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Plausible Deniability

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Number four: If they don't reach a peace, that's alright:
Time to get some pistols and a Doctor on site!
You pay him in advance, you treat him with civility
(You have him turn around so he can have deniability)
— "Ten Duel Commandments," Hamilton

Plausible Deniability is when a person's involvement or culpability in an event might be denied, or at least mitigated, by creating a situation where they can claim ignorance or an inability to act. This typically involves having an official policy against such a situation or at least preventing a paper trail connecting them directly to that event. It doesn't matter if they are the King, President, Prime Minister or CEO, they can claim they were Locked Out of the Loop. Suspiciously Specific Denial is common, an analyst may not have given them a complete record or they used any random word other than "assassination," but Facial Dialogue says otherwise and to everyone on the inside the scope of events is an Open Secret.

According to Wikipedia, the term was "coined by the CIA in the early 1960s to describe the withholding of information from senior officials in order to protect them from repercussions in the event that illegal or unpopular activities by the CIA became public knowledge." The scope of the term has broadened since then.

While intended in the context of more serious affairs, the term can refer to any number of trivial matters in sufficiently large organizations, allowing leadership to avoid any blame while being able to pass consequences on to The Scapegoat. Speaking at San Diego Comic-Con, prolific comic book writer, Len Wein explained the lack of original films, and the large number of sequels, prequel and spin-offs as well as adaptations of novels, comics, TV shows, video games and older movies, is because Hollywood "runs on the principle of plausible deniability," and that if studio executives can point to a good reason why they green-lit a turkey, it would be more plausible to deny their bad judgement by pointing to the property's existing market.

This is also a reason to use a Diplomatic Back Channel to have discussions with another nation you'd rather not come to light. Instead of public visits and negotiations, it involves a friend-of-a-friend string of people who just happen to be able to pass messages back and forth.

Plausible deniability is often used to make it seem like fantastic events within a series could be taking place in the real world, by hiding the evidence so that most of the in-world population could deny that the events are happening — we call that a Secret History. Frequently takes the form of Stepping Out for a Quick Cup of Coffee. Contrast Implausible Deniability, where you try to do this, but your statement can't be believed in the least.


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    Anime and Manga 
  • Subverted big time in Kashimashi: Girl Meets Girl: no one will let Hazumu keep anything a secret even though early on she tries. The aliens announce what they did to her, and when she tries to hide Jan-puu the next morning she goes downstairs to discover her friend having breakfast with her parents.
  • At first Gainax's anime Nadia: The Secret of Blue Water seemed to use this trope. It took place in 1889 and features remnants of Atlantean civilization fighting a covert war right under the world's nose, without seeming to affect history in any way. However, apparently at the end of the series they just said "screw it" and have a giant flying saucer blow up the Eiffel Tower, a 1/4 of Paris, and project giant holograms all over the world.
  • Maintaining Plausible Deniability is one of the main conflicts of the Haruhi Suzumiya series. Itsuki (and, to a lesser extent, Kyon) likes the world the way it is, and makes it one of his goals to keep Haruhi's Reality Warping from changing things too much.
  • The Transformers series of various stripes tend to use this a lot. Especially Robots In Disguise, where one character is pretty sure she's going insane simply because all these strange things she seems to wind up in the middle of can't possibly be happening.
    • Oddly enough, given that "Robots in Disguise" is a series catchphrase, the Transformers rarely stay hidden and have usually outed themselves to humans within the first couple of episodes/issues in each continuity.
    • One notable aversion to this is the Ladybird books from the 80s, where both sides take pains not to be discovered. In one story, the Decepticons set up camp in an abandoned warehouse in an industrial zone, and the Autobots hold off attacking until a long weekend when the place will be deserted. Furthermore, after the Decepticons are driven off, the Autobots repair all the damage done in the fight, leaving the place as good as new. And then have to come back and knock a wall back down, because that particular wall was already knocked down.
  • Fullmetal Alchemist:
    • The page image is Edward Elric about to turn coal into gold using alchemy, which is illegal in their country, and asking his brother Alphonse to look away. He turns it back to coal later, after using it to deceive a criminal.
    • When Lieutenant Hawkeye and Sergeant Fuery are engaged on a covert and very unauthorized mission to investigate potential wrongdoing within their own military government. Their superior Colonel Mustang is blocks away in his office, but in contact with them by phone (covering by pretending to chat with his girlfriend) and consequently hears it when they're attacked by a powerful opponent. He immediately rushes out to help them and ends up saving their lives — which prompts Hawkeye to call him an idiot and berate him for destroying his deniability, as, even if they had died, he could have claimed no knowledge of their actions and led the military to believe they were acting on their own. This being Mustang, he doesn't particularly care, although he acknowledges his actions as objectively stupid in terms of personal risk.
  • In the anime/manga of The Heroic Legend of Arslan, corrupted governor Pelagius provided several excuses why he cannot provide troops and supplies for the war effort against Lusitania, including that he has been dealing with pirate threats. Arslan's group didn't believe him ... until they saw a pirate attack on a merchant ship in broad daylight and right at the harbor.
  • In Heavy Object, the Capitalist Enterprise is aggressively repopulating Great White sharks around the Hawaii islands, ostensibly to harvest their fins. In reality, the Enterprise is trying to run a secret program on Hawaii and the tourist industry makes it easy for spies to sneak in. The increase in shark attacks will help depress tourism while also serving as an easy excuse whenever the Enterprise needs to eliminate somebody without drawing attention.
  • Kaitou Saint Tail: Sympathetic Inspector Antagonist Asuka Jr. does actually consider the idea of Meimi being Phantom Thief Saint Tail from very early on in the series, but because he doesn't want to accuse a classmate of being a criminal, he ignores the signs. This works while the evidence is still fairly weak, but once he accidentally sees Meimi in her reflection, he starts clinging harder and harder to any explanation he can get while unconsciously developing an obsession with getting to the bottom of this himself. He's able to do this as long as it still involves things like "her having a plush toy that just happens to look like Saint Tail's hedgehog", but he finally hits his limit when he starts sensing the same aura from both of them, which drives him over the edge so much that he has a Love Epiphany because of how much this problem has been nagging at him.
  • Mobile Suit Gundam: The Witch from Mercury: Gundams are illegal because they kill their users; Delling had them all destroyed in a massacre years ago. Therefore, no one can actually prove that Suletta's Mobile Suit is a Gundam, as it quite observably is not causing any harm to her. Furthermore, she's never heard the word "Gundam" before, so she can honestly say that her Mobile Suit isn't one. This almost fails anyway, because Delling doesn't actually care about the actual laws, he just hates anything to do with Gundams and will destroy anything even suspected of being related.

