Euphemism Watch: “Fact Witness”

How the Bushies acknowledge lies.

In the legal world, a witness who has direct knowledge of the events in dispute is called a “fact witness.” The term is what Frank Mankiewicz, former president of National Public Radio, calls a “retronym.” In simpler times, it was good enough just to call a witness a witness (or, if he actually saw the central disputed event, an eyewitness). But with the advent of the “expert witness,” who renders judgments based not on direct knowledge of the disputed events but on expertise in a relevant field, it became necessary to reclassify the old-fashioned I-was-there type of witness as a “fact witness.”

A “fact witness,” then, is someone willing to vouch personally for what happened. Apparently, that’s something a president should never be.

At a July 11 press briefing aboard Air Force One, National Security Adviser Condoleezza Rice blamed the Central Intelligence Agency for failing to alert the White House that it could not back up a now-famous reference to Iraqi President Saddam Hussein’s purported recent attempts to purchase uranium from Niger. The CIA had alerted the White House to the problem when it was included in a speech President Bush delivered Oct. 7 in Cincinnati. Depending on whom you ask, the CIA either alerted the White House again, or failed to alert the White House again, when the yellowcake reference was included in the State of the Union address three months later.

Rice is among those who say the CIA failed to alert the White House. Had the CIA informed the White House of the problem prior to the State of the Union, Rice argued, the problematic 16 words would have come out. Why? Because “we don’t make the president his own fact witness.” Later, in response to a question, she repeated this. “We don’t make him his own fact witness.”

According to Rice’s deputy, Steve Hadley, CIA Director George Tenet raised this very concern regarding the October speech. “The sentence was deleted from the Cincinnati speech when [Tenet] said he did not want the president to be a fact witness for that statement,” Hadley explained at a July 22 press conference.

Rice repeated this in her July 30 interview on PBS’s NewsHour: “Director Tenet had called Steve Hadley and he told him, in no specifics, he told him, ‘I don’t think you should put that in the president’s speech because we don’t want to make the president his own fact witness.’ ” (By now Rice was accepting more personal responsibility for the State of the Union error because Tenet had sent her a written memo about it.)

Chatterbox understands what this use of courtroom terminology means. The president is a busy man; he doesn’t have time to run down every little fact, so he needs to rely on staff. But there’s a much simpler way to say, “We don’t want President Bush to be his own fact witness.” It’s to say, “We don’t want President Bush to state something that may not be true.” This formulation doesn’t strike Chatterbox as especially blunt, but apparently the Bush bureaucracy recoils from it.

Washington culture has always had a difficult time acknowledging untruth. “I lied” is of course beyond the pale. “I was wrong” is marginally acceptable as an expression of Christian contrition, but not at all acceptable as an admission of factual error. Even the gentler “I was in error” is seldom heard. During the Nixon era, the lies flew so fast and furious that it became necessary to say that the president or an aide “misspoke” or, in a more Orwellian vein, that a statement was “inoperative.”

Sadly, though, in the Bush era even these starchy euphemisms will no longer serve. You may not say, “We don’t want the president to misspeak” or “We don’t want an inoperative statement in the State of the Union,” even when describing a theoretical circumstance. (The Bushies do not yet concede that the yellowcake reference was inaccurate.) You may only say that the president should not be subjected to the inconvenience of answering to anyone who says that something he says is false.

This rhetorical formulation is a triumph of process over substance. Even terms like “misspoke” and “inoperative” acknowledge, however indirectly, that something is factually amiss. But “the president was his own fact witness” addresses the true-or-false question not at all. It merely states that if something the president says is called into question, the only person who can verify it is the president. There is no truth; there is no untruth. There is only a clumsily drawn organization chart.

Yellowcakegate Archive:
July 31, 2003: “Did Condi Give the Game Away?”
July 25, 2003: “Whopper of the Week: Condoleezza Rice”
July 24, 2003: “Cheney Wraps His Glutes in the Flag”
July 17, 2003: “Is Libby the Phantom Bigfoot?”
July 16, 2003: “Why This Bush Lie? Part 2”
July 15, 2003: “Why This Bush Lie? Part 1”