President Barack Obama’s recent address regarding the NSA was rightly received with skepticism by many in the media and elsewhere. An honest look at the language of the speech clearly shows that the government will do little, if anything, to limit the NSA’s powers—and thus its control over the people.
Who Controls the Past
Although a system of historical revision as efficient and ruthless as what George Orwell describes in 1984 (under a state agency paradoxically named the Ministry of Truth) is likely impossible, the twisting of historical events often serves nefarious political purposes. Who, for instance, would have looked to Paul Revere and the Sons of Liberty as the seed of what would blossom hundreds of years later into the National Security Agency? By providing an historical pedigree linked with vague concepts like “freedoms” and “limited government,” President Obama’s speech all but shouted the philosophy of the Party in the nightmare world of 1984:
Who controls the past controls the future; who controls the present controls the past.
But Obama went further, adding a “bad guy” to the story: “[T]otalitarian states like East Germany [offer] a cautionary tale of what could happen when vast unchecked surveillance turned citizens into informers and persecuted people for what they said in the privacy of their own homes.” In this preface, the president essentially boxes in the thoughts of listeners: the NSA is an outworking of America’s original quest for freedom (us), whereas “totalitarian states” (them) were nations of mutual spies. But the irony of the Department of Homeland Security’s “if you see something, say something” sloganeering is apparently lost on Obama in citing a government that “turned citizens into informers.”
Obama went on to say that “In the long twilight struggle against communism, we had been reminded that the very liberties that we sought to preserve could not be sacrificed at the altar of national security.” This sentence is rife with terms that, as Orwell would have pointed out, most citizens would have difficulty defining accurately and without contradiction. Said Orwell in his essay “Politics and the English Language,”
The word Fascism has now no meaning except in so far as it signifies ‘something not desirable.’ The words democracy, socialism, freedom, patriotic, realistic, justice have each of them several different meanings which cannot be reconciled with one another. In the case of a word like democracy, not only is there no agreed definition, but the attempt to make one is resisted from all sides… Words of this kind are often used in a consciously dishonest way.
For instance, one might ask President Obama about the liberties that his health-insurance legislation affords: The liberty to decline health insurance? The liberty to buy a health-insurance plan that the government hasn’t approved? The liberty to pursue alternative treatments (for, say, cancer) from a non-state-approved individual or practice? Or what about liberties with more national-security impact, like the right to a trial? The right to be free from extrajudicial execution? Obama essentially reiterated the same trite language near the end of his speech when he said, “Having faced down the dangers of totalitarianism and fascism and communism, the world expects us to stand up for the principle that every person has the right to think and write and form relationships freely, because individual freedom is the wellspring of human progress.” But, in the legal context of the U.S. where millions or pages of rules and regulations outlaw, limit or require government permission for almost any kind of normal human activity, what does this language mean? Much of the text of Obama’s speech, as it winds back and forth between calling for protection of national security and protection of individual liberty, has all the hallmarks of what Orwell in 1984 calls doublethink:
Doublethink means the power of holding two contradictory beliefs in one’s mind simultaneously, and accepting both of them. The Party intellectual knows in which direction his memories must be altered; he therefore knows that he is playing tricks with reality; but by the exercise of doublethink he also satisfies himself that reality is not violated…To tell deliberate lies while genuinely believing in them, to forget any fact that has become inconvenient, and then, when it becomes necessary again, to draw it back from oblivion for just so long as it is needed, to deny the existence of objective reality and all the while to take account of the reality which one denies—all this is indispensably necessary.”
Orwell’s prescription is some careful thought, as well as a dose of suspicion regarding the use of language, especially by politicians:
[Language] becomes ugly and inaccurate because our thoughts are foolish, but the slovenliness of our language makes it easier for us to have foolish thoughts… If one gets rid of [bad linguistic] habits one can think more clearly, and to think clearly is a necessary first step toward political regeneration.
Ignorance is Strength
The statements and promises of Obama’s speech regarding the NSA and other spying agencies are irreconcilable apart from grotesque mental contortions. For instance, Obama said, “[I]ntelligence agencies cannot function without secrecy, which makes their work less subject to public debate,” only to later extol himself, saying, “I indicated in a speech at the National Defense University last May that we needed a more robust public discussion about the balance between security and liberty.” The key to accepting both of these statements is either doublethink—they are both true, even though they are contradictory—or a careful parsing of the language that elevates legal technicalities or blurs the intent of words like “public debate” and the all but meaningless “robust.” But this last statement was likely nothing more than another attempt at controlling the past: the president is claiming that he beat Edward Snowden to the punch.
