Occasionally, or more often than not, many of us have had reasons to hide unflattering or embarrassing problems. I am not talking about the sexy sarong that women wear on the beach, loose blouses or wrap-arounds, or strategically placed accouterments, like the toupee that men wear to camouflage a balding spot, or lifts in shoes to exaggerate height. But when a government or an institution do something criminal or morally wrong, the consequences are far-reaching and have long-lasting effects on its citizens and the world. Conspiracy theories abound.
The most recent flagrant decision to cover-up an incident – the shooting of a 17 year-old teenager by Officer Jason Van Dyke of the Chicago Police Department – is so conspicuously bad and offensive, it defies rational and sound judgment. After 13 months, the video became public only after a judge’s order and a Freedom of Information Act request to release it. The video plainly conflicts with the police report, which compelled The Superintendent of Police to resign and The Mayor of Chicago’s job is tenuous at best. These tactics have always been employed by police departments throughout the country: planting and concocting evidence; lying on police reports; abuse of prisoners and even killing suspects in custody. The ‘thin blue line’ of police secrecy is finally turning red; the trust between the public and law enforcement has long been eroded.
It is hard of think of a more heinous cover-up in the history of medical ethics than the Tuskegee study of, ‘Untreated Syphilis in the Negro Male’, conducted by U.S. Public Health Service between 1932 to 1972. Some 399 Black males with syphilis were treated as ‘guinea pigs’ without their consent, to determine the pathology of the disease . Even when penicillin, an effective treatment for syphilis, became available in 1947, the researchers did not offer it to them, as a result as much as 100 men died.
In 1950 a physician and epidemiologist, Dr Ernst Wynder, pointed to heavy cigarette smoking as a cause for lung cancer. Although, the tobacco industry’s own scientist already knew the link, they continue to ‘cloud the issue’.
Watergate, the most famous of all cover-ups with the disastrous consequences of bringing down a President. In June 1972, police arrested five burglars at the Watergate Hotel and Office Complex in Washington, where they were attempting to place listening devices in the office of the Democratic National Committee. It quickly became quite obvious that the burglars had links to President Richard Nixon. One of them, Bernard Barker, had a $25k check from Nixon’s campaign in his bank account. Nixon finally resigned in disgrace and pardoned by President Gerald Ford, saving him the displeasure of the first president to go to jail.
The Ford Pinto 1971, had serious design problem. When the car had been deep into its development cycle, low-speed rear-end crash testing revealed that the fuel tanks filler neck had a tendency to tear away and spill gas under the car. It would have been an extra $11 per car to fix the problem, but Ford management decided it would cost less to pay off Pinto owners whose cars caught on fire. Eventually, a man received $125 million for injuries he sustained in a burning Pinto, later reduced to $3 million, that was the beginning of the end for the car and a public relations disaster that took Ford years to recover.
For decades, the Catholic Church, both in the U.S. and other countries engaged in a systematic effort to cover up crimes by its clergy. Between 1950 and 2002, 4,392 priests were accused of sexual abuse of young boys and girls. The offending priests were shuffle from diocese to diocese to hide their transgressions. The church paid dearly for the cover-ups, U.S. dioceses have paid more than $3 billion to settle lawsuits by the victims.
The cover-up is always bigger than the crime. An effort to weave a web of deceit and elaborate lies, usually do more harm than good. Maybe, if President Clinton had admitted his affair with Monica Lewinsky and not lie under oath, he would have avoided articles of impeachment by Congress, (although the Senate did not convict him), his legacy would have been impeccable, however, even that conclusion is debatable.