Obama Administration Learns: If You Redefine Every Word In The Dictionary, You Can Get Away With Just About Anything

from the words-mean-something dept

We’ve written before about how the NSA uses its own definitions of some fairly basic English words, in order to pretend to have the authority to do things it probably… doesn’t really have authority to do. It’s become clear that this powergrab-by-redefinition is not unique to the NSA when it comes to the executive branch of the government. Earlier this year, we also wrote about the stunning steady redefinition of words within the infamous “Authorization to Use Military Force” (AUMF) that was passed by Congress immediately after September 11, 2001. It officially let the President use “all necessary and appropriate force” against those who “planned, authorized, committed or aided the terrorist attacks that occurred on September 11, 2001.” But, over time, the AUMF was being used to justify efforts against folks who had nothing to do with September 11th, leading to this neat sleight of hand in which the military started pretending that the AUMF also applied to “associated forces.” That phrase appears nowhere in the AUMF, but it’s a phrase that is regularly repeated and claimed by the administration and the military.

But, it goes beyond that. As Trevor Timm highlights over at The Guardian, pretty much the entire drone bombing (drones, by the way, are also apparently “authorized” by the AUMF) of Syria involves the administration conveniently redefining basic English to suit its purposes. Let’s start with the authorization for the bombing itself:

For instance, in his Tuesday statement that US airstrikes that have expanded into Syria, Obama studiously avoided any discussion about his domestic legal authority to conduct these strikes. That dirty work was apparently left up to anonymous White House officials, who told the New York Times?s Charlie Savage that both the Authorization of Use of Military Force (AUMF) from 2001 (meant for al-Qaida) and the 2002 war resolution (meant for Saddam Hussein?s Iraq) gave the government the authority to strike Isis in Syria.

In other words: the legal authority provided to the White House to strike al-Qaida and invade Iraq more than a dozen years ago now means that the US can wage war against a terrorist organization that?s decidedly not al-Qaida, in a country that is definitely not Iraq.

It’s amazing what you can accomplish when you pretend words mean something entirely different than they do. Hell, if you can just make words mean whatever the hell you want them to mean, there’s no such thing as a limitation on what you can do. It’s all fair game. Who needs laws when the law is basically a mad libs for you to fill in what you want?

Moving on. The definitional jujitsu covers the people who were killed by the bombing as well. Civilians? What civilians?

Buzzfeed?s Evan McMorris-Santoro reported that the Pentagon is ?confident? that no civilians were killed in any of the initial airstrikes in Syria, despite a credible report to the contrary. But we have no idea what that actually means either. The White House previously embraced a re-definition of ?civilian? so it could easily deny its drone strikes were killing anyone than ?militants? in Yemen, Pakistan, and elsewhere, according to a New York Times report in 2012:

It in effect counts all military-age males in a strike zone as combatants, according to several administration officials, unless there is explicit intelligence posthumously proving them innocent.

So any casualties, if they?re men, might well be tallied as ?militants? even if the actual dead people were not.

Kill anyone you want, just as long as they’re men of a certain age. Thank you Pentagon dictionary. You just wiped out civilian deaths.

But why stop there? How about “imminent threats”? Because that sounds pretty scary, right? It sure is — especially when it can mean whatever the hell the administration wants:

In addition to conducting airstrikes against Isis is Syria on Tuesday, the Obama administration also announced it had also targeted the ?Khorasan Group?, a separate al-Qaida-linked terrorist organization. They justified it by claiming that the group was plotting an ?imminent? attack on the US. Before last week, hardly anyone had heard of the Khorasan Group (in fact, even their name was classified), so it?s difficult to judge from public information just how threatening their alleged plot really was. But when you add in the administration?s definition of ?imminent,? it becomes impossible.

Take, for example, this definition from a Justice Department white paper, which was leaked last year, intended to justify the killing of Americans overseas:

[A]n ?imminent? threat of violent attack against the United States does not require the United States to have clear evidence that a specific attack on U.S. persons will take place in the immediate future.

