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The Daily Devil’s Dictionary: CNN Defines “Deniability”

Passing the buck as a political art form.


In a rare act of political candor, CNN digs deep into political culture to reveal a secret “standard” campaign tactic in this report on the Democrats’ commissioning of “opposition research” to discredit Donald Trump during the 2016 election.

“The details of opposition research operations are often kept from the candidate. This is standard operating procedure to protect the candidate, to give them plausible deniability about what is one of the most important, least understood and most maligned elements of modern campaigns.”

Here is its 3D definition:


1. the innate human capacity, used consummately by powerful people, to refuse responsibility for whatever they have done or approved, thanks to the existence of subordinates

2. as used in the expression “plausible deniability,” one of a wide range of acknowledged standard procedures in the rulebook of political parties to make sure that blame for the crimes of their employers will only be placed on subordinates

Contextual note

CNN notes that it’s “possible, of course, that [Hillary Clinton’s campaign manager, John] Podesta didn’t know. But he should have.” “Should” indicates moral or professional obligation. In the art of sloppy investigative journalism, if you haven’t taken the trouble to establish any facts, you can keep the public’s attention and appear to be serious by hinting at the moral or professional failure of the person you are reporting on.

Historical and literary note

Shakespeare can be credited with having devised this tactic as illustrated in Act II, Scene 7 of Antony and Cleopatra, where the wily general Menas, loyal to the Triumvir Pompey, suggests to his candidate for emperor that because his “competitors” are all together having dinner in a boat, he could easily murder them, paving the way to Pompey’s uncontested rule over Rome. Pompey tells him it was an excellent idea, but instructs him on the importance of plausible deniability. Menas should have executed the true intentions of his candidate without asking for approval. Political skullduggery is “good service” when the candidate or — in today’s case, John Podesta, the campaign manager — is not made aware of the act. It is “villainy” if they are.


These three world-sharers, these competitors,
Are in thy vessel: let me cut the cable;
And, when we are put off, fall to their throats:
All there is thine.


Ah, this thou shouldst have done,
And not have spoke on’t! In me ’tis villany;
In thee’t had been good service. Thou must know,
‘Tis not my profit that does lead mine honour;
Mine honour, it. Repent that e’er thy tongue
Hath so betray’d thine act: being done unknown,
I should have found it afterwards well done;
But must condemn it now. Desist, and drink.

*[In the age of Mark Twain and Oscar Wilde, another American wit, the journalist Ambrose Bierce, produced a series of satirical definitions of commonly used terms, throwing light on their hidden meanings in real discourse. Bierce eventually collected and published them as a book, The Devil’s Dictionary, in 1911. We have shamelessly appropriated his title in the interest of continuing his wholesome pedagogical effort to enlighten generations of readers of the news.]

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Fair Observer’s editorial policy.

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