Barry Eisler

Wednesday, May 31, 2006

The Last Assassin is Here

Hi all, I hope you'll forgive what I hope will be no more than an annual indulgence: an announcement that my new books goes on sale today. It's called The Last Assassin, and it's the fifth in the award-winning series about half-Japanese, half-American "contract killer with a conscience" (EW) John Rain.

I had a great time writing this book -- partly because the research took me to Barcelona and the Sea of Japan, of course, but more importantly because of the opportunity to spend more time with Rain as his character evolves. In The Last Assassin, our hero finds himself in unfamiliar circumstances -- not just geographically, but emotionally, as well. His romance with Israeli agent Delilah is deepening, but at the same time he learns of the existence of an infant son by a former love, Japanese jazz pianist Midori Kawamura. Even for an ordinary citizen, a love triangle is dangerous business. But for a guy like Rain, it's going to be downright deadly...

In the first four Rain books, the stakes, generally speaking, are Rain's life. In The Last Assassin, Rain's life, although in constant danger, hardly matters to him -- in fact, he would gladly trade it to protect his child from enemies who look at the child as a way to get to Rain. And the harder Rain tries, the worse the danger becomes, such that you can think of the plot line of the book as a series of increasingly desperate double-or-nothing bets Rain is forced to gamble, with his son's life and his own soul the stakes of the game.

My interest in those stakes and what Rain would do if forced to play for them became first the backbone, and finally the heart of the new book. The flesh, as ever, is suspense and action; realistic tradecraft and other operator tactics; evocative locations, in this case Barcelona, New York, Tokyo, and Wajima; steamy sex; most of all, a fascinating ensemble of characters led by Rain himself, a "multifaceted killer with the soul of a poet" (Mystery Ink Online).

The Rain who will take you through this book isn't the same man we met (seemingly so long ago!) in Rain Fall. Rain is aging, for one thing, and as he does so his priorities begin to shift. His outlook changes, too, in reaction to the loves he's known and losses he's endured throughout the series. Most of all, Rain isn't the loner he was, nor does he want to be. But building a clan -- his lover Delilah, his partner and friend, ex-Marine sniper Dox -- presents its own dangers to a man used to freedom of maneuver. As Rain notes in the opening of the book when he reconnoiters Barcelona before meeting Delilah there, "Barcelona was unfamiliar, but the real territory I was trying to navigate isn't marked on any map." That new territory, and Rain's attempt to find his way safely through it, is the story of The Last Assassin. I hope you'll enjoy it. And if you find yourself in one of the more than 30 cities I'll be promoting in through June and July, stop by. It would be good to see you.
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Monday, May 29, 2006

Seeing Ourselves Through Other Eyes

Last week, the Pentagon released its annual China Military Power Report. In the course of detailing China's ongoing military buildup, the 58-page report notes that "China's leaders have yet to adequately explain the purposes or desired end-states of their military expansion."

This phrase struck me as strange. Why would we expect China, or any country, to explain itself to our satisfaction? Would we believe them if they tried? Isn't the job of divining China's true intentions the job of our State Department experts and CIA spooks?

Besides, don't we already know the answer? China's economy is increasingly dependent on foreign-sourced energy. China therefore seeks a stronger ability to project power to secure sea lanes and otherwise protect those energy supplies. China also wants to pressure Taiwan, possibly to reacquire the island by force, but, even short of that, to cause the US to devote more forces to protecting its democratic ally.

Other explanations: China fears a US-North Korean conflict that could spill over its border. China has fought wars with neighbors India, Russia, and Vietnam, and if new tensions arise would like to deter or defeat them through greater military strength. China has a restive muslim population in its hinterland and would like to be better able to deal with it militarily.

Finally, China probably doesn't trust US intentions. They want to deal with us as equals on all fields, including militarily.

(I think that about covers it. Maybe now China won't have to explain.)

But the phrase isn't just strange; it's also probably unhelpful. China is nationalistic, sometimes to the point of prickliness. During a visit to the Macau museum several years ago, I was struck by the obvious "we are a great power and deserve to be treated like one!" subtext in the displays on the return of Macau by Portugal. I have western educated Chinese friends who are surprisingly vehement in insisting that Taiwan will always rightfully belong to China. And remember how way back in those halcyon, pre 9-11 days, Colin Powell persuaded China's leaders to release a US aircrew only by assuring them that we were "very, very sorry" (for once, a sensible, deliberate use of the double very!) to have unintentionally crossed into Chinese airspace?

(BTW, that episode also involved some thoughtful linguistic choices. Wishing to avoid inflaming public opinion, the administration never referred to our airmen as hostages or even captives. They were instead "being detained.")

So I can only imagine how an implicit demand that China's leaders explain their military policies to us will go over in Beijing. "Explain to you?" I would guess Hu and company are thinking. "No, you explain to us!"

And maybe we do explain ourselves to China, at least in our own eyes. But are those explanations any more satisfactory to the Chinese than theirs would be to us?

By way of explaining the request for an explanation, the report also notes that "Absent greater transparency, international reactions to China’s military growth will understandably hedge against these unknowns."

Something tells me the Chinese are aware of this possible problem. It's hard for me to imagine them saying, "Hey, that's a good point... maybe we should be a little more transparent with these guys."

The notion that we could insist on an explanation like this from China suggests to me that we don't have a good idea of how China, or probably other countries, perceives us. We see ourselves as the good guys, with a concomitant right to demand explanations from others. But whether we're good or not good isn't the point. How others perceive us is. For those who don't share our view of ourselves, demands like this one will come across as arrogant, irritating, suspect, and weak.

This isn't some touch-feely notion. If we misapprehend the other side's perceptions, there's little chance that our demands or other initiatives will achieve the results we want and expect. What do we do after that?

Part of knowing your enemy is knowing how he perceives you. Without it, the war on terror is going to be a long one indeed.
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Tuesday, May 23, 2006

Gasaholic Communists

There's a lot of angst in the air, and much hand wringing in Congress, regarding the current price of gasoline. There should be. Gasoline is way too cheap.

What am I, one of those social-engineering, green-minded, soft-headed knee jerk liberals who wants to foster a utopia where everyone would commute to work by bicycle and the only place to find an SUV would be a museum?

Not at all. I'm just a plain old, market-oriented conservative -- a dying breed, it's true, and so a quaint way to picture oneself, but that's what I am. I trust markets to set prices and don't trust governments when they interfere. All I want, really, is for the price of gasoline to reflect its true cost. To let the market work.

"What do you mean, its true cost?" you're saying. "Between federal and state taxes, there's already an average of a 59 cent surcharge on every gallon of gas we buy at the pump. Doesn't that mean the price of gasoline is already higher than its true cost?"

No. The true price of a gallon of gasoline is whatever it costs the nation to secure it. How much of the size and scope of our military is devoted to securing access to foreign oil? How often do we in fact have to wage war to secure that access? After all, while there were doubtless many reasons for the first and the current gulf war, it's impossible to imagine either of them if Iraq didn't have the world's second largest oil reserves.

Our use of oil, which involves the transfer of hundreds of billions of US dollars to regimes like those running Iran, Russia, Saudi Arabia, and Venezuela, strengthens these anti-democratic regimes and finances their foreign agendas. What does that cost us?

Add these and other costs up, subject them to rational economic analysis, and you'll have the true cost of a gallon of gasoline. The difference between the true cost and the current price can be closed with a tax. Anything less than a full tax is simply a hidden subsidy. And as a good, market-focused conservative, I don't want the government to be in the business of subsidizing commodities.

And I know you don't, either. We're all Americans, after all; we know how silly it is when communist regimes like China and North Korea subsidize rice, or when the Soviets used to create those terrible Moscow queues by subsidizing bread. We're smarter than that and wouldn't want to dabble with that sort of communist market interference here.

Except... maybe we would. How long does an American politician last after suggesting that road access be priced higher during rush hour? Only until the next election, typically. But roads are in higher demand during rush hour. If the price of access is the same when the demand is higher, you'll get... why, you'll get queuing. Of course, we prefer to call road queuing "traffic jams." It helps obscure the real cause of the problem: rush hour road access is artificially cheap.

But everybody needs access to roads! And everybody has to buy gasoline! If it were more expensive, only the rich could afford it!

Well, that sounds like the definition of a market economy to me. After all, what could be more natural -- and desirable -- than items in higher demand commanding higher prices? If you think there should be exceptions to this rule, I hope you'll have a little sympathy for those Chinese peasants. They can as reasonably claim to need to eat as we claim to need to drive. Why are subsidies and artificially low prices communist claptrap for them, and a fundamental right for us? What is it about roads, cars, and driving that perverts our principles and sullies our common sense?

