Yesterday I posted a tweet about James Clapper and Donald Trump. Here is the tweet with Dave GhostBear’s response:
James Clapper committed perjury before Congress with regards to domestic spying.
He is not a trustworthy source, and you should be wary of him also
— Dave GhostBear? (@JediGhostBear) May 24, 2018
This response prompted some back and forth. I pointed out that Clapper was not convicted of perjury. I further noted this was a single instance in 2013. Dave countered as follows: “Simply put, knowing what we know about the program [of NSA data collection], if you think Clapper is trustworthy after providing this answer to Sen. Wyden I have a lovely bridge in Brooklyn to sell you.”
Well, that’s one way of putting it.
To summarize our state of disagreement: I believe Clapper offers truthful testimony when he says that in his assessment Russia swayed the election in favor of Donald Trump. (Given Clapper’s role in national intelligence, it is also credibly informed testimony.) By contrast, Dave insists that we cannot reasonably trust Clapper because he lied once in 2013. I believe Dave is being unduly skeptical to reject categorically Clapper’s testimony. He believes I am being unduly credulous to accept it.
Why it Matters
Is there a way we can get beyond this impasse? I sure hope so. Because when people divide about such matters, the only person who benefits is the dangerous, habitual liar (Donald Trump) who is attempting to sow precisely this kind of confusion for his own ends. Indeed, two days ago Leslie Stahl recounted the following exchange she had with Trump after the election about his attacks on the media:
“I said, ‘You know, this is getting tired. Why are you doing it over and over? It’s boring and it’s time to end that. You know, you’ve won … why do you keep hammering at this?'” Stahl recalled.
“And he said: ‘You know why I do it? I do it to discredit you all and demean you all so that when you write negative stories about me no one will believe you.'” (source)
Now that’s one occasion on which I’ll believe Trump. He is a genius at sowing discord and then exploiting the ensuing disagreement, and attacks on Clapper’s credibility are just one of many, many examples.
Two Types of Liars
As we proceed, I’ll concede that Clapper did, in fact, perjure himself on one occasion in 2013. The question is whether that instance of lying undermines his current assessment that Russia swayed the election in Trump’s favor.
The first thing we need to do is distinguish between habitual liars and occasional/contextual liars. Trump is the perfect example of a habitual liar: i.e. an individual who lies with utter disregard for the truth. Indeed, it may be more correct to call such a person a bullshitter (I talk about Trump as bullshitter and how that differs from lying in this article). You should not trust this person as a general rule. (Recognizing that Trump told the truth to Stahl is consistent with a general skepticism about his credibility.)
By contrast, the occasional or contextual liar is a person who lies on occasion but generally maintains a fidelity to truthtelling. The vast majority of people are occasional liars. So, for example, we might lie to our boss by calling in sick on a sunny day and we may lie when we tell our spouse their new hairstyle looks just fine, but we are generally reliable.
Needless to say, since the vast majority of the population lies on occasion, to reject utterly any witness who had ever lied would be unduly skeptical and thus irrational. It would also severely incapacitate our knowledge.
This does not mean, however, that the occasional liar automatically gets the benefit of the doubt. What we should do, rather, is consider the past occasion(s) when that person has lied. If particular trends emerge, those may be sufficient to provide an undercutting defeater for that person’s future testimony under the same conditions.
For example, if Fred has a history of calling in sick on sunny days only to be spotted later fishing down at the lake, that would provide a reason to doubt the future instances where Fred calls in sick. But it doesn’t mean we should necessarily be skeptical when Fred makes a testimonial claim in another context.
Clapper’s Lying and Crediblity
So what about James Clapper? Why did he lie under oath in 2013? The answer, presumably, has to do with his office in national intelligence and in particular his desire to protect a surveillance program of dubious legality. The question we need to ask is this:
Are there reasons to think that the catalysts that led Clapper to lie about NSA surveillance in 2013 are likewise leading him to lie in 2018 about his assessment that Russia swayed the 2016 election in Trump’s favor?
I don’t see any reason to think that the same catalysts are present, and thus it is more reasonable — all other things being equal — to accept Clapper’s testimony as his own truthful assessment. Given his former role as one of the most distinguished figures in national intelligence, he is also uniquely equipped to make this informed assessment. And thus, while Clapper did lie in 2013, I believe it is most reasonable to believe his testimony about Trump and the election.