Thursday, January 26, 2006

playing with predicates

The White house recently complained that the media had been calling the NSA spying campaign "domestic spying." It released this document explaining the proper usage of the words domestic and international:

Their standard:

Domestic Calls are calls inside the United States.
International Calls are calls either to or from the United States.

Domestic Flights are flights from one American city to another.
International Flights are flights to or from the United States.

Domestic Mail consists of letters and packages sent within the United States. International Mail consists of letters and packages sent to or from the United States.

Domestic Commerce involves business within the United States.
International Commerce involves business between the United States and other countries.

What I have not seen anyone point out yet is the asymmetry in predicate usage. In a domestic call the caller is contacting someone who is in the US. In a domestic flight, the flyer is flying somewhere in the US. Therefore, domestic spying should not be defined by what the "spyed upon" is doing, but what the "spyer" is doing. Domestic spying would be when the spyer is spying on someone in the united states. The government's point is that only one of the two parties is in the US, the other party has to be outside. But there are three parties! The application of "domestic" in their examples applies to the activity of the primary actor in relation to the location of another actor. Caller to callee, flyer to destination, spyer to spyee. I think, then, that they would have to admit (If they're interested in being consistent) that they are practicing domestic spying and international spying. They cannot in any honest way deny that that they are carrying out domestic spying. Certainly not given their own examples of how domestic should be used.


  1. It appears that this "domestic spying" issue is just a misuse of the term. I think you're correct that the predicate is being misused, but domestic spying is just too vague.

    Really they should say "spying on international calls" or some such.

  2. I agree that calling it domestic spying seems to leave a negative impression (perhaps fairly, perhaps unfairly). The White house would like us to say "Terrorist Surveillance," which is even less apt, considering only a few of the people targeted by the program could possibly be targets.

    A few newspapers have called it "unwarranted wiretapping," which the president can't be too thrilled about either.

  3. "Unwarranted Wiretapping" is a tricky sort of thing to say. The first meaning that was suggested to me was that the wiretap was "unwarranted" because it was just not justified. There wasn't a good reason to do it.

    It seems that the better and more accurate meaning is that there wasn't a warrent issued that said "Wiretap that fellow."

    Sneaky semantics.

  4. This seems wrong to me. Your view entails that both these things count as "domestic spying":

    Listening in on a conversation between Don in Detroit and Sally in Seattle.

    Listening in on a conversation between Osama in Pakistan and Khalid in New York.

    Surely that's a crucial distinction to make. In fact, that's arguably the crucial distinction, since it's mysterious to me why the rules for monitoring a conversation between Osama and Khalid should be different depending on whether Khalid is in Toronto or New York. Surely Khalid shouldn't get immunity for his emails, etc to Osama as soon as he crosses the border to the U.S., just because he is now "domestic" in the sense of being within U.S. borders.

    At most it seems to me that you've shown that there are three communication categories for which we have only two names: (1) outside the country to outside the country, (2) outside the country to inside the country, (3) inside to inside. The examples cited seem to show that both (1) and (2) are ordinarily called "international," as in "international call"; and the White House has been clear that that's what they mean, too.

    Perhaps you can make an argument that (2) should be grouped with (3) for moral purposes -- though you haven't made that argument, and I doubt I would be convinced by it -- but insofar as the complaint is about semantics, you seem to be on the counterintuitive side. At the very least, a complaint of White House disingenuousness seems overwrought.