It's an odd thing. The same pundits and politicians who insist that medical marijuana be prohibited across the board because ordinary people might want a toke, too, simultaneously insist not only that Americans should be able to drive whatever fuel-inefficient vehicles they want, but that the government should subsidize their ability to do so. Why do we focus only on the potential costs of the first, and only on the public's appetites for the second? If we had to diagnose politics like these, we might call them... schizophrenic.

Still not convinced that something's wrong here? Try this: when it comes to cars, we're so neurotic that our favored means of creating fuel economy is by having Congress ordain it, in the form of Corporate Average Fuel Economy (CAFE) standards. This is classic, Soviet-style, command economy stuff, yet when it comes to cars we embrace the practice as though it's Adam Smith himself. Congress ordering fuel efficiency, rather than permitting the market to create demand for it? It's worse than embarrassing. It's un-American.

President Bush made headlines in his January State of the Union address when he described America as "addicted to oil." He was right about the addiction, but wrong about the source. We're not addicted to oil. We're addicted to subsidized oil. And the way to cure our addiction isn't through "technology," as the president suggested with Dr. Feelgood sincerity and a magician's sleight of hand, but simply by ending those insidious, hidden subsidies and letting the market work the magic we Americans know it will.
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Friday, May 19, 2006

FAM Management a Disgrace

While we're on the subject of airplanes, here's something considerably less lighthearted than pretentiousness at 30,000 feet.

It seems that the Federal Air Marshals -- the men and women who fly undercover on commercial flights as the last line of defense against another airborne terrorist attack -- are being put at risk, along with the passengers they're charged with protecting, by the gross ineptitude of FAM management.

Such is the conclusion of a report by the House Judiciary Committee, which recently completed a two-year investigation (the investigation took a while because of FAM management stonewalling).

Here's an article link. Google air marshal anonymity and you'll get much more.

Some of the idiocy of FAM management is mind boggling. Grooming and dress codes, for undercover operators? And even if, as a FAM spokesman claims, those policies have been modified, why have any dress code at all? It's not as though management has to worry about the public impression FAMs might make because -- are we all taking notes? -- these men and women are under cover. No one is supposed to know who they are.

The reason they're under cover, I hope to needless to say, is because we don't want to make it easy for terrorists to know who to take out first. We want to make it hard for terrorists, not easy, right?

Don't be so sure. On several occasions, FAM management invited news crews to film FAMs training for their missions, and the footage and commentary were subsequently broadcast on network news. I imagine al Qaeda has been grateful for the opportunity to learn FAM tools, training, and tactics.

Think about the burden that FAMs accept. One mistake, and an entire plane full of people, including the FAMs, will die. It's possible that a FAM could have to stand by while passengers were executed before making his move if that's what were required to save everyone else on the plane. Imagine the emotional burden you would have to carry after such a "success." Imagine what it would cost you.

I'd say it's a pretty tough job, and a hell of an important one. So why are the people who purport to manage this organization making it so much harder? What are their motives? What is going on in their minds?

Cronyism in FEMA. And in the CIA. Maybe that's what's ailing the FAMs, too.

None of this is a coincidence. There's a pattern here. You might even call it a culture. And in my experience in business, cultures are always set at the top.
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Thursday, May 18, 2006

Pretentiousness at 30,000 Feet

Coming back from the Much Ado About Books convention in Jacksonville, Florida on Sunday, I managed to upgrade to first class on my United flight. The steward (yes, I know it's fashionable to call them flight attendants, but I don't see what was wrong with steward and prefer two syllables to four, other things being equal) greeted each first class passenger and inquired, "And will you be joining us for lunch today?"

I couldn't help myself. When he got to me, I glanced left and right, then inquired back, "Is there somewhere else I could go?"

Is United training its people to talk this way? (Obviously, I need to fly first class more often to collect more data.) Help me understand: is the idea that by having the steward ask, "Will you be joining us for lunch today," instead of simply, "Will you be having lunch," you'll suddenly forget that you're strapped into a flying tin can breathing recycled air and be fooled into thinking you're enjoying the eight course gustation menu at Le Cirque, instead?

Look, I'm all for politeness and nuance and I believe in the power of language, but you have to use words properly to achieve the desired effect. You can't join people for lunch when you're already sitting down and have nowhere else to go without a parachute. The phrase just doesn't translate at 30,000 feet. And for the steward to suggest otherwise feels like the cheap gimmick it is.

