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The FBI's Orwellianspeak

By C.T. Rossi
web posted June 3, 2002

Fictionally, George Orwell described it as doublespeak. Soviet historian Edvard Radzinsky defined it as in-depth language, while American writer Ken Smith has dubbed it "junk English." Call it what you will, the words that don't mean a thing are the bulwark of the Federal Bureau of Investigation's reorganization. The very term "reorganization" is not so much a solution as the very problem.

Ken Smith, from his indispensable guide Junk English, notes that "re-verbs" (like reorganize, rethink, reformulate) "are politically useful in a bureaucratic world." The "re-verb" is safe because it shows a complete lack of the ever-dangerous capacity for independent thought that the leaders of the cubicle drones so fear. Instead, to "re-" a verb means "merely taking something that already exists and change it into something new and wonderful." Is there any surprise that Director Robert Mueller's comments on "reorganizing" the FBI included the notions of a bureau that is "redesigned and refocused"? Of course, Mueller warns that the process is always under "re-evaluation." All of this leads one to think that what Mueller is talking about is anything but remarkable.

Robert MuellerThe generous peppering of Dilbert-esque "re-verbs" aside, Mueller also indulges in "invisible diminishers." These are subtle words designed to sap the strength out of other words or, metaphorically speaking, they are words specially inserted to keep the bar as low as possible. For example, Director Mueller promises to "fundamentally change the way we [the FBI] do business." Flat out promising a change would mean that observable changes would take place - but that is too ambitious. Instead Mueller falls back on the word "fundamentally." Any sports fan knows that "fundamentals" are the mechanical aspects of the sport that the layman most likely does not know.

The average Yankee fan doesn't notice if Derek Jeter's footwork on the pivot to second base is fundamentally sound. Neither might the bleacher bum observe that a hitter might have displayed a fundamental flaw in his swing during a batting slump. If, in baseball, fundamentals are for the experts and not the casual fan, then for Mueller it is much the same. Don't expect the FBI to display any discernible differences, just trust that somewhere deep beneath the surface that things at the bureau are different. Just like a used car salesman Mueller says, "Trust me."

Like any solid piece of bureaucratic prose, Mueller's statements are full of needlessly complex words. Phrases like "analytical capacity," "analytical resources" and "analytical capabilities" that leave one having to parse for meaning. Seemingly the "analytical" functions of the FBI are all about spying, but spying is an impolite word. This means that when the FBI's "key near-term action" item to "[s]ubstantially enhance analytical capabilities with personnel and technology" is translated into vernacular English, it might read: "We want to spy a lot more on everyone with more spies and cooler hi-tech gizmos."

When not proclaiming "new priorities," "new resources," and a "new structure applying a new approach," Mueller warns that the FBI needs a "dramatic departure from the past" which is exemplified by the concept that "in the end our culture [within the FBI] must change . . .".

For anyone who took the time to decipher his words, Mueller tries to ameliorate any fears of beefed-up domestic spying by reminding Americans that the bureau "must never forget that our actions must be undertaken according to a constitutional and statutory framework that protects the rights and privacy of our citizens. That too is part of our culture . . .".

Citizens can draw solace from the fact that if we restructure Mueller's concepts, we learn that it is part of the traditional FBI culture to respect people's rights and we have his assurance that the culture is changing. The real damage done by words like the ones given to us by Robert Mueller is that such empty utterings don't give succor - they only leave the hearer more detached, confused and frustrated. The bureaucrat's solution to a problem is ambiguous speech. But in a nation where disclosure of information and accountability of those in power are the safeguards of democracy, this stultifying crypto-speak is the modern equivalent of a palace coup.

For all his failings, personal and public, J. Edgar Hoover was a man of direct speech and perhaps that is why, when FBI director, he inspired the confidence of the American people. Hoover once said, "Just the minute the FBI begins making recommendations on what should be done with its information, it becomes a Gestapo." Not only can't Mueller say this, he doesn't understand it.

C.T. Rossi comments on contemporary culture for the Free Congress Foundation.

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