Plausible deniability

From Academic Kids

Plausible deniability is a political doctrine originally developed in the United States in the 1950s and applied to operations by the then newly-formed Central Intelligence Agency. Many people consider the doctrine to be a form of hypocrisy.

Plausible deniability involves the creation of power structures and chains of command loose and informal enough to be denied if necessary. The idea was that the CIA (and, later, other bodies) could be given controversial instructions by powerful figures -- up to and including the President himself—but that the existence and true source of those instructions could be denied if necessary; if, for example, an operation went disastrously wrong and it was necessary for the administration to disclaim responsibility.

The doctrine had two major flaws. First, it was an open door to the abuse of authority; it required that the bodies in question could be said to have acted independently, which in the end was tantamount to giving them license to act independently. Second, it rarely worked when invoked; the denials made were rarely plausible and were generally seen through by both the media and the populace. One aspect of the Watergate crisis is the repeated failure of the doctrine of plausible deniability, which the administration repeatedly attempted to use to stop the scandal affecting President Richard Nixon and his aides.

Plausible deniability has also come to be used more generally to describe a situation in which a party actively avoids gaining certain, or confirmable, knowledge of facts it suspects to exist because it benefits the party to "not know." Example: An unscrupulous attorney may suspect that facts exist which would hurt his case, but decide not to investigate the issue because if the attorney had actual knowledge, the rules of ethics might require him to reveal those facts to the opposing side. Thus his failure to investigate maintains plausible deniability.

The term was used in the 1996 movie Independence Day when the President asks one of his aides, a former CIA head, why he hadn't been told about the existence of Area 51.

The doctrine is currently the focus of much attention by investigative reporters looking into abuses in Iraq, Guantanamo Bay, and Afghanistan where the rampant use of private contractors to supply everything from food and machines to prison guards and interrogators to the US military has led a situation in which plausible deniability has become the norm. Because the private sector workers are not subject to military law, and because much of the work is done overseas in war zones, no one knows for sure how these employees can be held accountable in the event that they commit illegal acts.

No less controversial was the removal, some say kidnapping, of Jean-Bertrand Aristide from power in February 2003. Accounts are conflicting, and the US government denies any wrongdoing, but witnesses report that the plane that flew Aristide out of Haiti was a US unmarked jet that was being manned by a combination US Marines and a private security detail employed by the same corporation that supplies the US President and other VIP's with security guards. Again, it appears the US government used private sector employees to perform what amounted to a US military operation to remove Aristide from power.

Related term

Extraordinary rendition, which involves flying terror suspects abroad to countries where it is likely that they will be tortured. This is done to avoid the illegality of ordering their torture or carrying it out on US soil. By having another government order it, the intention to torture the suspect can be plausibly denied.


Democracynow ( See archived show for February 28, 2005 and interview with Pratap Chatterjee of ( Chatterjee has also published a book on the topic entitled, Iraq Inc: A Profitable Occupation.


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