I came across another example of the way our government parses words to obscure rather than clarify meaning. In the past, readers may recall I had an exchange with a former staff member for Under Secretary of Defense, Paul Wolfowitz, who served in the George W. Bush administration. Being discussed at the time was the difference, if any, between “preemptive” and “preventative” military strikes. (Blog 5/15/13). Today, the lesson is about the word, assassination.
In 1981, Ronald Reagan made it illegal to plot to kill foreign leaders: Executive Order 12333. (“Disrupting the Intelligence Community” by Jane Harman, Foreign Affairs, March/April 2015 pg. 100.) Osama Ben Laden wasn’t protected because he was a terrorists and not a foreign leader. Still, people in the government began to worry that a line had been crossed and so they set about fixing it. They didn’t create a new policy. They played with the language.
According to Jane Harmon, a former ranking member of the U. S. House Intelligence Committee (Ibid pg. 99), “government lawyers do not interpret ‘assassination’ as a synonym for ‘targeted killing’ when it relates to terrorists.”(Ibid, pg. 100.) Simply put, the difference between a targeted killing and an assassination depends upon who eats the bullet.
Herein lies another problem. Targeted killings are often performed by drones, a job assigned to the Pentagon but which the CIA does better. (Ibid pg. 101.) So, what’s the agency to do? Redefine itself or go to war with the Pentagon?
Equally sticky is how to describe the NSA. Some may think the agency is a ravenous data collecting machine but that role is changing. The NSA has discovered that collecting data is easy. Knowing how to interpret the information isn’t. For that purpose, they have turned to the tech giants. “Social media, in fact, has provided some of the best reports from the ground…” (Ibid pg. 106) Companies like Facebook, Google and Apple are better funded and have greater flexibility in the kinds of information they gather. As a result, the NSA is finding it easier to steal from the data banks of tech corporations than to swell their own. Question: Will the NSA have to redefine its mission or merge with Apple?
Paying attention to these redefinitions is important, especially as the Supreme Court has ruled that corporations are people. That change has made a huge difference in the interpretation of our laws and how we think about ourselves as a nation. Personally, I didn’t much care for the Supreme Court’s definition of a person. It poses too many problems. For example, if the NSA were to merge with Apple, would the NSA become a person? As a former English teacher, I feel a little precious about the meaning of words and think we ordinary folks should take better care of them. Otherwise, we’ll lose our language and, as George Orwell once pointed out, we’ll be capable of nothing but speaking propaganda.