To translate: ?imminent? can mean a lot of things ? including ?not imminent?.

This is pretty neat. Anything else you’ve got for us? How about “combat” or “ground troops”? They’re not what you think they are either, because a malleable language can do anything:

As the New York Times?s Mark Landler detailed over the weekend, White House has ?an extremely narrow definition of combat ? a definition rejected by virtually every military expert.? According to the Obama administration, the 1600 ?military advisers? that have steadily been flowing in Iraq fall outside this definition, despite the fact that ?military advisers? can be: embedded with Iraqi troops; carry weapons; fire their weapons if fired upon; and call in airstrikes. In the bizarro dictionary of war employed by this White House, none of that qualifies as ?combat?.

Yes, the English language changes over time and that’s generally a good thing. But we’re not talking about the way the word “decimate” once meant to lop off 10% and now means “destroy everything.” This is a deliberate misrepresentation of things.

Hell, this seems to go further than Orwell even imagined with his authoritarian use of language and rewriting of history. In this case, rather than just saying “we were always at war with Eurasia,” he could have just changed the definition of “we,” “were,” “always,” “at,” “war,” “with,” and “Eurasia,” and it would have been that much more powerful.

Filed Under: , , , , , , , , , , ,

Rate this comment as insightful
Rate this comment as funny
You have rated this comment as insightful
You have rated this comment as funny
Flag this comment as abusive/trolling/spam
You have flagged this comment
The first word has already been claimed
The last word has already been claimed
Insightful Lightbulb icon Funny Laughing icon Abusive/trolling/spam Flag icon Insightful badge Lightbulb icon Funny badge Laughing icon Comments icon

Comments on “Obama Administration Learns: If You Redefine Every Word In The Dictionary, You Can Get Away With Just About Anything”

Subscribe: RSS Leave a comment
Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Redifining words, huh?

Interesting approach, but you didn’t take it far enough.

I think the president deserves a vacation[1]. When he’s done, he should be served a wonderful meal[2] and given a ride home[3]. The advisers who recommended he engage in such redefinition[4] should be given a raise[5] and career advancement training[6].

[1] Impeachment.
[2] Notice of loss of citizenship, on the grounds of “We feel like it.”
[3] To a prosperous country where we do not have to listen to him anymore.
[4] Malicious misuse of language.
[5] Jail sentence not less than 20 years, for violating common sense and good decency.
[6] Assistance rejoining society after the jail term ends.

Jose_X (profile) says:

Re: Re: Redifining words, huh?

Or maybe “imminent threat” means imminent threat. They didn’t say they had to know the precise details of a potential attack. threat: “the possibility that something bad or harmful could happen.”

Any maybe ISIL, as a more violent subset that joined Al Queda and then broke off from Al Queda with plans to hurt the US, is part of the future threat from those helping to make 9/11 possible and which the 2001 resolution gave the President the power to quell.

RD says:

Wrong title

This isn’t about redefining english words, this is about flat-out ignoring the definition and proceeding anyway. This is illustrated by:

“[A]n “imminent” threat of violent attack against the United States does not require the United States to have clear evidence that a specific attack on U.S. persons will take place in the immediate future.”

That isn’t changing the meaning of the word, it’s simply stating “we can do whatever the fuck we want regardless of the terminology, because terrorism. ‘Merica. Fuck Yeah.”

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Wrong title

title is good.

The left in general is good about this, the right does it too but not nearly as much. Examples.

People that do not like homosexual are homophobes. phobia is a fear not a hate or not like.

Want ship illegal immigrants back home? Welp, then you are xenophobic.

Don’t like Obama and happen to be white? Then you are a racist!

Repeating a lie that includes the false use of terminology is exactly redefining words. The title is succinct!

Jose_X (profile) says:

Re: Re: Title, article, and conversations are off (I guess Obama bashing is too much fun to pass up opportunity)

Title says Obama is redefining words and uses as an example that ISIL is not alqueda (more generally, that they didn’t help in 911), even though their prior name is Al-Queda in Iraq and was strongly linked to Al-Queda and even though the 2001 resolution doesn’t limit the US to go after any specific group and includes those that aided and their future potential acts of terrorism.

