Osama bin Laden’s “man-caused disaster”?
President Obama’s predecessor famously terrorized the English language. But lately, as the new, more fluent commander in chief and his team leave behind George W. Bush’s linguistic legacy on national security — jettisoning hard-line terminology such as “war on terrorism” and “enemy combatant” — they seem in danger of over-articulating.
In a recent interview with Der Spiegel, Janet Napolitano explained why, in her first testimony to Congress as Homeland Security chief, she used particular language to describe continuing perils. “In my speech, although I did not use the word ‘terrorism,’ I referred to ‘man-caused’ disasters,” she said. “That is perhaps only a nuance, but it demonstrates that we want to move away from the politics of fear toward a policy of being prepared for all risks that can occur.”
A worthy goal. But considering the mass casualties perpetrated in Manhattan or Madrid or London in recent years, is it really a good idea to deploy a phrase that’s in danger of suggesting accidental tragedy?
As Peter Baker reports in the New York Times, the Obama administration is opening itself to criticism that it doesn’t take the dangers of the world seriously enough. Says Shannen W. Coffin, who served as counsel to former Vice President Dick Cheney: “They seem more interested in the war on the English language than in what might be thought of as more pressing national security matters. An Orwellian euphemism or two will not change the fact that bad people want to kill us and destroy us as a free people.”
One can always count on a loaded partisan volley from the Cheney camp, but in this case one perhaps not easily deflected in the battle of political perception.
Another national security legacy of the Bush era, deeply troubling, lingers. An internal report from late 2008 assessing the state of the U.S. intelligence system, made public this week, found precious little progress since 9/11 in terms of fixing serious bureaucratic risks. That’s despite the greatest overhaul since World War II of the system, including the creation of the Office of the Director of National Intelligence to oversee America’s spy agencies.
Many senior U.S. intelligence officials interviewed “were unable to articulate a clear understanding of the ODNI’s mission, roles, and responsibilities,” according to the report. U.S. spy agencies are still running “largely disconnected and incompatible” computer systems and have “no standard architecture supporting the storage and retrieval of sensitive intelligence.” And “intelligence information and reports are frequently not being disseminated in a timely manner.”
And while the concept of sharing information between agencies is “supported in principle” among some intelligence leaders, according to the report, “the culture of protecting ‘turf’ remains a problem, and there are few, if any, consequences for failure to collaborate.”
Hopefully the true consequences of such recent turf battles, and the excruciating story behind them, haven’t already gone forgotten.