United, if you want people to think they're having a fine dining experience in first class, you're probably going to just have to provide one. It would be more expensive than aping the customs of terrestrial restaurants, but it would have a better chance of success.

I mean, what's next, lunch reservations?
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Sunday, May 14, 2006

Questions About the NSA's Data Mining

Although the Bush administration hasn't formally acknowledged it, it seems clear that at some point after 9/11 the NSA began a data mining operation in which the NSA examined phone numbers called by tens of millions of Americans with the aim of creating "a database of every call ever made." Email addresses and internet use might also be subjects of the program (I'd be surprised if they weren't). The ostensible goal of the operation is to tease out and expose terrorist networks.

Revelations about the program are acting almost as a political litmus test. The Wall Street Journal thinks CIA Director nominee Michael Hayden, who ran the program at the NSA, should get a Medal of Freedom; Frank Rich of the New York Times calls him "yet another second-rate sycophant."

Here are the questions that I think will take us toward the heart of the matter:

1. What is the program's benefit? That is to say, does it expose terrorists?

I'm not sure. On the one hand, I doubt terrorists would be so stupid as to use traceable phones to call each other. On the other hand, terrorists, like other criminals, sometimes do remarkably stupid things. I can imagine terrorists believing they could call each other as long as they used code in their conversations and not realizing that it was the fact of the calls themselves that might lead to exposure. Or they might use pay phones, but those pay phones could then be monitored more closely.

Even if the program could theoretically expose stupid terrorists, though, we still have to ask whether it could adequately single them out from under mountains of false positives. Think of how many phone calls are made on any given day in the United States. That's a lot of data. Even if the program could narrow the likely hits down to only a few thousand, that's still a huge number of people for the FBI to investigate.

Without hearing from someone with expertise in the field of data mining, for me the answer to the question, "Does it expose terrorists?" is, maybe.

2. What does the program cost? That is to say, how much of a civil liberties intrusion does it represent?

It seems that the program hasn't involved listening to the content of phone calls (that was the earlier NSA program, exposed in December); rather, it seems the program's focus has been solely an examination of who's been calling whom. How invasive this feels is going to vary from person to person. My own feeling is, it's a gray area. If the government comes into my house, that's an intrusion. If they look at my house from the street, it's not. If they go through my garbage, that's a gray area (BTW, there is judicial law on all these scenarios. I'm not (yet) talking about the legal outcomes; I'm talking about how these government activities feel to me as an individual). Similarly, if the government listens to the content of my phone call, that feels like an intrusion. If they observe me with a cell phone, it's not. If they examine records to see whom I've been calling, that feels like a gray area. Your mileage may vary.

Another aspect of the program's cost is its potential for abuse. Frank Rich, in his May 14 New York Times column, suggests that the program was aimed not at al al Qaeda, but at domestic leakers. My guess would be slightly different: I imagine the program was indeed originally targeted at AQ, but regardless of whether if was found useful for its original purpose, I can all to easily see it being continued for, shall we say, domestic purposes. This is just speculation, of course, but when I imagine what it's like to be part of this embattled administration, with a sub 30% approval rating, no way out of a foreign disaster of its own making, and upcoming midterm elections, I can easily imagine the desperation and paranoia that would make certain players turn the NSA on the "traitors" in the government and media who are causing all their problems.

But my take in this regard is partly a function of my distrust of the current administration. If you trust Bush et al and believe they're good men, you might not share my concerns. Still, I think a program like this one would lead almost any administration to abuse, and I'm not much more comfortable with it in the abstract than I am in its particulars.

(By the way, remember when the first NSA domestic-surveillance program was revealed last year by the New York Times? Bush assured us that "one end of the communication must be outside the United States." I wondered at the time how, given the program's objectives, such a limitation could possibly be relevant. It now seems that it wasn't true, either.)

Let's stop here for a moment. Part of the reason reactions to the program are so divided, I think, is because it's inherently difficult to measure the program's benefits (the administration claims that the program and others like it have saved thousands of lives, but I place no weight at all on those claims given the source. Maybe the program has saved lives, maybe not. The administration has too much incentive to lie to be trusted on this) and individual impressions of the cost are idiosyncratic. Accordingly, people are coming to radically different answers to the cost/benefit question.

