For Obama, Words Conceal the Indefensible

How the president uses language as a cover for the abuse of power.


Let President Obama be clear, will you? He seems to think it's important.

"The 'let me be clear' preface" is a recurring rhetorical tic for Obama, the Washington Post pointed out in 2010, and it's "become a signal that what follows will be anything but."

On Aug. 9, with his approval rating at a near all-time low of 41 percent, facing sharp scrutiny over the National Security Agency's dragnet data-collection plan, Obama held a press conference where he insisted: "I want to make clear once again that America is not interested in spying on ordinary people."

At the same time, Obama's Justice Department released a white paper defending the proposition that the PATRIOT Act allowed the covert collection of all Americans' phone records for a period of seven years because, under the language of Section 215, they're "relevant to an authorized investigation" of international terrorism.

Has there ever been a president whose career has depended so heavily on the power of language? Obama leapt onto the political scene with a stirring keynote address at the 2004 Democratic National Convention, and, on the campaign trail in 2008, when Hillary Clinton suggested her opponent was too fond of speechifying, he responded with yet another passionate speech, declaiming: "Don't tell me words don't matter."

He was right, words do matter. Which is why it's ironic that the public case for so many of Obama's policies depends on doing violence to plain language. To our various "wars" on drugs, crime, and terror — add Obama's "War on Words."

The day before Obama's defensive presser, the Post's Charles Krauthammer accused the president of launching "the world's first lexicological war," marked by "linguistic tricks," "deliberate misnomers" and "transparent euphemisms."

Indeed, the euphemisms may be the most transparent thing about the self-styled "most transparent administration in history." Krauthammer, an inveterate hawk, focused on phrases suggesting that the president lacks the stomach for the War on Terror, or "overseas contingency operations," in Obama's preferred coinage.

But Krauthammer missed some of Obama's most glaring euphemisms, deployed to "disguise the unpleasantness" of war.

Last year, the administration added a new phrase to the doublespeak lexicon. Americans slated for death by drone go on something called "the disposition matrix," which lacks the harsh clarity of "kill list."

Harry Truman famously redefined war in Korea as a "police action." For its 2011 Libyan adventure, the Obama Team did HST one better: Raining cruise missiles on Tripoli isn't "war," deputy national security adviser Ben Rhodes insisted; it's "kinetic military action."

That's the kind of construction that makes your head hurt: "Kinetic," "resulting from motion" is the only kind of "action" you can have. What's the alternative? "Static" military action?

At times, it seems that Team Obama claims full-spectrum dominance over the English language itself. That's apparent in their legal position papers rationalizing undeclared wars, assassination of American citizens, and mass surveillance.

To get around the War Powers Resolution's limits on presidential war-making, State Department legal adviser Harold Koh argued that bombing Libya was "distinct from the kind of 'hostilities' contemplated" by the WPR.

In a DOJ memo that was leaked earlier this year, the administration claimed the right to kill U.S. Citizens who present an "imminent threat of violent attack." Despite what your dictionary may tell you, "imminent" doesn't mean "in the immediate future."

Nor, in the case of Friday's memo defending the legality of dragnet surveillance, does "relevant" mean "having significant and demonstrable bearing on the matter at hand."

Words matter because they mean things. But, as George Orwell wrote in 1946, when politics becomes "the defense of the indefensible … language must suffer." This administration has made that all too clear.

This column originally appeared in the Washington Examiner.