And Your Orwellian Phrase of the Day Is …

… “least untruthful.”

It sounds better than “lying to Congress” or “perjury,” doesn’t it?

Director of National Intelligence James Clapper is really struggling to explain why he told Congress in March that the National Security Agency does not intentionally collect any kind of data on millions of Americans. His latest take: It’s an unfair question, he said, like “When are you going to stop beating your wife?” And it seems to depend on the meaning of “collect.”

“I responded in what I thought was the most truthful, or least untruthful, manner by saying ‘no,’” Clapper told NBC News on Sunday.

A newly revealed NSA program, however, in which the agency secretly vacuumed up the telephone records of millions of Verizon customers seems to fit the definition of both “data” and “millions of Americans.”

Last week, Clapper said his “no” meant that NSA analysts don’t read Americans’ emails. Some have noted that could explain his earlier answer because “collect” has a precise meaning in intelligence-gathering circles, and it’s along those lines.

On Sunday, Clapper elaborated: “This has to do with of course somewhat of a semantic, perhaps some would say too cute by half. But it is—there are honest differences on the semantics of what—when someone says ‘collection’ to me, that has a specific meaning, which may have a different meaning to him.”

Something is true or it’s not. The nature of the truth is immutable. I’m not talking about shades of opinion where subjectivity might apply, such as “That was a good meal.” I’m talking about, “No, we don’t sift through the records of American citizens.” There are no shades of gray there: either you do or you don’t. And, it turns out, you do.

If Clapper wase in doubt about the shared meaning of “collect,” then he should have clarified that meaning before he replied. But saying “What do you mean by ‘collect’?” would have been a giveaway.

James Clapper lied: James Clapper is a liar. That’s very clear, isn’t it? I don’t have to parse those worse to finesse the semantics: this is a man guilty of perjury, hard stop. No semantic wiggling can wave that one away. And the president says he has “full faith” in him.

I know Orwell is getting a heavy workout these days, but one of his lasting contributions to semantics was offering the most potent example of how totalitarian states manipulate language as a tool of control and deception. “Least untruthful” is only the latest entry in the dictionary of Newspeak.

About Thomas L. McDonald

Thomas L. McDonald writes about technology, theology, history, games, and shiny things. Details of his rather uneventful life as a professional writer and magazine editor can be found in the About tab.

  • Gary Chapin

    And Big Sister Dianne Feinstein said, “There is no more direct or honest person than Jim Clapper. You can misunderstand the question.” And I believe her. In her circle there probably is no person more direct or honest.

  • victor

    It depends on what the meaning of the word ‘is’ is.

  • FW Ken

    Isn’t lying to Congress a federal felony?

  • Howard

    He might likewise have answered the question, “Did John Wilkes Booth kill Abraham Linconln?” with “No,” because it was loss of blood that killed Lincoln.

  • Martha O’Keeffe

    British politicians have gotten there beforehand:

    UK Cabinet Secretary, Sir Robert Armstrong, who used the phrase “economical with the truth” during the Australian ‘Spycatcher’ trial in 1986.

    Lawyer: What is the difference between a misleading impression and a lie?
    Armstrong: A lie is a straight untruth.
    Lawyer: What is a misleading impression – a sort of bent untruth?
    Armstrong: As one person said, it is perhaps being “economical with the truth”.

    In 1992, Alan Clark was cross-examined during the Matrix Churchill case and embroidered the phrase a little:

    Clark: Well it’s our old friend “being economical”, isn’t it?
    Lawyer: With the truth?
    Clark: With the actualité