Why words matter: shaping public opinion about the NSA

“NSA Analysts Intentionally Abused Spying Powers Multiple Times” blared the Bloomberg article headline. The article’s tone suggests that deliberate and willful violations of American’s privacy were made by “people with access to the NSA’s vast electronic surveillance systems” and “were the work of overzealous NSA employees or contractors”. The NSA, it clearly should be inferred from the language in this article, is a nefarious organization that Must Be Reined In.

But a closer read of the article, stripped of its shellacking, shows that:

“The deliberate actions didn’t violate the 1978 Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act or the USA Patriot Act, the NSA said in its statement. Instead, they overstepped the 1981 Executive Order 12333, issued by President Ronald Reagan, which governs U.S. intelligence operations.”

Executive Order 12333 outlines the authorities and responsibilities of the various intelligence agencies. It marks the boundaries of each agency’s scope of work. In other words, it’s a who-does-what document. The careful quote by an official who spoke on condition of anonymity makes it clear that that’s what’s important:

“The agency has taken steps to ensure that everyone understands legal and administrative boundaries….”

In other words, it’s a turf battle, folks. Note that no one is saying that these actions couldn’t/wouldn’t/shouldn’t have been undertaken by another agency; they are only saying that the NSA overstepped its bounds. The reader is left to leap to the conclusion that the violations would not have happened otherwise. If the “correct” agency had undertaken those actions, it is quite probable that no privacy right would have been violated because there would have been no privacy right: the “correct” agency would have been acting within its authority.

The Bloomberg article is not so much reporting news as it is shaping the news: attempting to shape public opinion in a particular direction. The choice of words – and what is not said here – matters.

The choice of words in other seemingly neutral contexts, such as public opinion polling, can also subtly shape the public opinion that is being measured. The Pew Research Center for the People and Press recognized the challenge in writing survey questions to get an accurate and fair gauge of public opinion, and conducted their own wording experiment to understand how different descriptions of the government’s surveillance program affected people’s opinions of it. Four elements of the program were described differently to different groups of respondents; the different combinations resulted in markedly different levels of approval for the surveillance program. The results of public opinion polls (and, very often, just partial results) are quoted frequently in the media and by political campaigns with an air of authority; Pew is showing us that it’s important to know the words, to know exactly what was being asked.

Supreme Court Justice Louis Brandeis famously said that “sunlight is said to be the best of disinfectants”. Edward Snowden’s leaks, whether we consider them to be right or wrong, have begun to shed sunlight on the tangle of surveillance policies and programs that have been growing largely in the dark without much public attention since 9/11. Varied interests, often with a stake in the outcome, want to influence the agenda, and words are their psy-ops weapons in political persuasion. It is in our best interest – our national interest – to read all the words written about the NSA, and the government’s overall surveillance program, and read them skeptically and carefully.

UPDATE: As it turns out there were a few abuses that violated privacy no matter which intelligence agency would have done it. At least one analyst committed LOVEINT: using NSA resources to stalk a former spouse. But I still stand by my earlier conclusion that it’s mostly an administrative turf battle.

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