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A cover-up is an attempt, whether successful or not, to conceal evidence of wrongdoing, error, incompetence or other embarrassing information. In a passive cover-up, information is simply not provided; in an active cover-up, deception is used.
The expression is usually applied to people in positions of authority, such as police, who abuse their power to avoid or silence criticism or to deflect guilt of wrongdoing. Those who initiate a cover-up (or their allies) may be responsible for a misdeed, a breach of trust or duty, or a crime.
While the terms are often used interchangeably, cover-up involves withholding incriminatory evidence, while whitewash involves releasing misleading evidence.
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When a scandal breaks, the discovery of an attempt to cover up is often regarded as even more reprehensible than the original deeds.
The mildest case, not quite a cover-up, is simply to release news which could be embarrassing but is not important enough to guarantee attention, at a time when other news is dominating the headlines, or immediately before a holiday or weekend.
Initially a cover-up may require little effort; it will be carried out by those closely involved with the misdeed. Once some hint of the hidden matter starts to become known, the cover-up gradually draws all the top leadership, at least, of an organization into complicity in covering up a misdeed or even crime that may have originally been committed by a few of its members acting independently. This may be regarded as tacit approval of that behaviour.
It is likely that some cover-ups are successful, although by definition this cannot be confirmed. Many fail, however, as more and more people are drawn in and the possibility of exposure makes potential accomplices fearful of supporting the cover-up and as loose ends that may never normally have been noticed start to stand out. As it spreads, the cover-up itself creates yet more suspicious circumstances.
The original misdeed being covered may be relatively minor, such as the "third-rate burglary" which started the Watergate scandal, but the cover-up adds so many additional crimes (obstruction of justice, perjury, payoffs and bribes, in some cases suspicious suicides or outright murder) that the cover-up becomes much more serious than the original crime.
Cover-ups do not necessarily require the active manipulation of facts or circumstances. Arguably the most common form of cover-up is one of non-action. It is the conscious failure to release incriminating information by a third party. This "passive cover-up" is often justified by the motive of not wanting to embarrass the culprit or expose them to criminal prosecution or even the belief that the cover-up is justified by protecting the greater community from scandal. Yet, because of the passive cover-up, the misdeed often goes undiscovered and results in harm to others ensuing from its failure to be discovered. (In Catholic moral theology this would be considered the sin of omission and a mortal sin.)
Real cover-ups are common enough, but any event which is not completely clear is likely to give rise to a thicket of conspiracy theories alleging covering up of sometimes the weirdest and most unlikely conspiracies.
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People, governments, or institutions may try to cover up if
- they are dishonest enough to wish to hide things that they should not conceal (hiding information is not in itself a cover-up);
- and they believe that they can successfully cover up the facts, either by effective concealment or using their authority and power to prevent investigation and publication;
- and they believe that public knowledge of the facts will harm them in some way, from long jail sentences through possible loss of electoral office to mere embarrassment;
- or they would be ridiculed if the truth were known by the public in connection with their inappropriate actions or inaction;
- and they believe that the benefit of a successful cover-up outweighs the risk and harm to them of being caught covering up.
Sometimes an apparently simple and low-risk cover-up grows out of control. For example, an employee may take money covertly from his employer to finance something, in the expectation that (s)he will shortly return it with nobody being the wiser; but the money taken is lost, the employee cannot make good, and must dangerously extend the cover-up. Compulsive gamblers, who irrationally think that they will bet the embezzled money, win, return the stake, and keep their winnings are an example. They will typically steal more, still intending to repay it with winnings, until eventually the shortfall can be concealed no longer. The case of derivatives trader Nick Leeson is similar.
The following list is considered to be a typology since those who engage in cover-ups tend to use many of the same methods of hiding the truth and defending themselves. This list was compiled from famous cover-ups such as Watergate Scandal, Iran-Contra Affair, My Lai Massacre, Pentagon Papers, the cover-up of corruption in New York City under Boss Tweed (William M. Tweed and Tammany Hall) in the late 1800s, and the tobacco industry coverup of the health hazards of smoking. The methods in actual cover-ups tend to follow the general order of the list below.
- Initial response to allegation
- Flat denial
- Convince the media to bury the story
- Preemptively distribute false information
- Claim that the "problem" is minimal
- Claim faulty memory
- Claim the accusations are half-truths
- Claim the critic has no proof
- Attack the critic's motive
- Attack the critic's character
- Withhold or tamper with evidence
- Prevent the discovery of evidence
- Destroy or alter the evidence
- Make discovery of evidence difficult
- Create misleading names of individuals and companies to hide funding
- Lie or commit perjury
- Block or delay investigations
- Issue restraining orders
- Claim executive privilege
- Delayed response to allegation
- Deny a restricted definition of wrongdoing (e.g. torture)
- Limited hang out (i.e., confess to minor charges)
- Use biased evidence as a defense
- Claim that the critic's evidence is biased
- Select a biased blue ribbon commission or "independent" inquiry
- Bribe or buy out the critic
- Generally intimidate the critic by following him or her, killing pets, etc.