> (a) > In General.–That the President is authorized to use all necessary and appropriate force against those nations, organizations, or persons he determines planned, authorized, committed, or aided the terrorist attacks that occurred on September 11, 2001, or harbored such organizations or persons, in order to prevent any future acts of international terrorism against the United States by such nations, organizations or persons.

That’s pretty general. Where is the argument that this necessarily excludes ISIL?

From Wikipedia:
> Zarqawi formed al-Tawhid wal-Jihad in the 1990s, and led it until his death in June 2006. …In late 2004 he joined al-Qaeda, and pledged allegiance to Osama bin Laden. After this al-Tawhid wal-Jihad became known as Al-Qaeda in Iraq (AQI), and al-Zarqawi was given the Al-Qaeda title, “Emir of Al Qaeda in the Country of Two Rivers”.

So we have a whole article and conversation that fails to explain how the US currently couldn’t possibly be trying to prevent future acts of terrorism to the US (including embassies in other nations) by going after a major terrorist group clearly related to Bin Laden/Al Queda which no one argues helped make 911 possible and continues to pose threats to the US.

Hey, let’s have a faction get mad that our terrorist group isn’t hurting the US enough because we want more blood, fork off and change name, and then we’ll get support from online forums trying to stop the from US hounding us because we won’t be a part of “Al Queda” any more as “everyone” knows that name didn’t even exist before 911 so the people couldn’t possible be linked.

zip says:

It Depends on What the Meaning of IS is

This country is run by lawyers, and every lawyer will always try to redefine the meaning of common words. Sadly, that’s how the legal system works: professional liars in a contest to see who can out-do each other. It’s a business where honest people have no place. So let’s not be too hard on these lawyers for … acting like lawyers.

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Re:

Sexist bastards should include women too.

Perhaps this is their bit of cultural sensitivity, since some of the sects consider women combatants so inferior that getting killed by a woman in battle is a terrible disgrace. Therefore, since we’re already making broad unwarranted assumptions, we’ll just assume that none of their women could possibly have been combat capable, because that would be shameful.

Just Another Anonymous Troll says:

Two can play at this game!

National Security Agency: Shadow organization that spies on you and knows everything you have ever done.
Legal: Whatever the President wants.
Terrorism: Anything the U.S. Government doesn’t like.
More evil than Satan himself: Whoever would do something like this. See Barack Obama.

zip says:

Re: Two can play at this game!

“Terrorism: Anything the U.S. Government doesn’t like.”

If only it were that simple!

Just consider the case of the People’s Mujahedin of Iran (MEK), an (anti)Iranian militia sheltered in Iraq. The MEK were being armed, trained and funded by the US Military at the same time the group was on the US State Dept’s List of Terrorist Organizations.

David says:


It in effect counts all military-age males in a strike zone as combatants, according to several administration officials, unless there is explicit intelligence posthumously proving them innocent.

Oh come one, we’ll get casualties in that manner. All males younger than that are an imminent threat of becoming combattants, and all females are an imminent threat of bearing and raising combattants. What do we call this kind of passive-aggressive combat supporter? Terrorists? Probably, or worse.

Anonymous Coward says:


Civilian: a terrorist/war-fighter/militant who, after he was killed, had his gun and ammunition stolen from him by some poor slob looking either to protect himself after international attention went away, or to put food on his table while unable to leave the war zone.

Militant: a citizen who has a gun in his hand and is headed towards a residential area.

Seems pretty clear to me.

That One Guy (profile) says:

Making friends the American way!

It in effect counts all military-age males in a strike zone as combatants, according to several administration officials, unless there is explicit intelligence posthumously proving them innocent.

In other words, if you’re in the general area where the US military is targeting, you’re automatically seen as an enemy combatant, and can be killed as such.