3. But there's another important question. Regardless of its cost effectiveness, is the program legal?

The leftist reaction is, "Of course it's illegal. The Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act, which Congress passed in 1978, created so-called FISA courts that must issue warrants before Americans can be subjected to eavesdropping. The administration conducted this program in the absence of FISA warrants. Ergo, illegal."

The rightist reaction is, "All the NSA did was look at what phone numbers were calling what phone numbers. That's not eavesdropping. No eavesdropping, no need for warrants. Ergo, legal."

I'd like to know more before answering. But I will say this: I've never been able to understand why the administration refused to get FISA warrants for the program that was disclosed in December, a program that apparently does involve actual eavesdropping. I can't think of any legitimate reason for the administration's failure to do so. The FISA courts almost never even refuse a requested warrant, and the FISA act provides even for retroactive warrants in cases where an agency like the NSA has to act too quickly to get a warrant in advance. The administration has already blown the "but this wasn't eavesdropping" argument with the first program. It's too late for them to claim it here.

In fact, it's probably inaccurate to think of these as two separate programs. First, the NSA plays connect-the-dots with the phone numbers. Next, it listens in on phone numbers that look suspicious. Same program, different steps.

One other thing I'd like to know is, why were the phone companies turning over these records in the absence of subpoenas? Qwest refused, but AT&T, Verizon, and BellSouth cooperated. Was this out of a sense of patriotism? Were there implicit threats involving government contract awards?

What do you think? What am I missing?
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Monday, May 08, 2006

More Leadership from Congress...

Representative Patrick Kennedy, a six-term Democrat from Rhode Island, admitted being addicted to prescription drugs after driving his green 1997 Ford Mustang convertible into a security barrier near the Capitol Friday and almost creaming a police officer heading in the opposite direction. The police report said that, at the time of the accident, Mr. Kennedy's "eyes were red and watery, speech was slightly slurred and, upon exiting his vehicle, his balance was unsure."

Well, that sounds like prescription drugs to me.

(This isn't the first time for Kennedy, BTW. He went to rehab as a teenager for cocaine addiction, and has since said he was in recovery for depression and alcoholism.)

Kennedy said he was rushing to a vote. It was 2:30 in the morning.

Here's Kennedy's mea culpa: "I struggle every day with this disease, as do millions of Americans."

Translation: this isn't my fault, any more than it's the fault of all the other victims who suffer from it.

Look, I'm not an expert. Maybe alcoholism and other forms of drug addiction are a disease. But is that really the point? Shouldn't we -- shouldn't Kennedy -- be focusing on whether, as a victim of this disease, he's capable of fulfilling his responsibilities as a representative to the US Congress?

Glaucoma is a disease, and it can cause blindness. What would be the relevance of the cause of the blindness if a sufferer wanted a job as a bus driver? We would say, with sincere sympathy, that the person was unqualified, and should find another way to contribute to society.

Longtime Kennedy friend and former campaign manager Jack McConnell said calls for Kennedy's resignation were misguided.

''If Congressman Kennedy had had a heart attack, nobody at all would be calling for him to step aside.''

Well, I guess if Kennedy had suffered a heart attack instead of being so blotto that by his own admission, "I simply do not remember getting out of bed, being pulled over by the police or being cited for three driving infractions," we wouldn't be having this discussion. But what if, after the heart attack, Kennedy had been brain damaged? Or lapsed into a coma? Would we be discussing the origins of his condition then? Or only the condition itself?

Bill Lynch, chairman of the state Democratic Party, said people in Rhode Island "respect the fact that [Kennedy is] courageous enough to deal with this in the public eye, which is very difficult.''

Do they really? I don't. Where else was Kennedy going to deal with this? He crashed his car in public. The police arrested him in public. And all right, getting caught in this kind of behavior in public is difficult, I'll give Lynch that. But I can't muster a lot of respect for someone who's doing something difficult when there's simply no alternative, easy or otherwise.

Senator Edward Kennedy said of his son: "I love Patrick very much and am very proud of him. All of us in the family admire his courage in speaking publicly about very personal issues and fully support his decision to seek treatment."

Look, Patrick is Edward's son, so the senior Kennedy had to say something. And he gave it his best, with those three "verys" trying to pump up a shaky vote of confidence.

