CIA director-designate Mike Pompeo uses passive voice to justify a power grab

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Photo: Gage Skidmore via Flickr

Passive voice in opinion pieces is pernicious: it hides who actually is supposed to do stuff. Donald Trump’s choice for CIA director, Mike Pompeo, repeatedly used this technique in a Wall Street Journal op-ed. When you’re advocating surveillance and data collection, we want to know who’s doing it — but Pompeo uses passive misdirection to focus on terrorists rather than intelligence agencies hoovering up all our data.

Pompeo’s op-ed from January, written with Republican lawyer David B. Rivken Jr, now reads like an audition for the Trump administration. And from the subtitle on down, it uses passives to keep you from considering who’s conducting digital surveillance.

Remember, you can use the “zombies” test to identify passive voice — just add “by zombies” after the verb and if it still makes sense, it was in passive voice. But you might not enjoy zombies watching you online. In the excerpts below, I use bold to highlight passive voice and identify the missing actors in my commentary.

Time for a Rigorous National Debate About Surveillance

Post-9/11 measures have been weakened or discarded. A coherent new approach is needed.

[Who weakened those measures? Congress. But we can’t blame them, because the whole piece is aimed at the Republican Congress that will have to make these changes. Who needs a new approach? The whole country, in Pompeo’s opinion, but saying that would require him to use the word “we,” and some of us don’t agree.]

America is in a long war against a resilient enemy capable of striking the homeland, but U.S. intelligence capabilities are falling short of meeting the threat. The San Bernardino attackers were not flagged, despite their repeated visits to jihadist websites, alarming posts on social media, and suspicious financial transactions.

[If Pompeo wrote this is active voice, he would have to write “The FBI and the Department of Homeland Security didn’t flag the attackers.” But that would put the blame, not on policy, but on our intelligence heroes — and Pompeo doesn’t want you to consider that.]

Paris and San Bernardino exemplify the two types of threats: overseas-trained terrorists, and online-radicalized lone wolves. Both exhibit distinctive behavioral and communications patterns that can be detected—but only if intelligence agencies have the right data and tools to analyze it.

[Here’s how that last sentence would read in active voice: “Intelligence agencies could detect the distinct behavioral and communications patterns that these threatening actors use — but only if they have the right tools and data to analyze them.” But now the emphasis is on the agencies, and Pompeo would rather that you concentrate on the terrorists.]

Yet Washington is blunting its surveillance powers. Collection of phone metadata under the Patriot Act was banned by Congress and finally ceased at the end of November. Collection of the contents of specific targets’ communications under the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act has been dumbed down, with onerous requirements to secure the authorizing court order. The intelligence community feels beleaguered and bereft of political support. What’s needed is a fundamental upgrade to America’s surveillance capabilities.

[The first passive, since it includes a “by” clause, doesn’t hide the actor. But these sentences read completely differently in active voice. “Congress banned collection of phone metadata. It dumbed down the collection of targets’ communication under the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance act by requiring onerous requirements to get a court order. Spy agencies need a fundamental upgrade to their surveillance capabilities.” This reads as flat-out accusation of congressional weakness and a power grab. That’s what Pompeo is actually saying, but he’d rather avoid blaming congress or identifying the power he wants to put in the hands of spy agencies.]

Congress should pass a law re-establishing collection of all metadata, and combining it with publicly available financial and lifestyle information into a comprehensive, searchable database. Legal and bureaucratic impediments to surveillance should be removed.

[The first sentence is active voice, since it is a charge to Congress. The second is passive, to prevent you from reading it as “I want access to all of your data with no obstacles.”]

There has been much debate about whether providers of communications hardware and software in the U.S. should be obliged to give the government backdoor access.

[By referring to the debate, Pompeo avoids saying “We should require companies like Apple to break their own encryption.” Contrast this indirect approach to the direct, simple approach that Tim Cook used to explain why it’s such a bad idea.]

Enhanced congressional oversight—a true partnership between the executive and Congress—is needed. Each month the intelligence community should provide classified briefings to the House and Senate intelligence committees on how surveillance programs are working, what actionable information has been developed, and whether mistakes or abuses have occurred. These briefings should be recorded, and lawmakers should sign an acknowledgment of their attendance. This would bolster accountability and ensure that nobody suffers a memory lapse, such as Nancy Pelosi’s failure to remember that she was extensively briefed on the CIA’s enhanced-interrogation program.

[Notice how the passives in the second half of this paragraph hide an accusation. The intelligence heroes should brief Congress (which sounds more like after-the-fact justification than “oversight”). But somebody should record those briefings so that we can use them to humiliate lawmakers later.]

In the wake of 9/11, surveillance reforms were adopted virtually overnight, with little discussion; they did not last.

[We can’t say who adopted them, or we risk making Congress look like it wasn’t careful enough.]

I urge you to read the whole op-ed with particular attention to who is doing what. When you do, you’ll realize this piece could have been much shorter — especially now that we know Trump wants Pompeo to head the CIA. Here’s the quick version:

Congress needs to pass laws that eliminate any possible obstacles to surveillance. That way, when I run the intelligence apparatus of America, we can go after anything we want. We’ll secretly brief Congress from time to time — but only so we can humiliate them later. Then we’ll have a robust data collection regime under the ultimate control of Donald Trump. What could possibly go wrong?

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