    Comic Books 
  • In most continuities, Batman tends to prefer that ordinary people think of him this way; the majority of regular folks in the DCU (outside of Gotham, anyway) tend to think he's a myth, so as to avoid scrutiny from law enforcement outside of Gotham.
    • Jim Gordon has made a point of not looking into who Batman is under the mask, using excuses to explain why he might not know who Batman is under the mask, and intentionally going out of his way to not find out who Batman is under the mask. It's quite clear that he knows damn well that it's Bruce Wayne (and Bruce knows he knows), but as long as Gordon has those reasons why he might not know, he doesn't have to explain why he doesn't go after Bruce those times Batman is wanted for one reason or another.
  • Iron Man: Back when Tony Stark still maintained a secret identity, he could easily explain Iron Man's quick arrival in response to threats to Tony's life thanks to the fact Iron Man was publicly his bodyguard. Likewise, no one who worked for Stark would question Iron Man's presence in any of their facilities since he's also Tony's employee and Tony occasionally dispatched him to oversee particularly important operations.
  • In the first Suicide Squad series, Shade the Changing Man told about an incredibly confusing conspiracy that was going on in his home dimension. When Shade and the Squad confronted the conspirators on Earth, one of the Squad members asked what to do when the police arrived. Shade replied to tell the police the truth and they will brush it off as a delusional fantasy.
    • The Squad itself gets its nicknamenote  because of this trope.
    • At a Congressional hearing, Waller is asked about the difference of the Squad and Task Force X. At the time, the Task Force also included Checkmate who were still secret. Waller covered by claiming it was the same thing and "it's easier to get funding for something called a Task Force than a Suicide Squad."
    • The in-universe point of the Suicide Squad is that Boxed Crook supercriminals are deniable and expendable. Should they get caught or killed, the US Government can deny that they had anything to do with the actions of a group of convicted felons who broke out of a supermax prison.
  • In the first Resurrection Man series (taking place in the DC Universe), the title character confronted a bunch of mobsters and crooked cops while appearing in a monster-like form. One of the witnesses was later confined to a mental institution for reporting what she saw.
  • Superman: This was one of Lex Luthor's greatest weapons back when he was a Corrupt Corporate Executive. Lex could pull all of these stunts to try to kill Superman and when they all inevitably failed, he always had a way to mitigate his involvement, as seen in Man of Steel #5.

    Fan Works 
  • The Amazing Spider-Luz in: Across the Owl-Verse!: After Amity uses the human magic she's learned to defeat Grom, Bump has her claim that Eda taught it to her, since the Emperor's Coven firmly denies that magic exists on Earth, and if he has her claim that Eda taught it to her, he won't have to tell the Emperor's Coven about it.
  • A Darker Path: After "Atropos" publicly claims responsibility for killing Shadow Stalker, there's a private discussion between the PRT director and deputy, where they officially decide to discount her confession and maintain the previous theory about the Empire 88 being responsible. Why? Because Atropos has shown herself to be unreasonably effective at bypassing security to kill her targets, and investigating the students at the school to see who has a motive would risk outing her civilian identity and putting the PRT in her crosshairs.
    "I find that hard to believe." Renick should've been a star of stage or screen, from the way he delivered the line straight-faced. "I doubt very much any investigation would find even one student with a motive for harming Shadow Stalker at that school."
    • To be fair, it could be simply splitting extremely fine hairs - almost no student at the school knows that the civilian bully Sophia Hess is also the superpowered "hero" Shadow Stalker, and the two who did didn't want to harm her. Even Atropos/Taylor didn't know until she was most of the way through killing Sophia - she didn't fight Sophia with a motive for harming 'Shadow Stalker', technically.
  • In Just Before the Dawn, Battle-Master Gilias is in Equestria as a neutral observer. In reality, the griffons have sent her to train the Equestrian army in fighting deer, under the guise of plausible deniabliity.
  • In one story arc of the Dragon Age: Inquisition High School AU series Skyhold Academy Yearbook, it's outright stated that the rest of the teachers know that Varric and Mahanon are up to something... but most of them don't know what, and don't want to know for this exact reason.
  • A big part of Harriett Potter keeping secrets from her family in The Rigel Black Chronicles is that in the event of everything going wrong, she doesn't want them to go down with her. She even sets up a whole fake identity — housing, employment, correspondence schooling — partly in hopes of concealing her attendance at Hogwarts if Archie's ruse gets out, but largely so that there's a plausible excuse for her family not knowing what she was up to.
  • Harry Potter in Victimizing Viktor successfully removes Viktor Krum from the Triwizard Tournament by convincing him to make a luck potion to score a date with Hermione then having his potion sabotaged. When questioned with Veritaserum, Harry responds that he didn't sabotage the potion nor does he know who did. However, Harry does know the potion was sabotaged and knows Blaise Zabini got someone else to do it, even if he doesn't know who.
  • White Sheep (RWBY): While at her father's party, Weiss has a nice, public dance with General Ironwood... while Emerald manipulates things in the background to expose Weiss' brother Whitley as the stupid creep he is. About halfway through, Ironwood realizes that Weiss is establishing an alibi, laughs, and continues dancing with her. Later, Weiss' father makes it clear that he knows she did something, but he approves of the fact that there's nothing that can be traced back to her.
  • In Harry and the Shipgirls Haruto Hinata is fully aware that food and supplies are being smuggled into the Ryuku Yokai Reserve and that his girlfriends are part of the operation. He goes to great pains to avoid learning any details, because if he doesn't know any details, he can never be forced to spill the beans.
  • In the first story of the Facing the Future Series, when Jazz realizes that Sam is about to recreate Danny's accident with the ghost portal in order to give herself ghost powers, she turns around and closes her eyes and tells Sam to do it before she changes her mind.

