August 20, 2004
In politics, a debate can often turn on a good euphemism. Take the “peacekeeper missile,” for example. That deft turn of phrase by President Reagan enabled a huge increase in the defense budget. Likewise, the clever choice of the words “the patriot act” to describe the Ashcroft agenda stampeded Congress into a fast and almost unanimous repeal of rights that were originally secured by real patriots.
Using euphemisms as a form of misdirection is a common and effective political strategy, one that both sides of the political spectrum practice. The pro-abortion rights movement suffered a series of setbacks, for example, until it successfully redefined the issue with a term that was more appealing, as one of “choice.”
What a euphemism can do is frame a debate. And by framing a debate it can often all but determine its outcome.
That’s why the misuse of the word “intelligence” by the Bush administration, when they really mean “information,” is so troubling. What’s even more alarming is the fact the press has allowed the Bush team to repeatedly swap these non-interchangeable terms, which have very different meanings.
So this is an urgent message directed to all reporters covering the White House, the War in Iraq and the Bush administration.
Your assignment: you must take back the word intelligence. Priority: Code Red. You owe it to the country.
One of the most basic responsibilities of the press is to make sure government officials do not deliberately mislead people. When members of the press pass along words without scrutiny that mislead it is more than just sloppy reporting; they are partners in an act of deception.
The ongoing misuse of the word intelligence by senior members of the Bush administration and its repetition by the press is a prime case in point.
Here’s a generic version of a quote you might find in any newspaper today:
“We had intelligence coming out of Iraq,” says an administration official, “that the residents of Fallujah would welcome our soldiers with cookies and milk.”
Now, everyone knows you really can’t blame someone if they rely on intelligence. After all, who wouldn’t trust intelligence? I mean you’d have to be a damn fool not to trust intelligence, right?
That is exactly the subliminal message the Bush team hopes to convey by constantly stating that they relied on intelligence. It comes up in nearly every interview they do, in every excuse they make, and in every attempt to dodge responsibility for their actions.
When it comes to government information gathering, the use of the word intelligence rather than the word information has a long and inglorious history. The CIA’s predecessor was called the Office of Strategic Services. Then someone came up with bright idea to rename the OSS the Central Intelligence Agency. The reason was pretty obvious: it was as hard then as it is now to find a politician who is willing to cast a budget vote against intelligence. Putting the word intelligence into the middle of the new spy agency’s name virtually guaranteed that its budget would be untouchable.
Over time, and again for obvious reasons, the work product produced by the CIA and other similar agencies has itself come to be known as intelligence, even when it is dumb as a brick. (Example: the CIA failing to notice the disintegration of the Soviet Union until well after it fell apart.)
Webster’s Third New International dictionary defines intelligence as “the faculty of understanding, capacity to know or apprehend.” A synonym is “smart.”
Information, on the other hand, is defined as “knowledge communicated by others or obtained from others, by study or investigation.” A synonym is “data.”
These terms do not have the same meaning and they should not be confused.
The Bush administration does not get intelligence from its spy agencies. It gets information. Intelligence is something the Bush team either has or does not have. It is not something that someone else can give them, as desirable as that might be.
The use of the word intelligence by the Bush administration when what is meant is information is a deliberate, cunning, and so far pretty effective, strategy. One that has helped them pass the buck, and the responsibility, for their own bad decisions and miscalculations.
This will continue until a reporter stops an administration official mid-sentence and says “Excuse me, you don’t mean intelligence, you mean information, right?” Asking this question would subject the administration to more of the scrutiny it so richly deserves.
When leaders make bad decisions based on faulty information they are more likely to be held accountable. When that happens it triggers some useful questions: Why did you believe the information? Where did it come from? How reliable is the source? What other information is or was there? Have you made this kind of mistake before? And finally, how good is your judgment?
So let’s get back to using words properly. Otherwise, what’s left is just propaganda.
The administration is trying to avoid accountability by misusing the word intelligence. If the press continues to allow that to happen, they’re accountable as well.