If there was an ongoing contest in the art of self-contradicting newspeak, a quote from a U.S. military official during the Vietnam War would be the reigning victor for most of the modern era. In describing the decision to ignore the prospect of civilian casualties and vaporize a Vietnamese village, that unnamed official famously told Peter Arnett of the Associated Press that “it became necessary to destroy the town to save it.”
Epitomizing the futility, immorality and nihilism of that era-defining war, the line has achieved true aphorism status—employed to describe any political endeavor that is, well…futile, immoral and nihilistic.
But now, ever so suddenly, the Vietnam quote has been dethroned by an even more oxymoronic line—one that perfectly summarizes the zeitgeist of the post-9/11 era. As Wired’s Spencer Ackerman reports, “Surveillance experts at the National Security Agency won’t tell two powerful United States Senators how many Americans have had their communications picked up by the agency [because] it would violate your privacy to say so.”
In a letter to senators Ron Wyden (D-Ore.) and Mark Udall, the agency wrote: “[A] review of the sort suggested would itself violate the privacy of U.S. persons.”
While the line’s bureaucratic lingo doesn’t roll of the tongue like its Vietnam-era predecessor, it does equal it for sheer audacity. Yes, those actively violating Americans’ privacy claim they can’t tell Congress about their activities because doing so might violate Americans’ privacy.
Of course, what sets this particular oxymoron apart from others—what makes it the new champion of oxymoronic newspeak—is its special mix of incoherence and non-sequitur. This isn’t merely a self-contradictory statement—it’s one that ignores the question at hand. As Wyden told Wired: “All that Senator Udall and I are asking for is a ballpark estimate of how many Americans have been monitored under this law”—not any specific names of those being spied on.
By definition, providing a “ballpark” figure can’t violate any individuals’ privacy. So why would the NSA nonetheless refuse to provide one? Most likely because such an estimate would be a number so big as to become a political problem for the national security establishment.
According to the nonpartisan Electronic Frontier Foundation, “The U.S. government, with assistance from major telecommunications carriers including AT&T, has engaged in a massive program of illegal dragnet surveillance of domestic communications and communications records of millions of ordinary Americans since at least 2001.” That’s right, millions—and that’s merely what happened with one of many programs over the last decade. Moving forward, Wired notes that the NSA is building the “Utah Data Center”—“a project of immense secrecy” designed “to intercept, decipher, analyze, and store vast swaths of the world’s communications as they zap down from satellites and zip through the underground and undersea cables of international, foreign, and domestic networks.”
In the last few years, polls have consistently shown that a majority of Americans are uncomfortable with such pervasive snooping. Considering that, it’s fair to assume that if the government officially acknowledged an even bigger domestic spying regime than we already know about, we might finally reach a tipping point—one in which public outrage forces a wholesale reevaluation of the NSA’s entire mission.
Thus, in the name of self-preservation and self-interest, NSA officials shamelessly offer up the most epically inane oxymoron since Vietnam. They calculate that with a mindless left-versus-right political media more interested in meticulously analyzing the meaningless gaffes of presidential candidates, few news outlets are interested in letting America know about the most serious affronts to civil liberties.
Unfortunately, that calculation is probably accurate.