Friday, March 07, 2008

Language and the “terror threat”

One reason why intelligence agencies will never run out of work isn’t the bottomless source of threats, but rather the language they use to describe threats. A good example of this was provided by US Northern Command and the Department of Homeland Security on Thursday, as they made public their views on the al-Qaeda threat to the US. Let us look at the specific language used as they outline the threat — all italics are mine:

Northern Command chief US Air Force General Gene Renuart, paraphrased by Associated Press: “terrorists may be plotting more urgently to attack the United States to maintain their credibility and ability to recruit followers.”

AP continues: While [Renuart] said that US authorities have thwarted attacks on a number of occasions, he said terrorist cells may be working harder than ever to plot high-impact events. He did not point to any specific intelligence that authorities have received but said the “chatter” they are hearing “gives me no reason to believe they’re going to slow down” in their efforts to target the US.

So he has no reason to believe that an attack is not being planned, but there is nothing to back that claim. He continues: “I think there may be a certain sense of urgency among that organization to have an effect. So it would tell me that they’re trying harder.”

The sun may not rise tomorrow. It may rain tomorrow. Or again, it may not. Is this why our countries are pouring billions of dollars into security intelligence, so that generals and NORTHCOM chiefs can state the obvious? It gets better.

While Homeland Security spokesman Russ Knocke was saying that: “There continues to be no credible information telling us about an imminent threat to [the US] homeland at this time,” Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff was telling us he had a “gut feeling” that the US faced a heightened risk of attack.

I have a gut feeling it may rain tomorrow. Are you going to decide whether to cancel that picnic in the park based on that, a gut feeling?

Readers should always be wary of threat assessments that use such language as may — which, if we pay close attention, is used on a frequent basis. “May” means absolutely nothing, as it is simultaneously a positive and a negative, which simply cannot exist. Either they will, or they won’t, based on the would-be terrorists’ intent and capabilities.

To the uncritical reader, however — of which there must be plenty else all those buffoons at DHS and NORTHCOM would be laughed out of town — the message maintains the level of fear that those agencies thrive on. It justifies budgets, intrusive powers, and wars, allowing those agencies and contractors that stand to gain from the perpetual war footage to make a profit.

Of course I may be wrong about all this…

No comments: