"An ostrich only thinks he 'covers up'."

A cover-up is an attempt, whether successful or not, to conceal evidence of wrongdoing, error, incompetence, or other embarrassing information. Research has distinguished personal cover-ups (covering up one's own misdeeds) from relational cover-ups (covering up someone else's misdeeds).[1]

The expression is usually applied to people in positions of authority who abuse power to avoid or silence criticism or to deflect guilt of wrongdoing. Perpetrators of a cover-up (initiators 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. See also Misprision.

A cover-up involving multiple parties is a type of conspiracy.

Modern usage

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The Ottoman government attempted to ban foreigners from taking photographs such as this one of Armenian genocide victims in an effort to cover up the genocide.[2]

When a scandal breaks, the discovery of an attempt to cover up the truth 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 a lot of effort; but 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.[citation needed]

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.[citation needed] This gave rise to the phrase, "it's not the crime, it's the cover-up".[3]

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. 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.

"Snowjob" is an American and Canadian[4] colloquialism for a deception or a cover-up; for example, Helen Gahagan Douglas described the Nixon Administration as "the greatest snow job in history".[5]


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Old Thirty Nine shaking hands with his good brother the Pope of Italy, or covering up versus sealing up the Bible, 1819 by George Cruikshank. ("39 articles" refers to the Church of England)

The following list is considered to be a typology[6] 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,[7] and the tobacco industry cover-up of the health hazards of smoking.[8] The methods in actual cover-ups tend to follow the general order of the list below.

Initial response to allegation
  1. Flat denial
  2. Convince the media to bury the story
  3. Preemptively distribute false information
  4. Claim that the "problem" is minimal
  5. Claim faulty memory
  6. Claim the accusations are half-truths
  7. Claim the critic has no proof
  8. Attack the critic's motive
  9. Attack the critic's character
Withhold or tamper with evidence
  1. Prevent the discovery of evidence
  2. Destroy or alter the evidence
  3. Make discovery of evidence difficult
  4. Create misleading names of individuals and companies to hide funding
  5. Lie or commit perjury
  6. Block or delay investigations
  7. Issue restraining orders
  8. Claim executive privilege
Delayed response to allegation
  1. Deny a restricted definition of wrongdoing (e.g. torture)
  2. Limited hang out[9](i.e., confess to minor charges)
  3. Use biased evidence as a defense
  4. Claim that the critic's evidence is biased
  5. Select a biased blue ribbon commission or "independent" inquiry
Intimidate participants, witnesses or whistleblowers[10]
  1. Bribe or buy out the critic
  2. Generally intimidate the critic by following him or her, killing pets, etc.
  3. Blackmail: hire private investigators and threaten to reveal past wrongdoing ("dirt")
  4. Death threats of the critic or his or her family
  5. Threaten the critic with loss of job or future employment in industry
  6. Transfer the critic to an inferior job or location
  7. Intimidate the critic with lawsuits or SLAPP suits
  8. Murder; assassination
Publicity management
  1. Bribe the press
  2. Secretly plant stories in the press
  3. Retaliate against hostile media
  4. Threaten the press with loss of access
  5. Attack the motives of the press
  6. Place defensive advertisements
  7. Buy out the news source
Damage control
  1. Claim no knowledge of wrongdoing
  2. Scapegoats: blame an underling for unauthorized action
  3. Fire the person(s) in charge
Win court cases
  1. Hire the best lawyers
  2. Hire scientists and expert witnesses who will support your story
  3. Delay with legal maneuvers
  4. Influence or control the judges
Reward cover-up participants
  1. Hush money
  2. Little or no punishment
  3. Pardon or commute sentences
  4. Promote employees as a reward for cover-up
  5. Reemploy the employee after dust clears

In criminal law

Depending on the nature of cover-up activities, they may constitute a crime in certain jurisdictions. Perjury is considered a crime in virtually all legal systems. Likewise, obstruction of justice, that is, any activity that aims to cover-up another crime, is itself a crime in many legal systems. The United States has the crime of making false statements to a federal agent in the context of any matter within the federal jurisdiction, which includes not only providing misleading statements but also the withholding of information.


Front page of the newspaper L’Aurore of Thursday 13 January 1898, with the famous open letter J'Accuse…! written by Émile Zola to the President of France about the Dreyfus Affair. The headline reads "I accuse! Letter to the President of the Republic". See J'accuse...!, the whole text on Wikisource

Alleged cover-ups

Conspiracy theories generally include an allegation of a cover-up of the facts of some prominent event. Examples include:

