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Leonard Pitts Jr.: U.S. hiding behind tortured definitions

BY LEONARD PITTS JR. Published: February 17, 2013
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If it is true, as the writer Samuel Johnson once said, that “patriotism is the last refuge of a scoundrel,” then the dictionary must be the first.

Consider how readily our leaders, in justifying what cannot be justified, parse definitions down to microns of fineness or invent obfuscating euphemisms to hide behind. As in Bill Clinton's memorable attempt to deny he had misled the American people about his relationship with a White House intern. “It depends on what the meaning of the word ‘is' is,” he said. Then, there was the Bush administration's attempt to make waterboarding, sleep deprivation, clothes deprivation, stress positions and other filthy instruments of torture sound as antiseptic as an operating room: “enhanced interrogation,” they called it.

To those acts of violence against clarity, we can add a new one. A Justice Department memo recently obtained by NBC News authorizes drone strikes to kill U.S. citizens who join al-Qaida, saying this is legal when three conditions are met. The third is that the operation be conducted “consistent with applicable law of war principles.” The second is that capture is infeasible. But it is the first that puts ice down your back. It requires that “an informed, high-level official of the U.S. government has determined that the targeted individual poses an imminent threat of violent attack against the United States.”

If you don't see why that should shiver your spine, perhaps you use a different dictionary than the government. Merriam-Webster for instance, defines “imminent” as an adjective meaning, “ready to take place; especially: hanging threateningly over one's head.”

But in its memo, which surfaces as the Senate ponders confirming John Brennan as director of the CIA, the Justice Department says its definition of “imminent threat” doesn't require “clear evidence that a specific attack on U.S. persons and interests will take place in the immediate future.”

In other words, “imminent” doesn't mean “imminent.” And if U.S. intelligence — which we all know is infallible, right? — determines you to be a member of al-Qaida, that determination, absent any evidence of a planned attack, gives the government the legal pretext to vaporize you. Worse, the government contends this may be done without oversight. The president becomes your judge, jury and executioner.

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