    Films — Live-Action 
  • In Batman Begins, Wayne Enterprises applied science head Lucius Fox invokes this when Bruce Wayne becomes concerned that his increasingly "unusual requests" for materials for his prototype Batsuit may cause Fox to out him: "Mr Wayne, if you don't want to tell me exactly what you're doing - when I'm asked, I don't have to lie. But don't think of me as an idiot."
  • Blind Fury: Annie initially goes to great lengths to avoid finding out exactly what the Big Bad is forcing Frank to do and what means he's using, even if she has some suspicions.
  • The movie Men in Black (and the later animated series) gives our heroes the neuralyzer, a device to clear peoples' memories of a given event that had transpired concerning aliens. Theoretically, this gives them the power of "plausible deniability" beyond belief, although their excuses aren't always so plausible.
  • In Independence Day. The Secretary of Defense has kept the existence of a recovered spaceship and alien corpses at Area 51 a secret even from the President, so that if anyone would ask, the President can never be caught lying and accidentally reveal it. Which is exactly what happens in the movie, when the President rebuts Julius Levinson's accusation of a cover-up.
    President Whitmore: [later, when at Area 51] Why the hell wasn't I told about this place?
    Secretary Nimziki: Two Words, Mr. President. Plausible Deniability.
  • In Lord of War, it's revealed in the end that Yuri acts as a middleman for the US Government, selling arms to governments and groups that the US doesn't want to be publicly associated with. Even though this effectively gives him a "Get Out of Jail Free" Card, Yuri bleakly wonders when his benefactors will decide that he's no longer useful to them.
  • National Treasure: The first film features a scene where Ben Gates asks his father for help with finding a clue. When the latter finds out the former stole the Declaration of Independence, Ben leaves his father Bound and Gagged for the FBI to find. That way they won't think he willingly helped Ben.
  • The Insider refers to the "standard tobacco 'we don't know' defense" — basically, as long as tobacco executives can say that there's even a little doubt that cigarettes cause lung cancer, they can keep selling their product and raking in billions.
  • Cruising, made and set in 1970's New York, has several scenes where a tall, silent, muscular black man dressed only in a jockstrap and a cowboy hat walks into a police interrogation room and slaps bewildered suspects around. The detectives in the scenes make no comment and don't even seem to notice him. The beauty of this arrangement is that the suspects get roughed up and the cops don't lay a finger on them. And if the suspects put in a complaint, well, who's going to believe such a crazy story? Apparently this was Truth in Television at the time.
  • In The Deserter, General Miles cannot send US troops across the Mexican border to strike at the Apache stronghold without sparking an international incident, so he instead assembles a small squad that will be sent out in mufti to make a surgical strike, and who can be denied if caught.
  • The Milagro Beanfield War: When shady state police official Kyril Montana (who has been sent to stop Joe without arresting him) and his allies discuss how Joe will lose his cow if it goes onto Forest Service land, Montana excuses himself from the room and lets the others figure out how to illegally move Joe's cow from one field to the other.
  • Transformers: Revenge of The Fallen features this; apparently, the battle in Mission City at the end of the first film was covered up extremely efficiently. The official cover story is that the Transformers were experimental combat robots that went berserk, a story that is bolstered by the fact plenty of witnesses saw US Military personnel fighting against the "berserk robots".
  • A Discussed Trope in the political satire Wrong is Right (see Quotes) but averted, as before carrying out a Presidential order to assassinate a Middle Eastern king who's supplying Weapons of Mass Destruction to terrorists, the CIA director insists the President give a direct order which he secretly records.

  • Ascendance of a Bookworm: Because of getting a punishment for a semi-accidental act of betrayal on their former mayor's part, a town named Hasse keeps the "festival" part of its Harvest Festival on the down low the second time Rozemyne visits it to collect taxes. Rozemyne however realizes that not giving the hotter heads in the town an opportunity to blow off steam may cause another unfortunate incident over the following winter. Knowing that the town usually has a Fictional Sport tournament that is among the things that were cancelled, she tells the new mayor that she needs to discuss official matters with him in his office for a few hours and might not notice anything going on outside during that time, no matter how loud it gets.
  • The Dresden Files:
    • As The Spymaster for Heaven, "Mr. Sunshine," aka the Archangel Uriel, is seldom seen operating openly, instead mostly using Batman Gambits to counter the forces of evil, or else helping people on the sly.
    • This is also how the Masquerade in general works- supernatural beings aren't really worried about individual humans, but no one wants to mess with them en masse, especially since humans started working with Cold Iron. Therefore, they generally make sure that any explicitly supernatural business takes place away from the public eye, and it helps that a) magic tends to mess up any electronics made after WWII, and b) people have an incredible capacity for self-deception.
    • In Peace Talks, Queen Mab orders Harry to grant two favours to Lara Raith on her behalf, with the strong implication that any request that could reflect poorly on Mab should not be linked back to her. Harry exploits this, convincing Mab to cooperate with one of his schemes by warning her that it's in her best interest not to know what he's doing.
  • Earth's Children: At the end of The Clan of the Cave Bear, as Ayla is walking away from the cave after being cursed with death, she looks back one last time and sees Brun watching her. Brun raises his arm in a way that would reasonably look like he was just stretching or scratching his nose to others, but Ayla realizes he's subtly making the Clan's hand signal for "Walk with Ursus" to her; Brun can't be more open about it as acknowledging someone cursed is taboo, but he still shows Ayla what support he can.
  • Thanks to memory charms, non-magical people (Muggles), do not know about about wizards and witches in Harry Potter.
    • There are major implied loopholes in the magical legal system where someone could avoid consequences or testifying by claiming to be compelled or mind-wiped (or actually charming yourself to know nothing about something), but it's never explored, with only a mention that some dark wizards got off through claiming they had been Brainwashed.
    • These loopholes go both ways, as in the wizarding courts a lack of evidence proves nothing. A number of completely innocent people are thrown in prison with either no trial or a blatantly unfair show trial where they have no opportunity to defend themselves; the difference appears to up to the whims of the court.
  • In The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy, there is a galaxy-wide system of government, and the only reason we don't know about it is that we aren't as advanced as everyone else yet. In fact, there are a few aliens living on Earth, and a handful of humans know about them, but they have no connection to any Earth government. And the Earth has been blown up on one occasion, but it (and everyone on it) has been replaced with the same memories up until shortly before the world ends, so nobody remembers it.
  • The Left Hand of Darkness: When Genly and Estraven receive Sacred Hospitality from a remote village, they and their hosts have an oblique conversation about how an honorable man could become outlawed for irrelevant reasons, never giving their names. The hosts obviously accept that they're fugitives, but to know that Estraven is an infamous exile would make them legally culpable.
  • Averted in Charles Stross's multiple-parallel-universe The Merchant Princes Series. For the first few books, everything could plausibly be going on under our noses, with strange events being passed off as hoaxes or terrorist attacks. He blows the lid off the masquerade at the end of book five when a dissident faction nukes Washington D.C. (also, it's revealed in passing that the main universe isn't ours, but a slightly different one-in which, for example, Saddam Hussein is killed in a coup just before the U.S. invasion).
  • In the Percy Jackson series, a magical force called the Mist shifts events involving demigods into something more mundane that Muggles can process. Sometimes, this is more like a Perception Filter, and sometimes gets extreme.
  • From A Song of Ice and Fire, this is Lord Roose Bolton's life philosophy. The reality is that he is almost as much of a sadistic monster as his son, Ramsay, he's just far, far better at hiding it. He will indulge in subtle acts of cruelty, but always in ways that can be taken back or denied. If he can find a way to maintain Plausible Deniability for more heinous actions (including enforcing his "quiet people" rule more forcefully), then all bets are off.
    Roose Bolton: 'A peaceful land, a quiet people.' That has always been my rule, make it yours!
  • In the classic science fiction story "What's the Name of That Town?" by R. A. Lafferty, Chicago has been destroyed in an unspecified catastrophe. The event was so traumatic that the very existence of the city has been wiped from historical records and everyone's memory. A sentient computer figures out the truth from a collection of disconnected clues, but the moment it has finished telling the real story to its human companions, the facts instantly once again disappear from everybody's mind and the computer's database.

