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The war stops, the lies don't

Lying finds its highest expression in wartime, when truth is so precious, as Churchill wrote, that it must be shielded by a bodyguard of lies. "All warfare is based on deception," the Chinese general Sun Tzu wrote 2,500 years ago.

Deceiving the enemy is good. But when the war is over, is it politic to keep lying about it to your own people? Perhaps. Plato described the "noble lie" that persuades the people to follow the powerful. Erasmus defined those lies as "falsifications by which the crass multitude is deceived in its own interests."

Deception on the battlefield and the extension of what the Pentagon calls "perception management" to the home front came together in a blinding flash during and after the 1991 Persian Gulf war.

America used deception to defeat Saddam Hussein's forces. Decoy tanks mystified the enemy. Diversionary maneuvers misled them. Dazzling technology destroyed them.

And the smoke the Pentagon blew in Hussein's eyes wafted back to the United States. Many of the stories about infallible, invisible, almost invariably accurate weapons _ selectively detailed, carefully crafted tales told to the American people and the Congress _ were at best noble lies.

Well after the air war that devastated Iraq was done, the Pentagon lied about the performance of many of its most advanced weapons systems, particularly the F-117A Stealth fighter, the Tomahawk land-attack missile and laser-guided "smart" bombs, the General Accounting Office reported last week. This, the agency clearly thought, was not so noble.

What military officers and arms-makers said about their weapons was "overstated, misleading, inconsistent with the best available data, or unverifiable," the report said.

For example, the Air Force told Congress that the Stealth fighter had an 80 percent success rate on its bombing runs. In fact, the rate was more like 40 percent. Why? The accounting office found that commanders defined "success" as launching a bomb or missile, not hitting a target.

The report's authors said these lies were told to help persuade Congress and citizens to buy the next generation of weapons: newer, stealthier fighter jets, newer smart bombs and missiles.

Perception management (the phrase dates at least to the early 1980s) made the weapons of Desert Storm look better than they were, as part of a strategy "to justify future weapons spending," said one of the report's authors.

"The better the F-117 looks, the better the B-2 looks," he said, referring respectively to the Stealth fighter ($106-million a plane in 1990) and the Stealth bomber ($2.2-billion a plane in 1996, though it has yet to be tested in combat).

The tens of billions of dollars already invested in these smart systems were well spent, the argument goes, and much more money should be spent in the future on newer, better, smarter weapons.

All told, several hundred billion dollars are at stake over the next decade or two. The money means thousands of jobs for weapons manufacturers and the military officers who work with them.

Newer, smarter weapons are very good for Americans if they save soldiers' lives and shorten the next war _ that is, if they really are better. But the report said that, over Iraq, the fog of war _ smoke and sand and wind and rain and even high humidity _ befouled the complex sensors and the onboard microcomputers of the smart weapons.

It said that they did not perform any better than older, cheaper, dumber weapons. They did not deliver the bang for the buck, and the Pentagon's postwar claims were designed to mislead civilians, to finance new weapons that might work better.

There are peacetime precedents aplenty for manipulating facts about weapons with a view to beefing up military spending. The Air Force warned in the 1950s of a "bomber gap" and a "missile gap," and won the cash to fill them. But as President Dwight D. Eisenhower said in 1961, those gaps were "a fiction" _ products of fear, ignorance and secrecy, and exploited by what Eisenhower called "the military-industrial complex."

President Bush claimed that in 1991 Patriot missiles had had a nearly perfect record knocking out Iraqi Scuds. That was not true. The military admits it. But it revived the idea that a "Star Wars" missile defense was within reach _ and justified billions more dollars spent for that still-elusive goal.

When the Persian Gulf war was raging, convincing the enemy that his Scuds were duds seemed a noble cause. When the war was over, convincing Americans that the Patriot and the Tomahawk and the sleek black Stealth fighter were omnipotent was another matter.

The nobility of lies told in the name of national security rings false when so many billions are at stake in the debate over the right mix of weapons, one of the report's authors said.

"Tell me," he said, "who is the enemy here?"

Perhaps he is. The General Accounting Office's program evaluation division, which over the years has analyzed everything from Pentagon weaponry to auto safety to children's vaccines, spent nearly four years examining more than 1-million pieces of Pentagon data on the war and interviewing more than 100 pilots, commanders and war planners for its report.

The division is being dismantled, destroyed by budget cuts imposed by Congress this year and last. In a few weeks, it will disappear.

New York Times