In the wake of the many revelations of massive government surveillance by Edward Snowden, the government has gone into full damage control by saying that they only look at the phone and email and internet records of those they suspect of engaging in terrorist activities or people who are suspected of being in contact with potential terrorists.
But it looks like the US government has arrived at a highly imaginative ‘three-hop’ model that hugely expands the range of people who can be considered terrorist threats.
For the first time, NSA deputy director John C. Inglis disclosed Wednesday that the agency sometimes conducts what’s known as three-hop analysis. That means the government can look at the phone data of a suspect terrorist, plus the data of all of his contacts, then all of those people’s contacts, and finally, all of those people’s contacts.
If the average person calls 40 unique people, three-hop analysis could allow the government to mine the records of 2.5 million Americans when investigating one suspected terrorist.
This is just for one suspect. If the government is investigating 100 people, the dragnet could scoop in practically the entire US population. And why stop with just three hops? By going just one hop more, you could make almost everyone in the US a potential ally of terrorism, though it seems like that goal is already being achieved by other means.
Back in 2002, the Patriot Act greatly broadened the definition of terrorism to include all sorts of “normal” violent acts as well as non-violent protests. The term “terrorist” is surprisingly broad; since the terrorist attacks of 9/11, it has been applied to people you wouldn’t normally consider terrorists.
The most egregious example of this are the three anti-nuclear pacifists, including an 82-year-old nun, who cut through a chain-link fence at the Oak Ridge nuclear-weapons-production facility in 2012. While they were originally arrested on a misdemeanor trespassing charge, the government kept increasing their charges as the facility’s security lapses became more embarrassing. Now the protestors have been convicted of violent crimes of terrorism — and remain in jail.
Meanwhile, a Tennessee government official claimed that complaining about water quality could be considered an act of terrorism. To the government’s credit, he was subsequently demoted for those remarks.
The notion of making a terrorist threat is older than the current spate of anti-terrorism craziness. It basically means threatening people in order to terrorize them, and can include things like pointing a fake gun at someone, threatening to set off a bomb, and so on.
People have quickly realized that the words ‘terrorist’ and ‘terrorism’ can be used to justify almost anything. A local government needs money to upgrade its equipment? Say it is to fight terrorism and you improve your chances thousandfold.
Or take the frightening phrase ‘weapons of mass destruction’, used so successfully to stampede people into a disastrous war in Iraq. The federal government has used it to describe the pressure cooker bomb used in the Boston marathon bombing. Technically, they are correct. US law defines a WMD so broadly that it covers practically anything that is explosive. But most people think of a WMD as a nuclear weapon or something similar in scale that can cause massive destruction over a vast area. A home-made pressure cooker bomb would not fall into that category. But the federal government is undoubtedly trying to use terrorism language to advance their goal of making people feel that they are constantly under threat of a massive attack and that only by giving the3 government sweeping powers can it be prevented.
Another word that had been abused is ‘imminent’. The government justifies its use of its ‘kill lists’, the lists of people it has decided can be summarily murdered, by saying that the people on the lists pose an imminent threat. And this seems reasonable to most people since the words ‘imminent threat’ conjures up an image of (say) police shooting an armed and dangerous person or soldier shooting others on the battlefield and we do not condemn them for doing so. But the government now defines imminent much more broadly, saying “it is not necessary to produce evidence that a specific attack is being planned if the target is generally engaged in plotting against the US”, a definition so loose as to be meaningless.
Based on these linguistic contortions, we have now reached a stage where any one of us could be considered as engaging in terrorism or in contact with a terrorist or involved in imminent plotting against the US using weapons of mass destruction.
Governments distort and abuse language in order to deceive people. We cannot stop them from doing so. What we can and must do is develop a greater awareness of the manipulative use of language so that we can better oppose the actual policies that the deceptive language seeks to promote.
[UPDATE: Here is an article about some other words that the NSA has private meanings for.]