The scholars and wordsmiths at the Department of Homeland Security leave everyone who aspires to good citizenship speechless.
Some of the wordsmiths put together a manual for agents who track the Internet, looking for evildoers and those who aspire to evildoing. Those agents are assigned to pick up suspicious words for further investigation. Some of the worst of the evildoers have been caught after their schemes, plots and intrigues were detected in emails intercepted by Homeland Security agents.
Long lists of words the innocent should never use were acquired by the Electronic Privacy Information Center, a privacy watchdog group that obtained the lists through a request for documents under the Freedom of Information Act. It’s clear that federal agents who conduct Internet searches for offending words can succeed only if they have a lot of time on their hands.
Some of the words, such as “attack” or “terrorism” or “dirty bomb,” are so obvious that a caveman could detect them. Others, such as the words cops, police, riot, emergency landing, powder (white), swine, pork and flu, do not seem so obviously dangerous. Your Aunt Evelyn in West Gondola, scribbling an affectionate note at the bottom of a birthday card, could invite federal scrutiny without intending to harm anyone.
Other words suspicious to the feds include airplane, subway, Port Authority, grid, power, electric, port, dock, bridge, delays, cocaine, marijuana, border, Mexico, kidnap, bust, Iraq, Iran, nuclear, tornado, tsunami, storm, forest fire, ice, snow, sleet, Cain, Abel, China, worm, anthrax, cloud, North Korea and “lightening,” presumably meaning lightning.
The suspicious words are included in something called the Analyst’s Desktop Binder, used by agents at the National Operations Center to identify “media reports that reflect adversely on [the Department of Homeland Security] and response activities.”
The existence of the verboten list emerged from the bowels of bureaucracy only after a hearing before a House subcommittee looking into how analysts monitor newspapers, magazines, Internet sites and social networks. They’re looking for “comments that ‘reflect adversely’ on the government.
This covers a lot of ground - sinful, criminal, harmless and otherwise - but Homeland Security reassures one and all that it is not looking for disparaging remarks about the Obama administration, the government or the bureaucrats who work for the government. The agents are not looking for signs of “general dissent.” Of course not. Who would suspect the government of poking its nose into the business of private citizens? Would Janet Napolitano, the secretary of homeland security, do that?
The government nevertheless can be dull and dimwitted. An investigator for one of the many government security agencies, a young man with the requisite 1950s haircut and polite manner, one day called to ask whether I would vouch for the character of a young man, just out of Harvard Law, who had applied for a position with a Senate committee. I knew him to be exactly what the government should be looking for, Harvard trained or not, and said so.
“Well,” the agent replied, “we have information that he lived abroad for several years. Do you know why?”
I looked at the dates he had indeed lived abroad, in a large European capital famous for its spies, furtive nocturnal liaisons and dark diplomatic intrigues. “Yes,” I said, “that is roughly the time his father was the American ambassador there, and the young man would have been between 2 and 6 years old.”
The agent was not persuaded. “Still, that is a long time to live abroad. He may have had a good reason to spend so much uninterrupted time in a foreign capital, but we would like to know why.” The young man finally was cleared for duty several months later, the stain on his baby character overlooked.
The watchdog group that obtained the list of suspicious words complained to the House subcommittee on counterterrorism and intelligence that the Homeland Security list is “broad, vague and ambiguous” and includes “vast amounts of First Amendment-protected speech that is entirely unrelated to the Department of Homeland Security mission to protect the public against terrorism and disasters.”
The bureaucrats trying to keep the homeland secure, even at the cost of damage to the First Amendment, concede that the manual’s language is vague and should be “updated.” In the hands of normal speakers of English, the lists can be harmless enough, but computers are only as smart as whoever is punching the keyboard. That’s not always very smart. The hands of government agents are heavy on all of us. That’s why watchdogs need teeth.
• Wesley Pruden is editor emeritus of The Washington Times.