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A cover-up is an attempt, whether successful or not, to conceal evidence of wrong-doing, error, incompetence or other embarrassing information. The expression is usually applied to people in authority who abuse their power to avoid or silence criticism. Those who cover up (or their allies) may be responsible for a misdeed or wish to silence criticism.
While the terms are often used interchangeably, cover-up involves withholding incriminatory evidence, while whitewash involves releasing misleading evidence.
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 most weird and unlikely conspiracies.
A cover-up need not involve wrong-doing. In a number of countries the incidence of epidemics of contagious diseases is often covered up, either because of national pride or to forestall panic. This is often counter-productive, allowing the disease to spread unchecked when precautions could be taken. AIDS and avian influenza have been covered up in the first few years of the 21st century. In 2006 China has been more open about avian flu, which has helped in dealing with an epizootic.
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;
- 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 Dreyfus Affair
- The Iran–Contra affair
- The My Lai Massacre
- The Plame Affair scandal 
- 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 
- New World Order
- Roswell UFO incident 
- September 11, 2001, terrorist attacks 
- M/S Estonia 
- UFOs in general 
- Korean Air Lines Flight 007 alternate theories
- The Pusztai affair.
- Herbert Mitgang (1992-05-25). "Books of The Times; Nixon's Enemy in 1950 Had the Last Laugh in '74". New York Times. http://query.nytimes.com/gst/fullpage.html?res=9E0CEFDD153FF936A15756C0A964958260&sec=&spon=&pagewanted=all. Retrieved 2008-04-16.
- Final Report of the Independent Counsel for Iran/Contra Matters (Walsh Report) March 2010.
- "Libby's Grand Jury Testimony (PDF)" (PDF). March 24, 2004. http://www.usdoj.gov/usao/iln/osc/exhibits/0207/GX2.pdf.
- The Boston Globe. http://www.boston.com/globe/spotlight/abuse/stories/013102_priests.htm.
- http://www.nixonlibrary.gov/forresearchers/find/tapes/watergate/wspf/741-002.pdf "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
- 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
- Goldberg, Robert Alan (2001). Enemies Within: The Culture of Conspiracy in Modern America. Yale University Press. ISBN 0300090005.
- 2002 SEALED AFFIDAVIT OF WALTER G. HAUT
- Hypotheses: Principal Alternative Theories of the Attack retrieved March 2010
- Rabe, J(2002) Die Estonia: Tragödie eines Schiffsuntergangs, Publisher: Delius Klasing
- 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.
- Rowell, Andrew (2003). Don't worry, it's safe to eat: the true story of GM food, BSE, & Foot and Mouth. Earthscan. ISBN 1853839329.