Three degrees of Osama bin Laden

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.]


  1. Chiroptera says

    Every time I read about this, I’m reminded of The Gulag Archipelago where Solzhenitsyn describes how the category of “crimes against the State” (and close to treason) kept expanding to the point where almost any little infraction, including minor pilfering at a collective farm, could send you to the prison camps for a long term.

  2. OverlappingMagisteria says

    Is the math correct in calculating 1.5 million people? I’m doing:

    (1 terror suspect) X (40 contacts) X (40 second degree contacts) X (40 third degree contacts) = 64,000 total.

    It would take a fourth hop to get 2,560,000. Plus, this assumes that there is no overlap between contacts.

    Granted, 64,000 people per suspect is still casting an extremely large net, but I’m just checking the math.

  3. CaitieCat says

    Good point. One more case where Orwell was right, language as a tool of governance can be a double-edged sword, to thoroughly mix my metaphors.

  4. Mano Singham says

    I too noticed what seemed like a discrepancy. But Inglis repeated that statement yesterday. Their math can’t be that bad so I assume that they start with the 40 people that the target is in contact with as being suspects too and start counting the hops from there.

  5. OverlappingMagisteria says

    In the articles you linked Inglis is quoted saying “40 times 40 times 40” which equals 64 thousand. It was the article writer that says 2.5 million (and I notice both articles use the exact same wording in that paragraph.)

    Either there is a misunderstanding on what 3 hops means, or someone made a math mistake and our extremely diligent media has been copy-pasting it.

  6. DaveL says

    I invite everyone to consider the people they could be connected to through 3 degrees of separation. I myself find I’m connected to Adolph Hitler by at least two independent paths, even though he died a generation before I was born. One of my high-school friends’ German grandfather (I met him personally and went to his house, so this counts as one hop, not two) once hired a cook for a local German cultural club, who had once served as a cook for Adolph Hitler. Also, I once had an internet conversation with an older gentleman who, back in college, had studied under a professor who was himself a childhood classmate of Adolph Hitler.

  7. says

    I’ve got Mike McConnell’s email address at Booz Allen, now all I need is some al-jihadi’s email address so I can start a fruitful dialogue on their behalf. Where can I get George Tenet’s phone number…?

  8. Corvus illustris says

    Just to keep the record straight:

    Billy Wilder: The Austrians have completed the feat of turning Beethoven into an Austrian, and Hitler into a German.

    (Original Spiegel quote is in Wikiquote.) BTW, among my German-American relatives is numbered a nun who did time in the federal prison system for “acts of terrorism” similar to this one from the Atlantic link:

    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.

    (She was out last I heard.) So they can get to me without all those hops.

  9. resident_alien says

    I was re-watching Marvel’s Avengers with a friend last night and we got to talk about how total surveillance of the civilian population and torture information were treated in the film as a normal thing, a casual fact. We agreed that this was Joss Whedon’s dig at his government’s politics,mainly because any other explanation would be even more horrific….

  10. resident_alien says

    That was supposed to be ” torture to procure information” .I’m sorry. Preview is my friend…

  11. left0ver1under says

    Let’s not forget the flawed logic of “three hops”. It assumes that those being spied upon were trying to contact or visit the same place as the terrorist, not the reverse.

    Suppose I were a chemistry student at university and visit the library, checking out a book on nitrates. Then a terrorist goes to the same library and checks out the same book after I do, intending to use it to build bombs. I have no intention of taking part in terrorist activities, but I would be associated with terrorism based on someone else’s actions, not my own. It might even be inferred that the book was a “drop” (a way to send a message) despite the fact I never had any contact with terrorists ever before in my life.

    That’s not a farfetched hypothetical.

  12. slc1 says

    Since the blog here doesn’t seem to like my new name and email address, I will revert to the old one.

    It would appear that the US Government has issued a terror alert and shut down a number of embassies in reaction (there seems to be some confusion as to whether the embassy in Tel Aviv is on the list as reported in the Israeli press. The attached link says that it isn”t.). I suppose that Prof. Singham and his marching and chowder society will claim that it’s a phony designed to counteract the Snowden revelations.

  13. steffp says

    “Prof. Singham and his marching and chowder society”
    I demand the secret spoon designs be sent to me immediately!
    As for the terror alert, it seems to be a “prevent another Benghazi” measure. After all, al Qaeda in Yemen is not a fantasy object. They seem to have invented both the printer- and the underpants bombs…

  14. didgen says

    I just need to know New England or Manhattan style, or are we talking corn since it’s summer time.

  15. says

    Although there is privacy issue about governments looking at people’s phone and other media of communication, I can understand the need of doing so as long as it doesn’t go beyond the context. Sometimes when I watch FBI movies like Criminal Minds, it really makes me curious about how much my government knows about me, lol.

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