When we as a species use language to communicate and engage with one another, we have a certain understanding that certain words mean certain things. That is the entire purpose of language, effective communication between human beings that can be easily understood. As a result, we should be able to assume that when government bureaucrats utilize words that are commonplace within society, that these words represent specific commonly understood meanings. That would be a huge mistake.
Jameel Jaffer and Brett Max Kaufman of the ACLU have compiled an excellent list of some commonplace words used by the NSA to mislead us into thinking they aren’t doing the bad things that they are actually doing. Words such as “surveillance,” “collect,” and “relevant.” From Slate:
James Clapper, the director of national intelligence, has been harshly criticized for having misled Congress earlier this year about the scope of the National Security Agency’s surveillance activities. The criticism is entirely justified. An equally insidious threat to the integrity of our national debate, however, comes not from officials’ outright lies but from the language they use to tell the truth. When it comes to discussing government surveillance, U.S. intelligence officials have been using a vocabulary of misdirection—a language that allows them to say one thing while meaning quite another.
Surveillance. Every time we pick up the phone, the NSA makes a note of whom we spoke to, when we spoke to him, and for how long—and it’s been doing this for seven years. After the call-tracking program was exposed, few people thought twice about attaching the label “surveillance” to it. Government officials, though, have rejected the term, pointing out that this particular program doesn’t involve the NSA actually listening to phone calls—just keeping track of them. Their crabbed definition of “surveillance” allows them to claim that the NSA isn’t engaged in surveillance even when it quite plainly is.
Collect. If an intelligence official says that the NSA isn’t “collecting” a certain kind of information, what has he actually said? Not very much, it turns out. One of the NSA’s foundational documents states that “collection” occurs not when the government acquires information but when the government “selects” or “tasks” that information for “subsequent processing.” Thus it becomes possible for the government to acquire great reams of information while denying that it is “collecting” anything at all.
That definition of “collect” is completely and totally insane.
Relevant. The NSA’s call-tracking program is ostensibly based on the Patriot Act’s Section 215, a provision that allows the government to compel businesses to disclose records that are “relevant” to authorized foreign intelligence investigations. The theory, it seems, is that everybody’s phone records are relevant today because anybody’s phone records might become relevant in the future. This stretches the concept of “relevance” far beyond the breaking point. Even the legislator who wrote Section 215 has rejected the government’s theory. If “relevance” is given such a broad compass, what room is left for “irrelevance”?
It’s no wonder, that “Big Brother” and the “Party” in George Orwell’s 1984 emphasize language in order to exert mind control on the population of Oceania with tactics such as “doublespeak” and “Newspeak.” After all, if we lose the ability to use language to effectively communicate with one another, what do we have left?
For the full lexicon of misleading NSA terms, click here.
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