Language, deception, and the people comprising the surveillance state

Newspeak, anyone? Language has long been a tool for persuasion and in the fight against tyranny and oppression, and in 1984 George Orwell pointed out how important language is when he featured the effects of the state’s attempts to steer and control the content and use of language. This week, more reporters are revealing the breadth and depth of the domestic reach of surveillance. Their reports also reveal the extent to which the people who make up the surveillance state are lying and deceiving us and how Orwellian their use of language has become.

Investigative reporter Charlie Savage reports in yesterday’s New York Times that the NSA does indeed search the content of communications of Americans.

While it has long been known that the agency conducts extensive computer searches of data it vacuums up overseas, that it is systematically searching — without warrants — through the contents of Americans’ communications that cross the border reveals more about the scale of its secret operations.

Not just metadata. Content. They can, and do, search for items such as names of “targets” within messages. Savage also confirms that the NSA has been playing extremely fast and loose with language, claiming that they aren’t surveiling Americans because they aren’t storing the content, but only storing metadata. Sure, they are running the messages through intercepting surveillance computers on their way in and out of the country, but since they aren’t storing them, that’s not surveillance, right?

Wrong. Wrong morally, wrong factually, wrong verbally, wrong constitutionally, and actually wrong legally, according to Senator Ron Wyden, who has seen classified briefings that the current veil of government secrecy prevents him from sharing transparently with the very people whose communications are being monitored.

Yes, I said it. Monitored. And more and more people are saying it: lying. Lied. Deliberately.

Individually and as an organization, NSA people have misled Congress, lying to the members of Congress and to the American people whom they are supposed to represent. As Alex Wilhelm notes in a TechCrunch article on the Savage story from yesterday,

…[U]nder a broad interpretation of the FISA Amendments Act, the NSA intercepts communications of U.S. citizens whose communications cross borders and mention foreign targets. You don’t have to communicate with someone being targeted directly to potentially have the NSA collect and search your email. …

The NSA has lied, repeatedly, concerning its collection of records, content, metadata, and the like of American citizens. And, frankly, it’s become a complex enough situation that it is slightly hard to parse truth from half-truth from downright lie. However, James Clapper, current Director of National Intelligence, lied to Congress — and you — about the NSA not collecting information on American citizens. All that has happened since that moment is that the depth of his lie has increased; previously, it was phone metadata that became known as a collection target. The Times’ report goes deeper in damning Clapper as mendacious. …

The new dodge is somewhat simple. Break down the NSA’s activities into two parts: collection and the search of that information. This allows the government to occlude their activities. The Times’ piece has a perfect encapsulation of the sort of idiotic verbiage that we are currently being spoon-fed: “In carrying out its signals intelligence mission, N.S.A. collects only what it is explicitly authorized to collect.”

The ambiguity of legal interpretation and a facility with strict parsing of words combine to enable the agents of the surveillance state to advance their interests in secrecy without people thinking that they are strictly lying. Note, for example, the very precise, and precisely evasive, language in this exchange that Savage describes:

At a House Intelligence Committee oversight hearing in June, for example, a lawmaker pressed the deputy director of the N.S.A., John Inglis, to say whether the agency listened to the phone calls or read the e-mails and text messages of American citizens. Mr. Inglis replied, “We do not target the content of U.S. person communications without a specific warrant anywhere on the earth.”

“Targeting” and “listening” or “reading” are very different things, and Mr. Inglis and other members of the security-silicon-industry state are very deliberate in their use and misuse of language to create the belief in the inattentive public that the surveillance state is not doing what we fear it is doing. And yet, that’s exactly what those individuals are doing, individually and as an organization. And they take advantage of the legal ambiguity of what it means to “target” someone.