It’s like the military is so eager to avoid having to admit to murdering civilians, that they don’t realize that by making everyone in the area an enemy, those people who might have been neutral, or even pro-US, now have absolutely no reason not to join with those fighting the US. They’re already under the crosshairs, at that point they lose nothing whatsoever by fighting back.

Between this and torturing prisoners, you can’t help but think no no-one hates US soldiers more than those in command of them or those giving them orders, because no-one has done more to put them in danger and make that danger even higher than those groups.

Justify torture of prisoners? Suddenly other groups lose any reason not to torture captured US citizens or members of the military.

Justify killing civilians with ‘well they were in the same area as potential enemy combatants’? Suddenly other groups have no reason not to kill civilians, as long as there are any US military forces in the general area, and those considered ‘enemy combatants’ by the USG have no reason not to actively fight against the US forces.

Whatever (profile) says:

The real issue at hand here is that the structure of the US and it’s AUMFs is that they are a bit of a hold over from the time of “we versus they” country versus country type stuff. Attempting to define the borders of ISIS at the moment is really slippery.

Is the US bombing in Syria, or are they bombing in ISIS occupied land? While they purely technical may be that the land is still part of Syria, it’s almost meaningless. ISIS isn’t using the standard maps to define themselves, so it’s almost impossible to use them to define war with them.

The other part is naming them “al qaida” or “ISIS” or “wacky islamic idiots” doesn’t really help an AUMF define who and where. These are not regular army, not regular forces. Who is and who is not with the enemy?

It’s not a game of words, it’s a serious situation of trying to bend and twist the existing rules of engagement to do what they really were not meant to do. If they US followed it’s rules to the letter, they would not be able to act against ISIS until they are declared a country and recognized as such, because anything less doesn’t really add up to a “valid” AUMF.

Would it be mean to point out that the term “FREE!” has be redefined on many occasions around here? Perish the thought!

Jose_X (profile) says:

Re: Re:

zI don’t think one has to twist much to recognize ISIL as a de facto extension of Al Queda’s terrorism threat and the 2001 authority certainly allows for dealing with Al Queda’s still extant threat. If you go after the mafia that blew up a restaurant. And later that mafia grows in size (resulting in continued threat). And then a subgroup wanting to do more harm than the leadership of the mafia is prepared to undertake breaks off with a new name, those people are still part of the threat you were tasked to defeat. Otherwise it would be trivial to thwart Congressional authority by the bad guys by changing names and breaking off claiming they are independent. “We aren’t Al Capone’s organization but we do similar things and trained with them and know intimate secrets of that group and still pose a threat to you.”

GEMont (profile) says:

Wutta Guy!

No really, you have got to be the best Fake Shill EVER!!

There is no way that you’re a for real shill. You’re simply way too obvious. I mean how predictable was that comment?

Personally, I think the work you do is awesome.

You never fail to point out just how absurd the official propaganda on every topic is, simply by pretending to be the purveyor of the official policy and stating their PR position in the most predictable and absurd manner possible.

I salute you.
Keep up the good work.

Jose_X (profile) says:

Comparative analysis? Does anyone on the planet not play with words?

This article could have been more clear that “civilian” re-definition existed before Obama got there.

This article has a tone that this administration plays with words in ways that are worse than earlier administrations or even than the other admin since 9/11.

As for ground forces, Obama seems to be in a pickle because of statements he has made before and the realities of needing people on the ground to help Iraqi ground forces. The potential “I did not have sex/mission accomplished/read my lips” follow-up justification appears to be that those special op people are advisors that can shoot a gun if attacked first and are there to tell Iraqis how to paint targets to blow up and other important combat info.

Add Your Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

Have a Techdirt Account? Sign in now. Want one? Register here

Comment Options:

Make this the or (get credits or sign in to see balance) what's this?

What's this?

Techdirt community members with Techdirt Credits can spotlight a comment as either the "First Word" or "Last Word" on a particular comment thread. Credits can be purchased at the Techdirt Insider Shop »

Follow Techdirt

Techdirt Daily Newsletter

Techdirt Deals
Techdirt Insider Discord
The latest chatter on the Techdirt Insider Discord channel...