Bernard Madoff, chairman of Madoff Investment Securities, before he was sentenced in 2009 to 150 years in prison for admitting to a massive Ponzi scheme that defrauded investors of as much as $50 billion.
Jason DeCrow/The Associated Press
Reading Time: 3 minutes

One lie leads to another.

In the heady days of the Great American Mortgage Boom, loan salesmen lied to borrowers. Salesmen and other mortgage workers pushed the deals through by fabricating documents and forging signatures. Quality-control folks up the line ratified the lies by signing off on deals that they knew – or should have known – were tainted with fraud.

Capital markets executives misled investors about the quality of the borrowers and the loans. Investors lied to themselves – and sometimes their financial backers – about the kinds of toxic mortgage waste they were buying. Much later, it emerged that people working on behalf of some of the nation’s largest banks had perjured themselves by signing false affidavits that sped borrowers into foreclosure.

Rarely do lies simply go out in the world and stand on their own. To have staying power, they require a complex network of ancillary lies and human enablers (sometimes knowing, sometime unwitting) who create a web of falsehood. These tangled webs can drain families’ bank accounts, get people killed, cause great institutions to fall, even help crash an economy.

In his new book, Tangled Webs: How False Statements Are Undermining America, Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist James B. Stewart tells the story of four convicted dissemblers: Martha Stewart, Scooter Libby, Bernie Madoff and Barry Bonds.

The stories he tells, though, are about more than individual liars, or about what he describes as a rising tide of lying under oath – perjury – at the highest levels of business, media, politics, sports and culture. They’re also about complex swirls of untruths that build on one another, confederates who lie to protect the liars from their lies, and people who believe lies or false information because political ideologies or financial incentives predispose them to believe.

On Jan. 28, 2003, President George W. Bush uttered 16 words whose essence was later shown to be false: “The British government has learned that Saddam Hussein recently sought significant quantities of uranium from Africa.”

Those words helped nurture the false impression that Iraq was stockpiling weapons of mass destruction that could be used against Americans, helping to push the U.S. into a war that has yet to end.

The 16 words in question also created one of the biggest scandals of the Bush presidency. Former U.S. diplomat Joseph Wilson accused the Bush administration of ignoring his findings from a fact-finding mission that had convinced him that Iraq hadn’t sought weapons-grade uranium in Africa. In response, some administration officials spread the word that Wilson’s wife, Valerie Plame, worked for the CIA, suggesting she had arranged the African trip as a junket for her husband.

When it became clear that these officials had outed an uncover intelligence operative – a crime under U.S. law – the ensuing investigation produced a number of fuzzy, conflicting and questionable statements from high-level government executives about what they knew, what they’d said and when and why they’d said it.

Libby, Vice President Dick Cheney’s chief of staff, was convicted of lying about his role in leaking Plame’s identity. Libby continues to maintain his innocence. President Bush rescued him from jail time by commuting his sentence.

In trying to make sense of the alleged deceptions by Libby and the other characters in his book, Stewart suggests that America is “on the brink of becoming a society where perjury is the norm.” One assistant U.S. attorney told him that he came to work every day expecting to be lied to; the only question was how well told the lies would be.

While street criminals have always tried to mislead authorities about their activities, Stewart says that prosecutors told him that “a surge of concerted, deliberate lying by a different class of criminal – sophisticated, educated, affluent, and represented in many cases by the best lawyers – threatens to swamp the legal system and undermine the prosecution of white-collar crime.”

Stewart, author of Den of Thieves and other books about politics and business, believes the consequences for our nation and our society could be devastating.

“Lying under oath that goes unproven and unpunished breeds a cynicism that undermines the foundations of any society that aspires to fair play and the rule of law,” he writes. “It undermines civilization itself.”

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