from the words-mean-something dept

We’ve written before about how the NSA uses its own definitions of some fairly basic English words, in order to pretend to have the authority to do things it probably… doesn’t really have authority to do. It’s become clear that this powergrab-by-redefinition is not unique to the NSA when it comes to the executive branch of the government. Earlier this year, we also wrote about the stunning steady redefinition of words within the infamous “Authorization to Use Military Force” (AUMF) that was passed by Congress immediately after September 11, 2001. It officially let the President use “all necessary and appropriate force” against those who “planned, authorized, committed or aided the terrorist attacks that occurred on September 11, 2001.” But, over time, the AUMF was being used to justify efforts against folks who had nothing to do with September 11th, leading to this neat sleight of hand in which the military started pretending that the AUMF also applied to “associated forces.” That phrase appears nowhere in the AUMF, but it’s a phrase that is regularly repeated and claimed by the administration and the military.

But, it goes beyond that. As Trevor Timm highlights over at The Guardian, pretty much the entire drone bombing (drones, by the way, are also apparently “authorized” by the AUMF) of Syria involves the administration conveniently redefining basic English to suit its purposes. Let’s start with the authorization for the bombing itself:

For instance, in his Tuesday statement that US airstrikes that have expanded into Syria, Obama studiously avoided any discussion about his domestic legal authority to conduct these strikes. That dirty work was apparently left up to anonymous White House officials, who told the New York Times’s Charlie Savagethat both the Authorization of Use of Military Force (AUMF) from 2001 (meant for al-Qaida) and the 2002 war resolution (meant for Saddam Hussein’s Iraq) gave the government the authority to strike Isis in Syria.

In other words: the legal authority provided to the White House to strike al-Qaida and invade Iraq more than a dozen years ago now means that the US can wage war against a terrorist organization that’s decidedly not al-Qaida, in a country that is definitely not Iraq.

It’s amazing what you can accomplish when you pretend words mean something entirely different than they do. Hell, if you can just make words mean whatever the hell you want them to mean, there’s no such thing as a limitation on what you can do. It’s all fair game. Who needs laws when the law is basically a mad libs for you to fill in what you want?

Moving on. The definitional jujitsu covers the people who were killed by the bombing as well. Civilians? What civilians?

Buzzfeed’s Evan McMorris-Santoro reported that the Pentagon is “confident” that no civilians were killed in any of the initial airstrikes in Syria, despite acredible report to the contrary. But we have no idea what that actually means either. The White House previously embraced a re-definition of “civilian” so it could easily deny its drone strikes were killing anyone than “militants” in Yemen, Pakistan, and elsewhere, according to a New York Times report in 2012:

It in effect counts all military-age males in a strike zone as combatants, according to several administration officials, unless there is explicit intelligence posthumously proving them innocent.

So any casualties, if they’re men, might well be tallied as “militants” even if the actual dead people were not.

Kill anyone you want, just as long as they’re men of a certain age. Thank you Pentagon dictionary. You just wiped out civilian deaths.

But why stop there? How about “imminent threats”? Because that sounds pretty scary, right? It sure is — especially when it can mean whatever the hell the administration wants:

In addition to conducting airstrikes against Isis is Syria on Tuesday, the Obama administration also announced it had also targeted the “Khorasan Group”, a separate al-Qaida-linked terrorist organization. They justified it by claiming that the group was plotting an “imminent” attack on the US. Before last week, hardly anyone had heard of the Khorasan Group (in fact, even their name was classified), so it’s difficult to judge from public information just how threatening their alleged plot really was. But when you add in the administration’s definition of “imminent,” it becomes impossible.

Take, for example, this definition from a Justice Department white paper, which was leaked last year, intended to justify the killing of Americans overseas:

[A]n “imminent” threat of violent attack against the United States does not require the United States to have clear evidence that a specific attack on U.S. persons will take place in the immediate future.

To translate: “imminent” can mean a lot of things … including “not imminent”.

This is pretty neat. Anything else you’ve got for us? How about “combat” or “ground troops”? They’re not what you think they are either, because a malleable language can do anything:As the New York Times’s Mark Landler detailed over the weekend, White House has “an extremely narrow definition of combat … a definition rejected by virtually every military expert.” According to the Obama administration, the 1600 “military advisers” that have steadily been flowing in Iraq fall outside this definition, despite the fact that “military advisers” can be: embedded with Iraqi troops; carry weapons; fire their weapons if fired upon; and call in airstrikes. In the bizarro dictionary of war employed by this White House, none of that qualifies as “combat”.
Yes, the English language changes over time and that’s generally a good thing. But we’re not talking about the way the word “decimate” once meant to lop off 10% and now means “destroy everything.” This is a deliberate misrepresentation of things.

Hell, this seems to go further than Orwell even imagined with his authoritarian use of language and rewriting of history. In this case, rather than just saying “we were always at war with Eurasia,” he could have just changed the definition of “we,” “were,” “always,” “at,” “war,” “with,” and “Eurasia,” and it would have been that much more powerful.


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