But again, what, precisely, is PK's courageous act? And why is it even noteworthy that EK supports PK's decision to seek treatment? Could EK have conceivably counseled PK against treatment?

I'd also like to know when it become a virtue to discuss personal issues in public. Call me old-fashioned, but I find this kind of behavior weak and vaguely embarrassing. I'd much rather see our leaders doing their job and not insisting that I get to know them so well.

Predictably, Kennedy made sure to say "I'm taking full responsibility." But responsibility for what, and to do what, exactly? Let's go back to sympathetic Jack McConnell's heart attack analogy, and substitute the words "heart attack" for the words "drug and alcohol addiction:"

"I take full responsibility for my heart attack, meaning I will promptly check in to the nearest emergency room."

That would be a non sequitur, of course. And in fact, Kennedy's use of the "I take full responsibility" dodge is implicit acknowledgment that his condition is nothing at all like a heart attack. Taking full responsibility for Kennedy's problems would mean resigning his seat and finding some other way to serve the public weal, a way for which he has not disqualified himself. But that would also entail a genuine regard for the people of Rhode Island, rather than a narcissistic focus only on what's best for Patrick.

I don't mean to be harsh here. Kennedy clearly has problems, and clearly needs help. I hope he'll get that help and solve his problems. But in the meantime, I don't want him driving the bus.

I only wish Rush Limbaugh were here to offer some guidance on all this.
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Sunday, May 07, 2006

Our Luminaries in Congress

The rumor is, outgoing CIA Director Porter Goss's replacement will be Air Force Gen. Michael Hayden, currently deputy to National Intelligence Director John Negroponte.

Representative Pete Hoekstra, the chairman of the House Intelligence Committee, offered the following insights on Fox News Sunday: "Bottom line: I do believe he's the wrong person, the wrong place at the wrong time."

There might have been some actual thinking behind Hoekstra's "bottom line" commentary. If so, he concealed it well. If Hayden is the wrong person for the job, why not just focus on that? The CIA isn't wrong. The time isn't wrong. It's the person we're talking about... or should be.

Hoekstra added, "I don't think anything I've said is new to the White House."

No, I don't think so either.

Representative Nancy Pelosi of California, the Democratic House leader, argued that we shouldn't have a military man leading the civilian CIA.

"There's a power struggle going on between the Department of Defense and the entire rest of the intelligence community," she said, "so I don't see how you have a four-star general heading up the CIA."

I don't know. Sounds like a four-star general in the position might be a way to end that power struggle right quick. Does Pelosi want the power struggle to continue?

Republican senator Saxby Chambliss of Georgia said he believed that even if General Hayden resigned his military commission, serious conflicts would remain.

"I think the fact that he is part of the military today would be the major problem," Chambliss said on ABC-TV. "Now, just resigning commission and moving on, putting on a striped suit, a pinstriped suit versus an air force uniform, I don't think makes much difference."

Why wouldn't resigning his commission, ending his right to issue orders to those below and obligation to obey orders from those above, and removing himself from the dictates of military law, make a difference? What is Chambliss arguing? That Hayden has too many friends in the Air Force? That military service should be a permanent ban on certain government positions?

I know polls show that 22% of Americans approve of Congress's performance. If you're among that 22%, could you tell me what I'm missing?
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Friday, May 05, 2006

More Verbal Sleight of Hand

Porter Goss, head of the CIA, has just resigned. At the announcement, sitting next to President Bush, Goss said, "I would like to report to you that the agency is back on a very even keel and sailing well."

First, note that unnecessary "very." At least he didn't say "very, very."

Now, I don't know if it was conscious or unconscious, but I'd expect that if things really were going well at the Agency, let alone very well, Goss would have said, "I'm pleased to report," or "I'm proud to report," not something that's perilously close to "I wish I could report..."

The other quote I read was, "I believe the agency is on a very even keel, sailing well, I honestly believe that we have improved dramatically."

Again, Goss's focus on his belief, rather than on actual conditions, is telling. His additional, unnecessary protestation that his belief is "honestly" held is more telling still.

Bush's take is also interesting: "Porter's tenure at the CIA was one of transition, where he's helped this agency become integrated into the intelligence community, and that was a tough job."

You bet it was a tough job! The Agency used to be at least nominally in charge of all US intelligence, and the DCI -- Director of Central Intelligence -- was supposed to be head not only of the CIA, but of all the other intelligence agencies, too. Now the DCI reports to John Negroponte, the new, post 9/11 Director of National Intelligence, not directly to the president, and the CIA has been "integrated" as just another intelligence agency among many others run by the DNI's new bureaucracy.