And in a very good commentary on restoring trust in the government and the Internet, Bruce Schneier highlights another used of legal-linguistic evasion to enable those advancing the surveillance state to achieve their ends:

NSA Director Gen. Keith Alexander has claimed that the NSA’s massive surveillance and data mining programs have helped stop more than 50 terrorist plots, 10 inside the U.S. Do you believe him? I think it depends on your definition of “helped.” We’re not told whether these programs were instrumental in foiling the plots or whether they just happened to be of minor help because the data was there. It also depends on your definition of “terrorist plots.” An examination of plots that that FBI claims to have foiled since 9/11 reveals that would-be terrorists have commonly been delusional, and most have been egged on by FBI undercover agents or informants.

Left alone, few were likely to have accomplished much of anything.

Both government agencies and corporations have cloaked themselves in so much secrecy that it’s impossible to verify anything they say; revelation after revelation demonstrates that they’ve been lying to us regularly and tell the truth only when there’s no alternative.

Amy Davidson, another reporter who has become a must-read analyst of the deception undergirding the surveillance state, also analyzes the situation that Savage’s exposé reveals and how underhandedly slippery is the use of language by the people in the surveillance state:

… a reference to “cases where NSA seeks to acquire communications about the target that are not to or from the target.” What that meant, he learned from further reporting, was that the agency thought it was allowed read Americans’ e-mails pretty freely, by “temporarily copying and then sifting through the contents of what is apparently most e-mails and other text-based communications that cross the border.” The N.S.A. comes up with a search term that is “about” a foreign target, and then reads whatever e-mails sent into and out of the country that it finds containing it. How is this not “targeting” Americans, when their communications are pulled out of the stream and studied? The answer is a language game: the person to whom those e-mails belong is not, by the N.S.A.’s definition, its target, nor—and this is somewhat new—does that person even have to be in touch with any foreign target. All you really have to be is interested in the same things as a target—or even just to use some words the N.S.A. has decided are “about” the target. …

Some of the documents released by Snowden showed that the FISA court had given the N.S.A. vague and general dispensations; others showed how it got around the question of individualized warrants entirely in the bulk collection of data like call records. This was done, in part, by redefining simple words like “relevant” and “collect”—and, now, “about.” This is the other alarming part of Savage’s piece: the further confirmation of the degradation of language. Every time the Administration says not to worry—that surveillance does not “target” Americans—the word seems to mean less and less, to the point where one expects it to argue that an American does not count as its target—with the legal protections that word implies—unless he is wearing a dartboard with a bull’s eye around his neck. [emphasis added]

Note the implications of this degradation of language. For those of you who say “I feel safer with surveillance because there are real security threats and I have nothing to hide”: how does this most recent revelation make you feel? Does the government people’s slippery and evasive use of language give you confidence that these same government people will adhere honestly and consistently to a set of rules governing their conduct, without changing what they are looking for, or what constitutes a potential threat? Or, if you thought that the people in the surveillance state were following the law, if not really the spirit of the law, how do you feel now that this belief is demonstrably false?

Please also note one final thing. I’ve made a deliberate rhetorical choice in this post: “people”. When we talk about “the state” or “the government” or “the surveillance state” or “the NSA”, we dehumanize political power. Every single one of these collective organizations that is abusing this power right now, and has been for the better part of a decade, is a group of people. People make choices. People make decisions. People make rules. People make choices about how to interpret the rules they’ve made and by which they are supposed to abide. The abuses of political power that are occurring right now through government surveillance are abuses of people by people. When we talk about surveillance as being performed by abstract groups (let alone by algorithm-driven computers), we obscure the agency of those people. We obscure the very real fact that people choose how to act.

The people who are the surveillance state are abusing their power. They are abusing the legal institutions by which each one of them, individually, is supposed to abide. They are abusing and degrading our language, which a reading of Orwell (both 1984 and Politics and the English Language) makes clear is an abuse that opens up a society to tyranny. The more we highlight these abuses, and the more aware more of us become of these abuses, the more hope we have of returning to a society of free and responsible people.

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3 thoughts on “Language, deception, and the people comprising the surveillance state

  1. Lynne, I am pretty sure that I don’t believe them when they say they are not storing the content of my phone calls, and that they aren’t looking at the metadata or content of my phone calls. Tehnologically, they can do it. Therefore, they are doing it.

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