- Blackmail: hire private investigators and threaten to reveal past wrongdoing ("dirt")
- Death threats of the critic or his or her family
- Threaten the critic with loss of job or future employment in industry
- Transfer the critic to an inferior job or location
- Intimidate the critic with lawsuits or SLAPP suits
- Murder; assassination
- Publicity management
- Bribe the press
- Secretly plant stories in the press
- Retaliate against hostile media
- Threaten the press with loss of access
- Attack the motives of the press
- Place defensive advertisements
- Buy out the news source
- Damage control
- Claim no knowledge of wrongdoing
- Scapegoats: blame an underling for unauthorized action
- Fire the person(s) in charge
- Win court cases
- Hire the best lawyers
- Hire scientists and expert witnesses who will support your story
- Delay with legal maneuvers
- Influence or control the judges
- Reward cover-up participants
- Hush money
- Little or no punishment
- Pardon or commute sentences
- Promote employees as a reward for cover-up
- Reemploy the employee after dust clears
- The Dreyfus Affair.
- The Iran–Contra affair.
- The Luzhniki disaster.
- The My Lai Massacre.
- The Roman Catholic sex abuse cases of the late 20th and early 21st centuries.
- The Watergate scandal.
Conspiracies to cover up the facts of a number of prominent events have been alleged in the following cases:
- John F. Kennedy assassination 
- Korean Air Lines Flight 007 alternate theories
- M/S Estonia
- New World Order
- Pusztai affair.
- Roswell UFO incident 
- September 11, 2001, terrorist attacks
- Attack on the U.S. diplomatic mission in Benghazi
- UFOs in general
- Mamasapano clash
- Blue Code of Silence
- Media manipulation
- Spin (public relations)
- Whitewash (censorship)
- "Define snow job at dictionary.com". dictionary.com. Retrieved 2013-11-06.
- Herbert Mitgang (1992-05-25). "Books of The Times; Nixon's Enemy in 1950 Had the Last Laugh in '74". The New York Times. Retrieved 2008-04-16.
- The systematic classification of the types of something according to their common characteristics. See Wiktionary.
- Ackerman, K. D. (2005). Boss Tweed: The rise and fall of the corrupt pol who conceived the soul of modern New York. New York: Carroll & Graf Publishers. ISBN 0-7867-1435-2.
- See biography of the whistleblower Jeffrey Wigand
- See also List of whistleblowers.
- "DREYFUS CASE ("L'Affaire Dreyfus")". JewishEncyclopedia.com. Retrieved 2012-03-13.
- Final Report of the Independent Counsel for Iran/Contra Matters (Walsh Report) March 2010.
- Katell, Andrew (10 July 1989). "'82 Moscow Soccer Tragedy Is Exposed". Los Angeles Times. Associated Press. Retrieved 18 February 2012.
- Doug Linder. "The Peers Report on the My Lai Massacre". Law.umkc.edu. Retrieved 2012-03-13.
- "Boston Globe / Spotlight / Abuse in the Catholic Church / Scandal and coverup". The Boston Globe. 2002-01-31. Retrieved 2013-11-10.
- "TRANSCRIPT OF A RECORDING OF A MEETING BETWEEN THE PRESIDENT AND H.R. HALDEMAN IN THE OVAL OFFICE ON JUNE 23, 1972 FROM 10:04 TO 11:39 AM - Watergate Special Prosecution Force" (PDF). Retrieved 2012-03-13.
- Mark Lane (1966). Rush to Judgment: A Critique of the Warren Commission's Inquiry Into the Murders of President John F. Kennedy, Officer J. D. Tippit and Lee Harvey Oswald. Holt Rinehart & Winston
- Henry Hurt (January 1986). Reasonable Doubt: An Investigation into the Assassination of John F. Kennedy. Holt, Rinehart & Winston.
- Michael L. Kurtz (November 2006). The JFK Assassination Debates: Lone Gunman versus Conspiracy. University of Kansas Press
- Rabe, J(2002) Die Estonia: Tragödie eines Schiffsuntergangs, Publisher: Delius Klasing
- Goldberg, Robert Alan (2001). Enemies Within: The Culture of Conspiracy in Modern America. Yale University Press. ISBN 0-300-09000-5.
- Rowell, Andrew (2003). Don't worry, it's safe to eat: the true story of GM food, BSE, & Foot and Mouth. Earthscan. ISBN 1-85383-932-9.
- Dirk Vander Ploeg, Wainfleet, Ontario, Canada. Telephone 905 834-2177, fax 905 312-9312 e-mail email@example.com. "2002 SEALED AFFIDAVIT OF WALTER G. HAUT". Ufodigest.com. Retrieved 2012-03-13.
- "Hypotheses: Principal Alternative Theories of the Attack retrieved March 2010". Stj911.org. Retrieved 2012-03-13.
- "Docs Back Up Claims of Requests for More Security in Benghazi". News.yahoo.com.
- Lawrence Fawcett & Barry J. Greenwood, The UFO Cover-Up (Originally Clear Intent), 1992, Fireside Books (Simon & Schuster), ISBN 0-671-76555-8. Many UFO documents.
- "Critics hit Palace's 'new script' on PNoy's involvement in Mamasapano operation". GMANews.tv.