The semantics of spying and spin

The White House wants to change the way we talk about its warrantless surveillance program.

Published January 25, 2006 9:19PM (EST)

As we noted yesterday, the White House is trying to improve perceptions of its warrantless spying program by giving it a brand-new name. Now White House press secretary Scott McClellan is taking the next step: He's trying to get the media to stop calling the Bush plan a "domestic spying" program because that gives folks the "inaccurate impression" that the National Security Agency is listening in on chatter about PTA meetings and the like.

McClellan may have a technical semantic point. As he says, the word "domestic" suggests entirely internal, while "international" -- as in an "international phone call" or an "international flight" -- suggests things that are either entirely foreign or half-foreign and half-domestic. The White House insists that its warrantless spying program -- OK, OK, the Terrorist Surveillance Program -- was aimed at communications that were "international" rather than "domestic" in that one end of the communication was always supposed to have been overseas.

But there are two holes in the McClellan defense.

First, as the New York Times reported last month, the program didn't always work in the way that the White House says it was supposed to. Sometimes, the NSA did indeed intercept communications that were purely domestic -- that is, communications that started in the United States and ended in the United States and didn't go anywhere else in between. NSA officials say it was an accident, a glitch in a system that sometimes has a hard time knowing where calls are beginning or ending.

Second, and probably more important, McClellan's semantics obscures the very thing that makes Bush's executive order on spying so important. The government has always been able, legally speaking, to monitor entirely foreign communications without the need for a warrant. Bush's "innovation" is that he purported to give the NSA that same power with respect to communications that started or ended in the United States. While it's not quite right to call those communications "domestic," the word gets at the nub of what Bush did in a way that "international" doesn't. It's not a perfect solution, but it will have to do until someone invents cable news crawl-speak for "communications that started or ended in the United States, except when our computers screwed up."

By Tim Grieve

Tim Grieve is a senior writer and the author of Salon's War Room blog.

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