    Live-Action TV 
  • In an early episode of Law & Order, Stone prods Schiff to allow him to press charges in a controversial case, which leads Schiff to ask, "Are you looking for plausible deniability? Since when do I dictate to you?"
  • Recordings briefing the protagonists in Mission: Impossible are passed by dead drops or Spy Speak exchanges with otherwise uniformed people, and include the line saying, "Should you or any member of your IM force be caught or killed, the Secretary will disavow any knowledge of your actions."
  • Star Trek has had some bizarre run-ins with Plausible Deniability as a result of the original series's occasional mentions of late-20th-century "history". The intercontinental war of the 1990s is suspiciously absent from Flashback and Time Travel episodes of Star Trek: Voyager, and Star Trek: Deep Space Nine appeared to have retconned that war into the late 21st century, though Star Trek: Enterprise finally gave up and admitted that the 1990s of the Trek Verse differ massively from those of our universe (one difference is that apparently there was no TV show called ''Star Trek'' in the Trek Verse, as evidenced by the Enterprise crew walking around San Francisco in The Voyage Home without being mobbed for autographs... of course, this means that the Enterprise was named after the Space Shuttle, which means, in turn, the Space Shuttle must've been named after nothing in particular any of eight ships in the US Navy).
    • The Spin-Off novel series Star Trek: The Eugenics Wars makes a heroic attempt to explain how the Eugenics Wars could have taken place in the real 1990s without anyone noticing (it still has Khan ruling part of India openly, which obviously did not happen, but the rest takes place behind the scenes). The comic book Star Trek: Khan later did away with that.
    • In the Star Trek: The Original Series episode "The Enterprise Incident", Captain Kirk is tasked with obtaining the most recent version of a Romulan cloaking device for Starfleet to study. The plan to get him close to one boils down to Kirk taking the Enterprise into the Neutral Zone to get himself captured by a Romulan warship. Since violating the Neutral Zone considered an act of war, Kirk spends a few weeks very publicly acting like a lunatic. This gave the Federation room to claim that Kirk was a rogue captain who'd snapped under pressure, and any actions taken by him were absolutely not authorized by Starfleet Command if something went wrong with the plan.
    • Section 31 started out this way when it was originally introduced in DS9 (and briefly during Enterprise), functioning as a means of conducting illegal operations without drawing the attention of the more high-minded elements of Starfleet who might turn whistleblower. The agents orchestrating these events could be disavowed if they were ever caught without implicating whoever in the chain of command authorized their operations. Discovery did away with this, making Section 31 more of a traditional organization (complete with their own insignia and military hardware) that is differentiated from the rest of Starfleet by their exemption from oversight. This is lampshaded in the Star Trek: Lower Decks episode "Paradoxus" when William Boimler is given a black Section 31 combadge during his induction and questions why a super-secret group would wear such distinctive identifying symbols.
    • In the Star Trek: Deep Space Nine episode "The Way of the Warrior", the crew realize the Klingons are going to invade Cardassia on the belief the Founders have taken it over. As the Klingons and the Federation are allies, Sisko is told he can't warn the Cardassians despite how this can spark a full-scale war. Sisko has Garak (who everyone knows is a former—and in all likelihood current—Cardassian agent) be on hand fitting Sisko for a suit as he and the crew discuss the invasion. Sure enough, Garak is instantly on the wire to Gul Dukat, claiming his "sources" have warned him of the invasion. As Garak is known to have plenty of shady contacts, Starfleet can assume he just found out on its own as it's not like Sisko would just openly discuss this in front of a Cardassian tailor...right?
      • As a Consummate Liar and DS9's resident Magnificent Bastard, plausible deniability is a lifestyle choice for Mr. Garak. He never takes any action—no matter how mundane—without having a mostly plausible cover story to dissemble his true motivations.
  • War of the Worlds (1988) takes the unusual stand that most of humanity simply doesn't remember the massive and very public invasion of the 1950s. There's no major government coverup, and most humans could probably find out about it if they really tried, but most people just find alien invasions too far outside their normal sensibilities to think about it very much.
  • Power Rangers rarely bothers with Plausible Deniability, but there are a few oddball examples of trying to shoehorn it in: in "Trakeena's Revenge", a receptionist tells a small girl that there's no such thing as monsters, even though they've been attacking the city weekly for months and other cities for several years. In "Prelude To A Storm", Tori thinks the Power Rangers are fictional, even though they're major cultural icons by this point. (The producer later explained that he just thought the line was funny and didn't mean for fans to take it so seriously.) It happens again in Power Rangers Megaforce, wherein the characters are in awe of the existence of Power Rangers and that there are aliens invading, despite the fact that aliens have been invading and repelled by Power Rangers on a weekly basis for the last twenty years.
    • When they crossed over with the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, each team thought the other wasn't real.
    • There are other times where they go in expressly the opposite direction and make it clear that everyone knows about the Power Rangers and that, yes, all these Power Ranger series have existed in the same universe with the exception of RPM and possibly SPD which are in the future anyway, which is what makes it even more jarring when the series tries to pretend no one knows what a Power Ranger is.
  • The entire nine-year run of The X-Files depends on the creators' abilities to maintain this trope.
  • Stargate SG-1 does this a lot. It makes sense for the public to not know about the Stargate Program itself, which is a secret government project, but fleets of alien ships attacking Earth (which should be seen by astronomers, at least) and strange events up to the teleportation of a whole building into space somehow are never noticed (with that last one, the media even mentions that no explosion was heard and no rubble was seen, but they can't figure out what did happen).
    • Astronomers DO see the alien ships, but the government tells elaborate cover stories, and most people choose to believe the stories and think that they misinterpreted what they saw other than accept the reality that aliens do exist. The ones who don't turn conspiracy-theorist and attract the attention of the government, who in that case tell them the truth and have them sign a confidentiality agreement.
    • Actually the fact that someone saw the battle (and is blackmailing the government with its existence) is the plot of one episode.
    • And then there's the time an amateur astronomer spots an asteroid on a collision course with earth and is trying to convince a switchboard operator to transfer him to somebody in authority when big cars with tinted windows pulls up and men in suits and sunglasses come pouring out.
      "Never mind."
    • Though given the vast number of people that now know about the Stargate program (it's been leaked on TV by a then-discredited-media mogul, all the Permanent Members of the UN Security Council have been informed, including China, who have explicitly said they have no intention of keeping the USA's secret; an entire US Carrier group was sent to deal with Anubis' attack on Earth (and the carrier and cruiser were destroyed, as was possibly the rest of the battlegroup), good luck on explaining that one away (over 8,000 personnel, and over 150,000 tons of equipment)); they were partly responsible for the forced resignation of the US Vice President Kinsey; not to mention all the random "ordinary" people who've been involved in one episode or other) it's frankly ridiculous that the story hasn't got out yet.
    • What about all the US military personnel stationed offworld? Why hasn't someone noticed that the number of troops shipped out to say Iraq or Afghanistan is not equal to the number of troops that actually exist? Not to mention how to explain away all the casualties caused by the Monster of the Week.
    • Speaking of astronomers, some of them really should have noticed that the outside universe "jumped" forward in time several months, because the earth, and several other stars, looped in time for that amount. We don't know how big that effect was, but it's been several years, so unless the "bubble" included neighboring stars, light from outside it should have already hit the earth. It did include neighboring stars, so perhaps the light since then from the stars that weren't in the bubble hasn't reached Earth yet, in which case it wouldn't become an issue for decades, or possibly centuries.
    • General Landry mentions that this is why the military allows the production of "Wormhole X-Treme!", the Show Within a Show in Stargate that is basically the plot of the actual show. If it airs on television as a sci-fi show, why would people believe that it's actually real?
  • In Sabrina the Teenage Witch, the Witches Council had a rule that witches (and other magical beings) were not allowed to let mortals know the existence of witches and magic. With a few exceptions, mortals who somehow found out either underwent Laser-Guided Amnesia-or were made to believe that what they experienced was All Just a Dream.
  • Lampshaded and Played for Laughs in one episode of NUMB3RS, when Liz walks in on a planning session for an almost certainly illegal CalSci prank.
  • Buffy the Vampire Slayer: Gangs on PCP ("School Hard"), gas leaks ("Bad Eggs"), outbreak of laryngitis ("Hush"), "Mayhem Ensues: Monsters Definitely Not Involved" ("Once More, with Feeling"). It helps that everyone suffers from Weirdness Censor.
    • "I must've fallen on a barbecue fork..."
    • Sunnydale at least has a good reason for such a strong cloak of secrecy: the Mayor/s Wilkins I, II, and III (same guy) built and carefully developed the town to fuel his own ambitions, mainly becoming immortal and trading sufficient amounts of regular townspeople to various demons to allow himself to reach ascension. He undoubtedly controlled the police and made sure to make the town appear low key enough to keep federal authorities away.
  • The general public in Lost is unaware of the strange events that occurred after the crash of Oceanic 815 due to the Oceanic 6 creating a complex cover story. This lie is not perfect, however, and the Mysteries of the Universe and Oceanic 6: A Conspiracy of Lies specials suggest some conspiracy theorists have begun to suspect something's up. It's unknown what effect the escape of the survivors on the Ajira plane had on this masquerade.
  • A literal application of plausible deniability was used in My Name Is Earl, when Earl meets the president of Winky-Dinky Dogs and tells him one of his subordinates burned down a competitor's hot dog stand. His response was 'Actually, I don't want to know about it. Business is tough, son. You try to play by the rules, but sometimes you can't. And when you can't, I'd rather be able to stand up in court and say I didn't know about it.'
  • The trope is named in the Castle episode "Still" after Castle saves Beckett from a bomb and Beckett fights the urge to kiss Castle in front of Captain Gates:
    Gates: Oh for heaven's sake, detective, just kiss the man!
    Beckett: Wait, you knew?
    Gates: What, am I an idiot? I'm claiming plausible deniability, which I can still do as long as you two remain professional in the precinct.
    Castle: Can do, Captain.
  • The series Agent X has newly installed Vice-President Natalie Maccabee being told of a secret section of the Constitution that gives the VP power to have a secret agent do jobs only she decides. It's said that only the VP and their closest associates know of this as in case things go wrong, the President honestly has no idea what has happened and can't be responsible. Natalie goes to President Eckhart, who, as the previous VP, would know of this, to seek advice. While careful not to openly call Section Five by name, Eckhart makes it clear Natalie is never to discuss this again as not only does he not want to know what she does but he can't know.
  • Succession: Tom runs into this when a key member of his staff retires and reveals that he's been covering up extremely illegal activities by the company. Tom has to choose whether to learn about the activities so he can keep them covered up, or to avoid learning about them so he has plausible deniability when they come to light. He ultimately chooses to learn about them.
  • In Babylon 5, during First Contact with humanity the Centauri claimed they were a galaxy-spanning empire and the fact they pretty much look identical was due Earth being a Lost Colony of theirs. Later Earth confronted the Centauri with the fact they weren't a galaxy-spanning empire and evidence that Earth is not a lost colony... Only to be replied that the first claim was mere propaganda not intended to be taken seriously, with such wild claims being perfectly normal for the Centauri, and that the first contact ship mistook them for another system due the Centauri having formerly controlled the space around Earth. Both sides know the Centauri lied at first contact, but as the "explanation" is believable they feign believing it to not ruin the good relationship that was established in the meantime.
  • Rejected in Rome. Brutus leads the assassination plot against Julius Caesar, but is angered to find out that the conspirators tried to kill Marc Antony as well, against his express orders.
    Longinus: Your scruples do you credit but, without your knowledge, his death could not have dishonoured you.
    Brutus: To the contrary, I would be twice dishonoured! A killer and a fool!
  • In Charité at War, Anni's compliance with the Nazis' eugenics programme rests largely on this — the full extent of the horrors is too terrible to be lawfully authorized, so of course there's no such thing. Nurse Käthe points out later that, in truth, they all knew to some degree, only nobody ever talked about it.
  • In the Yes, Minister episode "The Whiskey Priest", Hacker is asked by an Army Major to inform the Prime Minister that British weapons are ending up in the hands of Italian terrorists. However, Hacker is told by his own party Whip that if he does that, the resulting scandal would cause serious embarrassment and repercussions for the Government and industry and that telling the PM would result in Hacker's career being ruined. However, if Hacker doesn't tell the PM, the Major would go to the press instead, meaning he's trapped. Hacker goes to Humphrey who suggests a third option: that Hacker "inform" the PM via a jargon-filled, extremely vague, and confusingly worded letter that suggests someone look into the matter delivered to 10 Downing Street just as the PM is leaving for an overseas summit, thus ensuring this trope for not only whether the PM read and understood the letter but also whether it was the PM himself or the Acting PM who read it, thus dissolving all responsibility in a "communications breakdown".