I don't know about you, but all this has the same feel to me as Chairman of the Joint Chiefs Peter Pace's defense of Defense Secretary Rumsfeld against criticism by six retired generals. The generals criticized Rumsfeld on grounds of competence, leadership, and style, and Pace defended the secretary's work ethic and patriotism. If I had been Rumsfeld, I would not have found this a robust defense. In fact, I would have interpreted it as implicit agreement with my critics.

Read between the lines, and you'll see that these men are trying to tell us something they can't, won't, or don't realize they want to say out loud.
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Thursday, May 04, 2006

Verbal Tics

If you've read any of the periodic communiques issued by Osama Bin Laden or Ayman al-Zawahiri, you'll see that al Qaeda likes to call the White House the Black House. I found this monumentally immature... and then I read Ann Coulter, calling the New York Times the Treason Times. Hmmm...

Why are people always described as "visibly moved," or "visibly agitated," or "visibly shaken?" To distinguish from those frequent occasions when we come to these conclusions by means other than visible?

When people say, "in a very real sense," they mean the opposite.

Why do reviewers like to describe movies as "visually kinetic?" I mean, these are motion pictures we're talking about, right? If it weren't visually kinetic, it would be a portrait. Or a still life.

Why do people have to say "past master?" What ever happened to just being a master? And wouldn't you rather be a present master than a past one?

Why is it a "sea change?" Couldn't it just be a big change, or maybe a profound change?"

Why do people think they sound educated when they use the wrong preposition? As in: "Jane will speak to that." No, Jane will speak to her audience about that subject. You can't speak to a subject. Or maybe you could, but it would be the same as talking to yourself.

If you don't think words have power, check out these euphemisms. Are the places we're keeping people we capture in the war on terror undisclosed detention facilities, or secret prisons? Are the people we're keeping there detainees, or prisoners? If we interrogate them hard, are we abusing them or torturing them? Sample these two headlines: "America abuses detainees at undisclosed detention facilities." "America tortures prisoners at secret prisons."

Speaking of which, there seems to be a subclass of euphemism that uses the definition of a word instead of the word itself (what's a prison if not a detention facility?). I think this is because the word itself has picked up too much emotional baggage (as good words should), and people come to prefer the drier, underlying definition -- sometimes because of discomfort, sometimes because they want to bullshit you. So bombs become Improvised Explosive Devices; stewardesses become flight attendants; maids become housekeepers or cleaning staff; now becomes "at this time."

Israel is a master (not a past master) at choosing the right word. The barrier Israel is building between Israel and the West Bank is typically called a fence, not a wall. "Fence" has such friendly connotations... good fences make good neighbors, picket fences. "Wall" sounds like the Berlin Wall, or the thing Montresor built in The Cask of Amontillado to bury Fortunato alive. And when Israeli forces kill their enemies, it's known as sikul memukad, or “focused prevention,” more commonly rendered in the western press as "targeted killing," which is of course precisely the definition of the word "assassination."

Can we all solemnly vow to stop using the hackneyed phrase "a cool million," or billion, or whatever? Yes, the idea is that the buyer didn't bat an eyelash as she made out the check, but surely there's a better way to convey this notion? And no, "he was visibly cool" isn't it...

Book reviewer David Montgomery shared with me this verbal pet peeve: "...and stuff." And now of course I hear it everywhere, and wish it would stop...

And Rain fan Harold Davey wrote me with these two: first, people who use nouns as verbs -- such as an engineer saying "I architected that program" (as opposed to more humbly merely designing it). That's why they say verbing nouns weirds the language...

Second, people who make every sentence into a question by using rising inflection at the end...?

(Join the good fight here)

"Very" is severely overused, usually because the speaker lacks confidence. But when it's used twice in a row, there's a good chance someone is trying to bullshit you. Repetition and other unnecessary words are also evidence of attempted bullshit (sounds like a crime, and ought to be one).

It's notable, therefore, that the chief drafter of the new House ethics bill, House Rules Committee Chairman David Dreier of California, called the bill a "very, very strong package," and went on to explain that "our aim, our goal, is a Congress that is effective, a Congress that is ethical and a Congress that is worthy of the public trust."

I feel better already.
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