, laying out what can only be a called “a trifecta of cover-ups.” Here are the headlines.
- Key impeachment witness Gordon Sondland sues Mike Pompeo and U.S. for $1.8 million in legal fees (5/24/21)
- Justice Department releases part of internal memo on not charging Trump in Russia probe (5/25/21)
- Timeline: How the Wuhan lab-leak theory suddenly became credible (2/25/21)
It is hard to equate Sondland with Mark Felt or Pete Buxton as his actions are based more on personal self-interest. But the filing does include new details which would not have emerged without Sondland’s input. Sondland alleges Pompeo told him the Department of Justice (DOJ) would cover his attorney fees if he stuck to the party line Ukraine involved no quid pro quo and he resigned as ambassador to the European Union. According to the filing:
Ambassador Sondland confirmed he would not resign because he did not do anything improper. After that, everything changed. Ambassador Sondland did not receive his attorneys’ fees, notwithstanding the promises from the State Department that the attorneys’ fees would be paid.
As has been the case too many times during the past five years when the White House and Congress ignored their constitutional responsibilities, the “hero” in the second story is a U.S. District Judge, in this instance Amy Berman Jackson. Jackson did not hesitate to suggest Attorney General Bill Barr acted improperly by misrepresenting the the Mueller report consistent with internal memo prepared by DOJ political appointees, one of whom was supervising the Mueller investigation. She also found Barr went beyond the long-held constitutional position that a sitting president could not be charged with a crime when he claimed, were there no constitutional barrier, he would not have prosecuted Trump.
I do not want to downplay the first two stories, but the consequences are limited. Sondland may or may not get reimbursed. Trump is out of office. And most importantly, he and several members of his administration will face their day in court without the advantage of a potential White House pardon. Yet, it is the third headline which triggered today’s blog. Why? Because the pandemic impacted the health of billions of people, the global economy and perhaps the geopolitical future of democracy.
At a time when the line between democracy and autocracy is more blurred than ever, citizens across the globe go to the polls and wonder, “Does it really matter?” I believe, the answer depends whether there is a simple, defining principle which separates the two. And if we ever needed evidence to make a case for liberal democracy, the past year and a half is Exhibit A.
There are myriad possibilities about the origins of COVID-19, and in time, the truth will come out. But I find it hard it hard to believe the Chinese would intentionally want to start a worldwide pandemic. Why? Because it flies in the face of Beijing’s efforts to convince developing nations democracy is an inferior form of government, plagued by chaos, dishonesty, greed and corruption. That argument is harder to make when a lack of transparency which contributed to three million deaths is a prerequisite for survival of the alternative. After all, Chernobyl and the associated deaths of 4,000 to 16,000 Soviet citizens (depending on the source) was one more nail in the coffin of the USSR.
If the Chernobyl cover-up was a black eye on Soviet communism, could COVID-19 and the unwillingness of Xi Jinping’s government to provide real-time, accurate information be China’s “CherGlobyl,” a metaphorical nuclear meltdown from which it may not recover?
For what it’s worth.