Friday, December 15, 2017
Opinion

Column: Translating NSA-speak into real English

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. Here is a lexicon for decoding the true meaning of what NSA officials say.

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.

Targeted. The call-tracking program is only one of the NSA's surveillance efforts. Another is what's been branded PRISM, a program that involves the acquisition of the contents of phone calls, emails, and other electronic communications. Americans need not worry about the program, the government says, because the NSA's surveillance activities are "targeted" not at Americans but at foreigners outside the United States. No one should be reassured by this. The government's foreign targets aren't necessarily criminals or terrorists — they may be journalists, lawyers, academics or human rights advocates. And even if one is indifferent to the NSA's invasion of foreigners' privacy, the surveillance of those foreigners involves the acquisition of Americans' communications with those foreigners. The spying may be "targeted" at foreigners, but it vacuums up thousands of Americans' phone calls and emails.

Incidental. Because the government's surveillance targets are foreigners outside the United States, intelligence officials describe the acquisition of Americans' communications as "incidental." But the truth is that the statute behind PRISM — the FISA Amendments Act of 2008 — was intended to let the government conduct warrantless surveillance of these very communications. In the debate that preceded passage of the law, intelligence officials told Congress that it was Americans' communications that were of most interest to them.

Inadvertent. The PRISM program sweeps up Americans' purely domestic communications, too. Officials have said that the collection of domestic communications is "inadvertent," but PRISM's very design makes the collection of Americans' domestic communications perfectly predictable.

Minimize. What does the NSA do with communications that are acquired "incidentally" or "inadvertently"? As intelligence officials have told the courts and Congress, so-called "minimization" procedures limit the NSA's retention and use of information about American citizens and permanent residents. Here again, though, the terminology is grossly misleading. The 2008 statute gives the NSA broad latitude to retain Americans' communications, share them with other agencies, and even share them with foreign governments. The NSA's own documents suggest that the agency retains Americans' communications indefinitely if they include "foreign intelligence information," a term defined so broadly that it encompasses any conversation relating to foreign affairs.

No. When James Clapper was asked at a March Senate hearing whether the NSA was collecting information about millions of Americans, he answered, "No," and then, after a pause, "not wittingly." As Clapper has now conceded, the correct answer was simply "yes."

Officials who describe the NSA's activities using strategically idiosyncratic terminology presumably believe that they are telling the truth. In a certain formal sense, they usually are — though Clapper's statement is a glaring exception. It shouldn't need to be said, though, that their duties as public officials go beyond the avoidance of perjury charges. They have an obligation to ensure that the courts, Congress, and the public fully understand the policies that they are being asked to accept. They could start by using the same dictionary the rest of us do.

© 2013 Slate

Comments

Editorial: Warren’s smart approach on guns, domestic violence

Hillsborough State Attorney Andrew Warren would make it safer for victims and police alike with his plan to remove firearms from defendants charged with domestic violence. These cases are toxic enough, and having guns at the ready only adds to a dang...
Updated: 7 hours ago
Editorial: St. Petersburg council right to reject Bayfront deal

Editorial: St. Petersburg council right to reject Bayfront deal

The St. Petersburg City Council made the difficult but correct decision this week to reject the proposed sale of a local nonprofit’s minority stake in Bayfront hospital. Despite months of negotiations, there were too many questions, a few suspicions ...
Updated: 7 hours ago
Editorial: Congress should fix flood insurance, children’s health insurance before Christmas

Editorial: Congress should fix flood insurance, children’s health insurance before Christmas

Here’s a snapshot of misplaced priorities in Washington. Last week, the Federal Communications Commission foolishly rushed to scrap net neutrality rules and allow internet service providers to treat different content differently despite overwhelming ...
Updated: 7 hours ago
Editorial: Scott’s smart changes to sexual harassment policy

Editorial: Scott’s smart changes to sexual harassment policy

With misconduct allegations rippling through all levels of government, Gov. Rick Scott has taken the prudent step of ordering uniform sexual harassment policies throughout state agencies. The executive order strengthens protections for victims, which...
Updated: 7 hours ago
Editorial: MOSI faces a clean slate and should give everyone a piece of chalk

Editorial: MOSI faces a clean slate and should give everyone a piece of chalk

For three years, the only news about finances at Tampa’s Museum of Science and Industry was bad news: "Struggling MOSI asks Hillsborough County for $400,000 loan," one headline read, "Audit sees MOSI finances slipping," read another, and "MOSI donor ...
Published: 12/14/17
Updated: 12/15/17
Editorial: Rubio should make good his threat to oppose tax cuts without changes

Editorial: Rubio should make good his threat to oppose tax cuts without changes

For once, it would be nice to see Sen. Marco Rubio stand up as the independent leader he aspires to become. For once, the Florida Republican should hold his position rather than bow to pragmatic politics. Rubio can stick with his threat Thursday to v...
Published: 12/14/17

Another voice: A shameful anniversary

Josephine "Joey" Gay should have celebrated her 12th birthday this week. She should have been surrounded by friends and family in a place festooned with purple, her favorite color.Chase Kowalski should have been working toward a Boy Scout merit badge...
Published: 12/13/17
Updated: 12/14/17
Editorial: Congress should block efforts to expand offshore drilling

Editorial: Congress should block efforts to expand offshore drilling

Timing is everything, and Sen. Bill Nelson seized the right moment this week to call on his colleagues to pass legislation he filed earlier this year that would block the Trump administration from opening additional areas to offshore drilling. With t...
Published: 12/13/17

Another voice: Alabama picks an honorable man

THANK YOU, Alabama.In Tuesday’s special election, the state by a narrow margin chose to spare the nation the indignity of seating an accused child molester in the U.S. Senate. Though the stain of electing Republican Roy Moore would have sullied Alaba...
Published: 12/12/17
Updated: 12/13/17
Editorial: Tax cuts aren’t worth harm to Tampa Bay

Editorial: Tax cuts aren’t worth harm to Tampa Bay

As congressional negotiators hammer out the details on an enormous, unnecessary tax cut, the potential negative impact on Tampa Bay and Florida is becoming clearer. The harmful consequences stretch far beyond adding more than $1.4 trillion to the fed...
Published: 12/12/17