Why ‘Trust Us’ Is Often Reason Enough Not to Trust the Government

In August, the United States carried out a drone strike in Kabul amid the evacuation from Afghanistan, and the military announced that it had thwarted would-be ISIS-K suicide bombers. Even as reports emerged of civilian casualties, including children, Gen. Mark A. Milley, the Joint Chiefs of Staff chairman, insisted the strike was “righteous.” Only later, after a video investigation by The New York Times showed that the person targeted was an innocent aid worker, did the Pentagon acknowledge that the strike had been a tragic mistake and that no ISIS-K fighters had been killed.

In 2011, when the Obama administration announced the commando raid in Pakistan that killed Osama bin Laden, the president’s chief counterterrorism adviser, John O. Brennan, said the Qaeda leader had engaged in a firefight and used his wife as a human shield. Days later, the White House walked back its account, saying that bin Laden had been neither armed nor cowering behind a woman.

During the buildup to the 2003 invasion of Iraq, officials in President George W. Bush’s administration famously put forth intelligence about purported Iraqi weapons of mass destruction that turned out to be inaccurate. They also stoked baseless fears that Iraq’s secular dictator, Saddam Hussein, was collaborating with the religious extremists behind the Sept. 11 attacks, Al Qaeda.

During the wars in Vietnam and, more recently, in Afghanistan, administration officials under both parties often issued a more optimistic picture of progress to the public than the government’s internal assessments supported. And President Lyndon B. Johnson justified an escalation of the war in Vietnam based on a supposed North Vietnamese attack on an American vessel in the Gulf of Tonkin that never happened.

Recognizing that the American government has not always shared credible information and that its statements in such situations should be approached with skepticism is different from equating the United States to ISIS or to Russia, which is notorious for disinformation operations — including a propaganda campaign suggesting that Ukraine is guilty of genocide against its Russian-speaking citizens.

And there are differences that may lend a greater presumption of credibility to the U.S. government’s current claims. The situation on the border between Ukraine and Russia is not like Vietnam or Iraq, for example, in that the United States is trying to deter a conflict, rather than justify or start one.