    Professional Wrestling 
  • On WWE NXT Season 5, a good chunk of the season was taken up by a storyline involving Maxine, Johnny Curtis, and Derrick Bateman. During this story, Maxine would originally be paired with Derrick Bateman, but eventually switch to Johnny Curtis after having suspicions that Bateman was not being faithful to her. The problem here was that the majority of stuff that Maxine was mad about was planted by Johnny Curtis on camera. All Maxine had to do was see this footage and she'd know who was lying and telling the truth. Another storyline was the "Who Kidnapped Matt Striker?" angle, which was revealed on camera to be Tyler Reks and Curt Hawkins, who were both filmed admitting it. A few weeks later, people still had no idea who had done it, despite the commentators acknowledging it on camera. If these happened on camera, why would no one point them out to Maxine or anyone in charge? How come the commentators said nothing? Therefore, for all of these things to happen on NXT Redemption, it has to be assumed that nobody watches the show, including both employees and fans around the world. It also has to be assumed that the fans in the arenas either do not see the footage on the titantron or do not care enough to inform anyone. Lastly, the commentators must immediately forget what footage they saw considering William Regal was the NXT GM at this point and would be the most concerned about Matt Striker's whereabouts.
    • Not to mention Matt Striker showed up on both WWE SmackDown and WWE Superstars during the time he was supposed to be kidnapped and no one seemed to realize it or wonder how he kept being kidnapped.
      • That was explained as WWE had hired someone who looked remarkably like Striker, in order to keep the kidnapping a secret.

