On the Plain Meaning of Words

July 10, 2013 Topic: DemocracyPoliticsSociety Region: EgyptUnited States Blog Brand: The Buzz

On the Plain Meaning of Words

Official Washington vs. the English language.

In addition to the long-running “wars” on non-proper nouns such as terrorism and drugs, official Washington appears to be engaged in yet another conflict of sorts, this time against the English language. In the aftermath of the military overthrow of Mohamed Morsi in Egypt and in the ongoing revelations about the National Security Agency’s surveillance programs, the past week has given us two prominent examples of U.S. government officials employing rhetorical gymnastics in order to avoid using words in accordance with their plain, widely understood meanings.


Consider, for example, the situation in Egypt. As Peter Baker summarized in the New York Times, last week the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces “removed the democratically elected president, put him in detention, arrested his allies and suspended the Constitution.” This was quite clearly a coup d’état by any meaningful definition. It may have been a justified coup, it may have accurately reflected popular will and it may prove to be in the best interests of the Egyptian people, but none of those things change the fact that Morsi was removed from power extrajudicially, through the use of armed force.

And yet the Obama administration has been quite deliberate in its refusal to call what transpired a coup. In questioning, White House press secretary Jay Carney told reporters that the administration was “taking the time to determine what happened, what to label it.” State Department spokesman Jen Psaki was similarly evasive, saying that “each circumstance is different” and pointing to “millions of people on the ground who do not think it was a coup.” (As reporters pointed out in response, it’s unclear why this fact would have any bearing on the legal determination to be made.)

The reason for this evasion is simple: under American law, the U.S. government may not provide foreign aid “to any country whose duly elected head of government is deposed by military coup or decree.” This provision has no presidential waiver authority. The United States grants roughly $1.5 billion in foreign assistance to Egypt each year, of which about $1.3 billion is military aid. With Carney arguing that a near-term suspension of aid to Egypt “would not be in our best interest,” it’s clear why Washington would be highly reluctant to label Morsi’s overthrow a coup.

But Washington’s obfuscation is not limited to its policy on Egypt. There is also the case of the NSA and the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court, the body that hears requests for surveillance warrants against targets inside the United States.

Earlier this week, the Wall Street Journal reported that “the National Security Agency’s ability to gather phone data on millions of Americans hinges on a secret court ruling that redefined a single word: ‘relevant.’” Under the Patriot Act, businesses can be made “to hand over ‘tangible things,’ including ‘records,’” as long as those things “are ‘relevant to an authorized investigation’ into international terrorism or foreign intelligence activities.” Previously, this was read as requiring a “‘reasonable possibility’ that they will produce information related to the subject of the investigation,” meaning that “very large sets of information didn't meet the relevance standard.” However, starting in the middle of the last decade, the court accepted a much more far-reaching definition of the word “relevant,” saying that it “could be broadened to permit an entire database of records on millions of people.” This paved the way for the sweeping, dragnet-style collection of metadata that has been exposed in the past month.

The FISA court’s rulings remain secret, so it’s difficult to evaluate their soundness. (Most of the lawyers quoted in the Journal piece are skeptical of their reasoning, and a legal challenge has been filed to the Supreme Court to stop the NSA’s programs.) But at a minimum, it’s clear that virtually no one in Congress thought this is what they were voting for when they reauthorized and amended the Patriot Act in 2006. When Senator Russ Feingold raised questions and warned of the potential abuse of the law through the broadening of the “relevance” standard, some, like Senator Jon Kyl, mocked him for it: “We all know the term ‘relevance.’ It is a term that every court uses. It is the term for these kinds of orders that are used in every other situation in the country.”

Yet the surveillance court has been using the word “relevance” in an entirely different way than it is used everywhere else and the way that members of Congress understood it at the time. Today, even Representative Jim Sensenbrenner, one of the original authors of the Patriot Act, argues that the words have been twisted well beyond their original meaning. As he told the Journal, “The government must request specific records relevant to its investigation. To argue otherwise renders the provision meaningless. It's like scooping up the entire ocean to guarantee you catch a fish.”

Obviously, this is not a new phenomenon. And political speech will never be free from those looking to twist words to achieve their policy objectives. But the practice of using words in ways that are wildly out of line with their plain definitions deserves to be called out each and every time—particularly when there are legal consequences attached to it. In the cases mentioned above, there are plausible arguments to be made for the government’s actual policy positions. Maybe it really is in America’s national interest to keep the aid money flowing to Egypt, and maybe the NSA’s surveillance programs are in the country’s best interest. Rather than making those arguments openly through the constitutional process, however, the government’s use or nonuse of “coup” and “relevance” has simply become a workaround to circumvent that process.

When you start redefining words to mean whatever you want, in order to skirt your way around existing laws, it starts to look like you don’t believe your position is actually all that strong.

Image: Wikimedia Commons/Thegreenj. CC BY-SA 3.0.