See also


  1. ^ Kundro, Timothy (2021). "Understanding When and Why Cover-Ups Are Punished Less Severely". Academy of Management Journal. 64 (3): 873–900. doi:10.5465/amj.2018.1396. S2CID 218805378.
  2. ^ Akçam, Taner (2018). Killing Orders: Talat Pasha's Telegrams and the Armenian Genocide. Springer. p. 157. ISBN 978-3-319-69787-1.
  3. ^ Carlson, Margaret (23 October 2019). "With Trump, It's Not the Cover-Up. It's the Crime". The Daily Beast. Retrieved 29 December 2020.
  4. ^ "Define snow job at dictionary.com". dictionary.com. Retrieved 6 November 2013.
  5. ^ Herbert Mitgang (25 May 1992). "Books of The Times; Nixon's Enemy in 1950 Had the Last Laugh in '74". The New York Times. Retrieved 16 April 2008.
  6. ^ The systematic classification of the types of something according to their common characteristics. See Wiktionary.
  7. ^ 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.
  8. ^ See biography of the whistleblower Jeffrey Wigand
  9. ^ McGrory, Mary (25 April 2002). "From Rome, A 'Limited Hangout'". Washington Post. Retrieved 29 June 2017.
  10. ^ See also List of whistleblowers.
  11. ^ "DREYFUS CASE ("L'Affaire Dreyfus")". JewishEncyclopedia.com. Retrieved 13 March 2012.
  12. ^ Dadrian, Vahakn N. (2003). "The signal facts surrounding the Armenian genocide and the Turkish denial syndrome". Journal of Genocide Research. 5 (2): 269–279. doi:10.1080/14623520305671. S2CID 71289389. First, there are the organized attempts to cover up the record of past atrocities. The nearest successful example in the modern era is the 80 years of official denial by successive Turkish governments of the 1915–17 genocide against the Armenians in which some 1.5 million people lost their lives. This denial has been sustained by deliberate propaganda, lying and coverups, forging documents, suppression of archives, and bribing scholars.
  13. ^ Sterio, Milena (2011). "Katyn Forest Massacre: Of Genocide, State Lies, and Secrecy". Case Western Reserve Journal of International Law. 44: 615.
  14. ^ Final Report of the Independent Counsel for Iran/Contra Matters (Walsh Report) March 2010.
  15. ^ Katell, Andrew (10 July 1989). "'82 Moscow Soccer Tragedy Is Exposed". Los Angeles Times. Associated Press. Retrieved 18 February 2012.
  16. ^ Schmemann, Serge (29 April 1986). "Soviet Announces Nuclear Accident at Electric Plant". The New York Times. p. A1. Archived from the original on 27 April 2014. Retrieved 26 April 2014.
  17. ^ Doug Linder. "The Peers Report on the My Lai Massacre". Law.umkc.edu. Archived from the original on 15 November 2008. Retrieved 13 March 2012.
  18. ^ "Boston Globe / Spotlight / Abuse in the Catholic Church / Scandal and coverup". The Boston Globe. 31 January 2002. Retrieved 10 November 2013.
  19. ^ "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). Archived from the original (PDF) on 28 May 2010. Retrieved 13 March 2012.
  20. ^ Ostlere, Lawrence (9 December 2016). "McLaren report: more than 1,000 Russian athletes involved in doping conspiracy". The Guardian. London.
  21. ^ 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
  22. ^ Henry Hurt (January 1986). Reasonable Doubt: An Investigation into the Assassination of John F. Kennedy. Holt, Rinehart & Winston.
  23. ^ Michael L. Kurtz (November 2006). The JFK Assassination Debates: Lone Gunman versus Conspiracy. University of Kansas Press
  24. ^ Rabe, J(2002) Die Estonia: Tragödie eines Schiffsuntergangs, Publisher: Delius Klasing
  25. ^ Goldberg, Robert Alan (2001). Enemies Within: The Culture of Conspiracy in Modern America. Yale University Press. ISBN 0-300-09000-5.
  26. ^ 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.
  27. ^ Dirk Vander Ploeg, Wainfleet, Ontario, Canada. "2002 SEALED AFFIDAVIT OF WALTER G. HAUT". Ufodigest.com. Archived from the original on 14 March 2012. Retrieved 13 March 2012.((cite web)): CS1 maint: multiple names: authors list (link)
  28. ^ "Hypotheses: Principal Alternative Theories of the Attack retrieved March 2010". Stj911.org. Retrieved 13 March 2012.
  29. ^ "Docs Back Up Claims of Requests for More Security in Benghazi". News.yahoo.com.
  30. ^ 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.
  31. ^ "Critics hit Palace's 'new script' on PNoy's involvement in Mamasapano operation". GMANews.tv.
  32. ^ Thompson, Stuart A. (16 February 2023). "'Chernobyl 2.0'? Ohio Train Derailment Spurs Wild Speculation". The New York Times. ISSN 0362-4331. Retrieved 20 February 2023.
  33. ^ Merlan, Anna (13 February 2023). "The Conspiracy-Verse Thinks "Fake UFOs" Are a Distraction From a Disastrous Train Derailment". Vice News. Retrieved 20 February 2023.