    Tabletop Games 
  • The entire point of Runners in Shadowrun. A MegaCorp needs something of questionable legality done, so they send a mid-level employee to hire some "deniable assets" (in other words, Shadowrunners). Said employee always uses the name "Mr. (or Mrs.) Johnson" and bears no obvious connection to his or her employer. Should the runners be caught, the corporation can wash their hands of it, as there's no visible sign of them doing the hiring. (At least, not immediately visible - any good Runner team will have hacked into the Johnson's commlink and picked up the details during negotiations.)
  • Most mercenary units in BattleTech are used this way in the lore, especially in the lulls between the major Succession Wars. While the biggest merc companies are too well-known to get away with this, smalltime operators usually get used for raids and deniable small-scale missions because anyone can hire them and it's really hard to prove they got hired by your arch-rival. Outright stated by Darius Oliveira in BattleTech (2018), where the player's small unit is fully expected to jump from faction to faction, taking the most lucrative contracts that may turn today's target into tomorrow's employer and vice versa:
    Darius: "Plausible deniability is our specialty."

    Video Games 
  • Mass Effect:
    • After Shepard becomes a Spectre, which allows them to serve as Judge, Jury, and Executioner, Admiral Hackett will repeatedly contact them about helping the Systems Alliance clean up things that that the Alliance have been involved with that aren't entirely legal. These things include: Supporting a drug lord with arms (Mission: Trojan Horse Assassination), sending reconnaissance probes that will detonate with nuclear force if found (Mission: Recover/Destroy probe), and doing illegal AI research (Mission: Destroy). Another mission (The Negotiation) is only given if you are far enough into the "Renegade" (Good Is Not Nice Hair-Trigger Temper jerk) of the Karma Meter and has Shepard asked to "negotiate" with a very unpleasant criminal. If the talk happens to fail and you happen to have to kill the criminal, well the Alliance never technically ordered an assassination.
    • Cerberus' official stance on anything that makes them look bad to Shepard (usually highly unethical projects that backfired horribly) is to declare them "Rogue Cells". The manager of center that trained/created Jack at least explicitly states that The Illusive Man wouldn't approve of what they're doing there, though Jack does point out that he didn't exactly say what he'd disapprove of.
    • This is also how the Batarians were able to get away with waging a Proxy War against the Alliance. By taking control of various criminal groups (mercenaries, pirates, slavers,etc.) and directing them to attack human colonies while successfully denying any involvement because they were criminals.
  • In Dragon Age II, the city guard, the Viscount, the Arishok, and the Templars all use Hawke as a neutral third party agent to deal with problems that they can't officially be seen to get involved in, as well as to take the blame if it goes wrong. It helps that Hawke's entire work ethic is "I Was Never Here".
  • After half of the "Weather machines" are repaired in Pajama Sam 2, a cutscene can be viewed of Thunder and Lightning discussing their finished report over the facility-wide accident that Sam caused (due to tripping over his cape), and after they send it off to the CEO, Thunder mentions "plausible deniability paperwork".
  • Love of Magic: Thor wants to be able to say he didn't kill MC, so he breaks MC's staff to let MC die of a magic overload.


