Beware of Doublespeak in the War on Terrorism

Study exposes euphemisms and half-truths

September 6, 2006

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Since the catastrophic terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001, the federal government has routinely employed a disturbing new vocabulary — or doublespeak — to expand its police powers, claims the new Cato Institute study, “Doublespeak and the War on Terrorism.”

By compiling a laundry list of doublespeak terms used throughout the war, Timothy Lynch, author of the study and director of Cato’s Project on Criminal Justice, scrutinizes the government’s manipulative use of language and exposes the underlying issues it obscures.

  • The study finds that the Bush administration has tried to bypass the constitutional framework limiting the power to search and seize private property by championing the use of “National Security Letters” (NSLs) in lieu of obtaining search warrants. “Unlike search warrants,” Lynch notes, “NSLs can be executed without the approval of judges.”
  • Furthermore, the term “debriefing” has become the “new euphemism for interrogation and the third degree,” writes Lynch. According to the study: “[W]hen pressed by members of Congress, U.S. Attorney General Alberto Gonzales admitted that the president could order the CIA to treat certain prisoners inhumanely. In sum, the administration can legally authorize an inhumane debriefing, but not authorize torture.”
  • Even the U.S. Military has used doublespeak to describe events at Guantanamo, argues Lynch.  When three prisoners hanged themselves in their cells, the Camp Commander, Rear Admiral Harry Harris, called the suicides “an act of asymmetrical warfare” against the American military.

“Reasonable people can disagree about what should be done to combat terrorists,” Lynch concludes. “However, a conscientious discussion of the options before us must begin with a clear understanding of what our government is actually doing.”

Briefing Paper #98: http://www.cato.org/pub_display.php?pub_id=6654