Even a consistent admission that a problem exists was absent from the lengthy speech. For instance, Obama said, “The bottom line is that people around the world, regardless of their nationality, should know that the United States is not spying on ordinary people who don’t threaten our national security and that we take their privacy concerns into account in our policies and procedures.” But this statement is so rife with opportunities for creative interpretation that it could mean almost anything. Who counts as an “ordinary person”? What does it mean to “take their privacy concerns into account”? (Is this on par with the legendary dismissal “I’ll take the matter under advisement”?) And worse, what counts as a threat to “national security”? Everything from obesity to “perception management” has been included in that category, and almost anything contrary to the prevailing will of politicians can be wrangled into it.
Orwell aptly describes this type of language:
The writer either has a meaning and cannot express it, or he inadvertently says something else, or he is almost indifferent as to whether his words mean anything or not. This mixture of vagueness and sheer incompetence is the most marked characteristic of modern English prose, and especially of any kind of political writing.
Attempting to further deflate any objections to past spying blunders, Obama said, “And the leaders of our close friends and allies deserve to know that if I want to know what they think about an issue I’ll pick up the phone and call them rather than turning to surveillance,” clearly referring to the phone-tapping of German Chancellor Angela Merkel. Furthermore, he said, “We do not collect intelligence to provide a competitive advantage to U.S. companies or U.S. commercial sectors.” But the president offered no evidence to back this claim, which others around the world would dispute.
The specific promises that Obama made regarding ostensible reformation of the NSA were equally empty. “First, I have approved a new presidential directive for our signals intelligence activities both at home and abroad. This guidance will strengthen executive branch oversight of our intelligence activities.” In other words, the executive branch will keep an eye on itself, even though thus far it has been secretive about its spying activities. “Second, we will reform programs and procedures in place to provide greater transparency to our surveillance activities and fortify the safeguards that protect the privacy of U.S. persons.” What this means is unclear, but it will involve review FISA court opinions for potential declassification by none other than Director of National Intelligence James Clapper, a master of either outright lying or, more charitably, linguistic trickery.
Obama also said he has “directed the attorney general to amend how we use national security letters so that this secrecy will not be indefinite, so that it will terminate within a fixed time unless the government demonstrates a real need for further secrecy. We will also enable communications providers to make public more information than ever before about the orders that they have received to provide data to the government.” In other words, the government will reveal its use of national-security letters unless it decides not to. His second promise here is meaningless without further details.
Regarding “the bulk collection of telephone records under Section 215,” the president said, “This program does not involve the content of phone calls or the names of people making calls. Instead, it [provides] a record of phone numbers and the times and length of calls, metadata that can be queried if and when we have a reasonable suspicion that a particular number is linked to a terrorist organization.” But such information can be just as dangerous in the hands of an unscrupulous government as the actual content of calls. Furthermore, in light of the fact that the information has indeed been used by other agencies in a legally dubious manner to pursue prosecutions, Obama’s reassurances are cold comfort. Even assuming the content of calls and emails are not already recorded and perused, it is doubtless that they would be if they yielded information that the NSA or some other agency might find useful. In other words, apart from such reassurances, this form of spying likely is taking place. Either way, the shroud of secrecy that Obama previously laid over government activities relating to spying prevents a fair hearing.
Humorously, the president also took a typical step for a politician: create some new offices to review controversial matters. “The State Department will designate a senior officer to coordinate our diplomacy on issues related to technology and signals intelligence,” and “I’ve also asked my counselor, John Podesta, to lead a comprehensive review of big data and privacy. And this group will consist of government officials who, along with the President’s Council of Advisers on Science and Technology, will reach out to privacy experts, technologists and business leaders and look how the challenges inherent in big data are being confronted by both the public and private sectors.” No doubt, the result will be something akin to the Federal CIO.
An analysis of the balance of President Obama’s lengthy speech yields many similar findings: vague language, promises with unlimited wiggle room, dubious comparisons for the purpose of improving perceptions of government spying and ambiguous reassurances to wary citizens. But almost any politician in office would have made a similar speech; Obama is simply the face of the hour. Nothing of substance will come from anything the president outlined, except, perhaps, by accident. Certainly, the ambiguity of the language in his speech will justify any outcome, enabling him to claim that he kept his promises. And in that unlikely case where he is caught in a broken promise, he can simply add some qualifying language: for instance, “Now, if you have or had one of these plans before the Affordable Care Act came into law and you really liked that plan, what we said was you can keep it if it hasn’t changed since the law passed.”
In light of the years of bloody drone strikes, surveillance of citizens and assorted chicanery, the words of Orwell resound:
Political language—and with variations this is true of all political parties, from Conservatives to Anarchists—is designed to make lies sound truthful and murder respectable, and to give an appearance of solidity to pure wind.