    Web Original 
  • In Graven Hunter Files a high ranking vampire sends vampire hunter protagonist Sye after some rogue vampires, given that no one would believe that a vampire of all people would hire a vampire hunter.

    Western Animation 
  • Batman: The Animated Series: Some episodes like "Over The Edge" suggest that Commissioner Gordon already knows that his daughter Barbara is Batgirl and he doesn't want to be "officially" informed in order to preserve deniability.
  • Completely, totally, and utterly subverted in Codename: Kids Next Door. At first, the series seems like it could, with some Willing Suspension of Disbelief, take place in our world: the title organization is limited to a few kids playing in their leader's yard, and there are generally no credible witnesses around the kids' adventures, which could merely be attributed to their overactive imaginations. Then in the first season finale, Applied Phlebotinum is used which forcibly turns a character into an adult, and the Big Bad is revealed to have control over fire somehow. Even then, since that episode takes place mostly in the aforementioned villain's mansion and the characters never speak of it again, one could suppose that there's just some kind of Masquerade going on. After that, however, it's revealed that there are Kids Next Door operatives all over the world, that Sector V is just one small part of the organization, and that the 2x4 technology actually works and can easily ignore the laws of physics, up to and including building functional supercomputers, and having a friggin' MOON BASE accessed and operated by children, among other things. The villains' schemes also become wider in scope and more public at this point. Yes there is the Masquerade element that the Kids Next Door erase thirteen-year-old operatives' memories with plungers, but since the villains have no reason to enforce it, and considering all the strange and impossible places the characters visit (at least one of which, an ocean of asparagus, is in no way hidden and right next to a residential area), it eventually becomes clear that the series Never Was This Universe.
  • In Godzilla: The Series episode "Protector" on needing to track the living winged-lion statue Norrzug after it escapes the first time, H.E.A.T. hacker Randy Hernandez decides to use CIA satellites as they automatically scan for thermal activity because it puts out a large amount of heat. US Army Major Hicks starts asking how Randy was going to get past the cyber security but quickly changes his mind to invoke this.
    Hicks: Wait, how are you going to get past Level 8 security codes? (immediately remembers who he's talking to) Ah, never mind, I don't want to have to testify.
  • Invoked by The Question in Justice League Unlimited. He's already got a reputation of a crackpot who's a few fries short of a Happy Meal, so if he murders Lex Luthor to prevent Lex from provoking Superman into murdering him and going down the path of the Justice Lords, the Justice League won't suffer a fatal blow to its reputation. Though he fails since he was unaware that Luthor had been turned into a backup copy of Brainiac.
  • In the My Little Pony: Friendship Is Magic episode "Slice of Life," Bon-Bon reveals to her longtime friend Lyra that she was actually a former secret agent named "Sweetie Drops," who was part of a secret monster-hunting group. Her group was disbanded several years ago after a bugbear escaped from Tartarus, and Princess Celestia needed deniability to disavow any knowledge of the group's existence.
  • In Big Guy and Rusty the Boy Robot, on at least two occasions Rusty stumbles upon Lt. Dwayne Hunter inside the titular Big Guy. Problem is Rusty (and most of the world) believes that the Big Guy has a fully autonomous AI, when in truth Big Guy is a Powered Armor and Lt. Hunter is the pilot. Luckily, his cover story is that he's Big Guy's chief mechanic and his presence inside is explained off (on one occasion by Rusty himself) as him doing maintenance or repair work.

