Definitions for the American Surveillance State

David Sirota of Salon has developed an excellent set of terms to speed along discussions about the contemporary American surveillance state. My own favorites include:

Least untruthful: A new legal doctrine that allows an executive branch official to issue a deliberate, calculated lie to Congress yet avoid prosecution for perjury, as long as the official is protecting the executive branch’s political interests. Usage example: Director of National Intelligence James Clapper avoided prosecution for perjury because he insisted that the blatant lie he told to Congress was merely the “least untruthful” statement he could have made.


Modest encroachment: A massive, indiscriminate intrusion. Usage example: President Obama has deemed the NSA’s “collect it all” surveillance operation, which has captured 20 trillion information transactions and touches virtually all aspects of American life, a “modest encroachment” on citizens’ right to privacy.

The full listing of terms is depressingly cynical. However, the persistent – if often humorous – turn to cynicism may ultimately limit how politicians address and respond to Snowden’s surveillance revelations. What Snowden confirmed raises existential challenges to the potential to imagine, let alone actualize, a deliberative democratic state. The accompanying risk is that instead of addressing such challenges head on, citizens may retreat to cynicism rather than engaging in the hard work of recuperating their increasingly-authoritarian democratic institutions. We’re at a point where we need a more active, not more withdrawn and bemused, citizen response to government excesses.

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