Author and former CIA officer Barry Eisler spoke at the Association of Former Intelligence Officers opposite ex-CIA and NSA director Michael Hayden on Monday. Below, an adaptation of his opening remarks about the importance of whistleblowers and government transparency:
Given all this, our hypothetical Martian might wonder if the seemingly obligatory government “blood on his hands” scaremongering might be intended to distract from the governmental wrongdoing whistleblowers reveal. Were Martians possessed of a sense of irony, ours might also wonder at the spectacle of a government that kills hundreds of thousands of innocents in the course of endless wars suggesting that the real blood-on-their-hands culprits are the people blowing the whistle, and not the politicians forever blowing the war trumpets.
So to distort facts, to overlook inconvenient facts, and to focus on fantasy hypotheticals while ignoring actual costs are dangerous habits for intelligence professionals. Indeed, I would argue that these habits are a form of propaganda, which we should understand to be abhorrent in part because propaganda is the opposite of intelligence.
In this regard, I want to discuss one a related tendency I think intelligence professionals should be on guard against: the recruitment of language in service of political ends. You don’t have to have read George Orwell’s Politics and the English Language to know there are always euphemisms available to us by which we can obscure the true nature of our actions. But the purpose of language for intelligence professionals is not to describe the world as we wish it, but rather insofar as possible to describe the world as it is.
There are so many suspect phrases worth a second look in this regard—enhanced interrogation techniques vs torture; detainees vs prisoners; targeted killing vs assassination; interventions vs wars; regimes vs governments; tribes vs factions; data collection vs surveillance; collateral damage vs innocent human beings burnt to death and blown into little pieces; the notion that terrorists somehow magically “self-radicalize” rather than being radicalized by our policies of assassinations, bombings, invasions, and occupations, as a Rumsfeld-era Pentagon study unsurprisingly found…you could write a book on this topic, and probably someone should (at least in the meantime we have an interim list of NSA-speak compiled by two ACLU lawyers). But we don’t have time for that today, so for the moment I’d like to focus on just a few descriptive phrases I find troublingly misleading and that I think are worth reconsideration.