    Real Life 
  • Duels between gentlemen typically had a doctor in attendance to treat anyone who was shot — however, since duels were also typically illegal, the doctor kept his back to the action until shots were fired, then he could claim he'd just been passing by and happened to stumble upon a poor gentlemen who appeared to have fallen on a bullet.
  • Classic example: saying something insulting or embarrassing then saying, "oh, I was just kidding."
  • A large reason why secrecy is protected so zealously by all nation states. Its just not in anyone's interest to deal with everyone openly and honestly.
    • An excellent modern example of this is the reveal that the United States was spying on (among others) Germany's Chancellor, Angela Merkel, despite the US and Germany being putative allies. Germany expressed outrage, as did many other European Union countries, and publicly, the US issued various mea culpa statements and immediately discontinued the programs. The unacknowledged truth is that everyone is spying on everyone else: there are almost certainly German spy programs aimed at the United States that have not been revealed (and, contrariwise, even if the specific programs the US was running has been terminated, the Germans and other Europeans fully expect that it has been replaced with something virtually identical). It's just the normal way of doing international business.
    • An example from the Cold War: there was no spy submarine that was caught and forced to emerge, only unscheduled exercises to detect spy subs and force them to emerge that a sub from the side interested in spying on them decided to join betting a case of alcoholics (whiskey for American subs, vodka for Soviets) that they couldn't force them to emerge and lost. Nobody believed it, but considering it prevented both the start of World War III and the execution of the sub's crew as spies (why this unofficial tradition was started: Soviet sailors made the claim because they didn't want to kill the fellow sailors of the spy sub whose only fault was doing their duty to their own country) sailors on both sides would make the claim.
      • In one occasion, a Soviet submarine was caught in Italian waters and surrendered, explaining they had suffered a breakdown. There was a breakdown, but the Italian navy conveniently failed to ask why the Soviet sub was hiding in Italian waters or why they had a support ship just outside territorial waters.
      • The Soviets could have just claimed they were travelling out to the Atlantic from their home port, which does require passing Italy.
  • It has been alleged that members of the Reagan administration kept the president in the dark about clandestine operations so as to protect him from political fallout. Similar allegations have been made about the administrations of George W. Bush and Barack Obama in more recent years.
  • It's common for creators to use pseudonyms on projects to dodge contracts or distance themselves from unsatisfactory or unpopular projects. The worst of these will result in an Alan Smithee credit.
  • A common Red Herring in Holocaust denial literature is to ask for "a signed order" from Adolf Hitler instructing his lieutenants to proceed with the final phase of the Holocaust, in which the remaining undesirables were to be killed with gas in specially-constructed facilities using small and psychologically-suited staffs rather than being executed in the field by much larger and more psychologically diverse forces of security personnel. Ian Kershaw describes the actual working of Nazi Germany as revolving around the concept of 'Working Towards the Fuhrer', all the country's various organisations having to constantly court and maintain Hitler's favour or lose their funding and influence. Hitler had an extremely lazy, hands-off approach to government: he would tell his immediate subordinates (Goering, Speer, Funk, Todt, Himmler, Goebbels, etc., etc.) what policies he wanted to be implemented in personal conversation, then each organ of the German state (Army, Ministry of Economics, Luftwaffe, Gestapo, SS, Nazi Party, etc etc) would submit its own proposal to enact it. He would then sign off on the ones that he liked the sound of, even (if not especially) if the proposals worked against each other. He did this because A) he was incredibly lazy and B) he figured that this would ensure the flourishing of the most competent organs of the German government. While administrative inefficiency and (relatively) minor screw-ups were a fact of life in Nazi Germany, no broad policy initiatives ever went ahead without his personal approval. So even though there is no written order, there's not a snowflake's chance in hell he didn't want it to happen. There is however a debate within real historians about the extent to which he had 1) been the primary driving force behind the Holocaust versus the man holding the reins, and 2) always wanted a Holocaust versus him just having taken the opportunity when it presented itself.
    • The pre-war T4 program, in which Hitler officially authorized the euthanasia of disabled individuals, had been instructive to him: once news of the program had come out, there was outrage among a sufficiently large segment of the German population about it. After that he made a point of not officially signing off on such things.
  • Some gamers blame their controllers/lag if something goes wrong. Especially annoying if your controller really is broken (old controllers can be unresponsive after much usage, after all), or a sudden lagspike screwed you over, since the claim tends to be answered with "you suck, get better", or similar phrases.
    • This excuse was famously used by Wings Of Redemption in his wager match with Pro Syndicate, in which the former claimed to have lost due to a broken controller as the match was already ending.
    • At rhythm game tournaments, particularly for "step on panels" games like Pump It Up and DanceDanceRevolution, if a player feels that the panels failed to register some of their steps, they can have the tournament organizer arbitrate on whether the player really did make a correctly-timed step that the game's hardware did not pick up. Modern rhythm game tournaments by reputable organizations have cameras pointed at the players' feet, often shot at a very high framerate, in addition to the tournament having a line-out of the game's video output to check against; the TO will review the combined footage to see if it's in line with the player's claim. This is managable for DDR, In the Groove, and StepManiaX, as those games use accuracy-based scoring, therefore recalculating scores is a matter of just changing a few numbers. It's much more taxing to arbitrate on Pump It Up because that game uses a more complicated scoring system (with the combo bonus being one of the more prominent factors) that would require far more work to recalculate, so TOs for Pump may simply choose not to arbitrate and decide for the sake of their sanity that any misses are entirely the player's fault, no matter what.
  • This is a big part of why mob bosses and similar criminals stereotypically use so many euphemisms. If somebody is turned later and/or wearing a wire, then they can argue that the orders they gave were misintepreted, and the people who carried them out had acted on their own.
    • This is also the reason why Al Capone was convicted on tax evasion - none of the crimes committed by Capone's organization could be proven to have been ordered by him, but what could be proven was that his declared and taxed income simply couldn't cover his lifestyle expenses.
  • This is also the function of a "dog whistle" in political speech: a certain phrase might appear innocuous to outsiders, but those in the know will see it as a show of support. For instance, a racist candidate might know it's a bad move to say something openly antisemitic against Jews, but other antisemites will recognize who he means when he says "International Bankers." Critics of the concept counter that such phrases don't necessarily mean the bad things they're taken to mean— but then, that's why it's called plausible deniability.
  • Zersetzung was an effective psyop tool used by The Stasi (secret police of East Germany) by moving stuff around in dissenters' homes so they'll be confused on what's going on and eventually have a mental breakdown.
  • When the US states North Dakota and South Dakota were admitted to the Union at the same time on November 2, 1889, then-president Benjamin Harrison signed the admission papers only after obscuring their contents and shuffling them. That way, he couldn't say which state was admitted first, thus avoiding a Sibling Seniority Squabble between the two (though they would go on to become cultural rivals anyway). North and South Dakota are considered the 39th and 40th state based on alphabetical order rather than chronological.
  • This trope is the reason why modern western bathhouses—that is, places where gay men go to have casual sex—will have a small gym with exercise equipment. This lets them bill themselves as "health clubs" for legal purposes. Sex? What sex? Mind you, bathhouses today are pretty obvious about being sex clubs; they just can't get a specific permit for that.
  • The logic of execution by firing squad, as opposed to one person putting a bullet in the prisoner's head, invoked this trope. It allowed the shooters to execute the prisoner with a clearer conscience because none of them knew for certain if their bullet was the one that ended the prisoner's life, further driven home by the fact that, at least in the US, one gun at random would be full of blanks.
  • Some sociological surveys intended to ask questions that people would be heavily incentivized to lie about (e.g. adultery, or doping in sports) may try to use this to get a more-honest statistic. The survey would instead ask something like "Roll a six-sided die without showing anyone else. If it shows a six, answer YES regardless of the truth". This way, the proportion of the people with a YES answer without the dice could be estimated, without any individual YES answer being an admission of guilt.
  • A rare example of this being used for a morally positive reason is the tradition of secret ballots during elections. The idea being that if ballots cannot be tied to any individual voters, it would become much harder to bribe or threaten said voter into choosing a specific option, as no one could prove what they have voted. (it is not, as certain people believe, a prohibition against saying who/what you voted for; otherwise campaigning would be basically impossible)



"Are there four of you in this room?"

How well does it match the trope?

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Example of:

Main / PlausibleDeniability

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