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We're All Ordinary Americans: Getting Orwellian on the NSA

(To read the rest of "On Violence’s Most Thought Provoking Foreign Affairs Event of 2013", please click here.)

One of the most disappointing parts of the NSA disclosures was the repeated twisting of language by NSA officials to obfuscate what they were doing. Of course, all public relations people play this game. When it comes to possible constitutional violations, possible criminal conduct, insane amounts of secrecy and national security, though, that’s a game I don’t want government officials playing; we have to hold NSA and administration officials to a higher standard.

Today, I want to “get Orwellian” on the worst defense made by President Obama of the NSA, and it centers around a single word, “ordinary”.

Repeatedly uttered in his most recent speech on national security--in some variation of “ordinary” and Americans/people/citizens--President Obama tried to reassure the public that we’re not after you; we’re after terrorists. By our count, in his most recent speech on NSA reforms, he uttered it seven times:

“...U.S. intelligence agencies were anchored in a system of checks and balances, with oversight from elected leaders and protections for ordinary citizens.”

“...the men and women of the intelligence community, including the NSA, consistently follow protocols designed to protect the privacy of ordinary people.”

“In sum, the program does not involve the NSA examining the phone records of ordinary Americans.”

“But our efforts will only be effective if ordinary citizens in other countries have confidence that the United States respects their privacy too.”

‘To begin with, the directive makes clear that the United States only uses signals intelligence for legitimate national security purposes and not for the purpose of indiscriminately reviewing the emails or phone calls of ordinary folks.”

‘The bottom line is that people around the world, regardless of their nationality, should know that the United States is not spying on ordinary people who don't threaten our national security...”

“Our intelligence agencies will continue to gather information about the intentions of governments, as opposed to ordinary citizens, around the world in the same way that the intelligence services of every other nation does.”

Interestingly, President Obama never defines what an “extraordinary American” is. Presumably, based on the speech’s repeated reference to terrorists and stopping terrorism, terrorists aren’t “ordinary Americans”. So we have a clear dichotomy: “ordinary Americans” and “terrorists”. Unfortunately, the world isn’t so simple and the phrase “ordinary Americans” presents as many problems as it solves.

For instance, while the NSA may not investigate “ordinary Americans”, the FBI certainly does. Numerous accounts have shown that the FBI spends a disproportionate amount of its time trying to infiltrate mosques. In many cases, these same FBI agents encourage ordinary Muslim Americans to commit terrorism, many of whom showed no interest in extremism before the FBI took an interest in them. (Listen to this episode of This American Life, for an extreme example.) Of course, in their NSA meta-data searches, many ordinary Muslim American phone numbers likely show up, simply because the NSA, like any intelligence agency, spends a disproportionate amount of time focused on Islamic terrorism.

And while I don’t want to suggest that politics might use racially coded language for political purposes--for instance “welfare queen”--I could make the argument that “ordinary Americans” means, you know, the non-Muslim Americans. (The NYPD Intelligence Unit spent most of its time mapping and infiltrating Muslim communities. Do they count as “ordinary Americans”?)

A final point that I will hammer home in the next “Getting Orwellian” post: for a Constitutional scholar, President Obama must know better. Under the Constitution, every American is an ordinary American, until proven otherwise in a court of law. Everyone receives the full-protection of the law, no matter what the government accuses them of doing. This includes a right to privacy and protection from unreasonable search and seizure.

When we start to pick and choose who gets Constitutional protection, well, we are probably on the wrong track.