Plausible deniability is the ability to deny any involvement in illegal or unethical activities, because there is no clear evidence to prove involvement. The lack of evidence makes the denial credible, or plausible. The use of the tactic implies forethought, such as intentionally setting up the conditions to plausibly avoid responsibility for one’s future actions.
The term is used both in law and in politics. In politics, plausible deniability usually applies to the practice of keeping the leadership of a large organization uninformed about illicit actions that the organization is carrying out. The leaders then have “plausible deniability” if they are ever questioned about those illicit actions. In other words, they truly don’t know about any illegal actions, and so they are automatically clear of blame.
The term was first coined when the Church Committee, a committee of the US Senate, was investigating US intelligence agencies during the 1970s. The committee found that the CIA had carried out a plot to try and assassinate Cuban leader Fidel Castro; the Church Committee believed that the president was supportive of the action. However, the president was able to plausibly deny any knowledge of the plot against Castro, since he truly had no knowledge of the specifics of the plan.
Of course, the concept of plausible deniability goes back further than the Church Committee. Likewise, the roots of the term also go further back, at least as far as a National Security Council paper which was issued in 1948, during the presidency of Harry Truman. That paper notably defined covert operations as “all activities…which are conducted or sponsored by this Government against hostile foreign states or groups or in support of friendly foreign states or groups but which are so planned and executed that any US Government responsibility for them is not evident to unauthorized persons and that if uncovered the US Government can plausibly disclaim any responsibility for them.”
In modern politics, the term plausible deniability often comes up in discussions of political campaigns. Plausible deniability allows candidates to keep their hands clean when their campaigns, or their supporters, use unsavory campaign tactics and launch dirty attacks against other candidates. For example, some journalists charged that George W Bush’s first presidential campaign deliberately used surrogates in order to smear Bush’s political rivals; by giving the surrogates the dirty work, the campaign escaped public backlash.
Plausible deniability can also refer to a politician’s attempt to test the waters, by quietly trying out how the public might respond to certain acts. In 2015, journalists wrote that Joe Biden wanted to maintain plausible deniability even as he explored a possible White House run. Biden quietly visited certain states and met with certain political power players, without definitively committing himself to throw his hat in the ring. This allowed the former vice president to evaluate his chances of winning the race, without risking the humiliation or loss of faith that could come with trying and failing.
During the Trump administration, some pundits have argued that the president took the concept of plausible deniability to a new level. They argue that the president speaks with a deliberate lack of clarity, implying damaging things but never actually saying them. They believe that the president uses a combination of nonverbal communication, dog whistles, and implication in order to make allegations about his political enemies.