Dictionary Arbitrage and Section 215: “Relevant”

There’s an odd footnote in the White Paper the Administration released to justify its Section 215 dragnet.

3 The word “tangible” can be used in some contexts to connote not only tactile objects like pieces of paper, but also any other things that are “capable of being perceived” by the senses. See Merriam-Webster Online Dictionary (2013) (defining “tangible” as “capable of being perceived especially by the sense of touch”) (emphasis added).

I’m interested in it because it seems to prepare us all to discover that the Administration has been getting things–like DNA, screen captures, and similar–with Section 215 that are absurd.

But I’m also interested because the Administration chose to use Merriam-Webster’s Online Dictionary. A good American dictionary — and the most up-to-date version!

Which is why I found it so suspicious that the Administration decided to use a 24-year old edition of the Oxford English Dictionary for this definition.

Standing alone, “relevant” is a broad term that connotes anything “[b]earing upon, connected with, [or] pertinent to” a specified subject matter. 13 Oxford English Dictionary 561 (2d ed. 1989).

To create this dragnet, after all, the Administration has had to blow up the meaning of “relevant” beyond all meaning. And they had to dig up an old British tome for this particular, all-important definition?

So I looked up how the American Merriam-Webster online dictionary defines “relevant.” Here are the first two definitions:

a : having significant and demonstrable bearing on the matter at hand

b : affording evidence tending to prove or disprove the matter at issue or under discussion <relevant testimony>

“Having significant and demonstrable bearing on the matter and hand.” Not, “possibly maybe having a teeny fraction bearing on the matter and hand.” But a “significant and demonstrable bearing” on a terrorist investigation, in context.

So the Administration apparently looked up “relevant,” discovered it proves our point — that their use of the term is totally ridiculous — and kept digging through old dictionaries until they could find one that proved their point. (Update: Read this entire comment from Adam Colligan for more on what the dictionaries say.)

The online Oxford dictionary, by the way, provides this as the first definition for “relevant:”

closely connected with the subject you are discussing or the situation you are thinking about

As with all absurd arguments in DC, it depends on what the definition of X is.

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Emptywheel Twitterverse
bmaz @steve_vladeck @ACLU_NCA Yeah, and neither will the FISC and other courts apparently.
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bmaz In the not even close to news dept, breaking or otherwise, The Blue Angels are a bunch of rowdy fighter jocks http://t.co/17tfetOJAh
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bmaz @gideonstrumpet @nancyleong @ntswanson Is that a hospital in CT is it?
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bmaz RT @erinscafe: If you come to the premiere of Follow Friday the Film Friday at 5:45 pm, you can meet @LynsieLee, my fav stripper. http://t.…
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bmaz @yvonnewingett @barrettmarson @JimSmall Hey, I think I made that point already!
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bmaz I'd love to convict this Blackwater fuckstic; but the Stated Dept tanked the case w/Garrity statements at the get go http://t.co/d1zH3nNR2k
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bmaz @barrettmarson @JimSmall "Innocent"??
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bmaz @APribetic @gideonstrumpet @ScottGreenfield @kashhill @adamsteinbaugh My media strategy is "don't talk to the media". Nothing good happens.
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bmaz @gideonstrumpet @onekade @adamsteinbaugh Kade, don't go giving Adam a big head and all just cause he is out there doing good shit.
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bmaz @APribetic @gideonstrumpet @ScottGreenfield @kashhill @adamsteinbaugh "Clean up in aisle four". Nice.
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bmaz .@SpyTalker Connolly is right; the govt fucked Slatten Blackwater case up, double jeopardy applies, and further prosecution IS vindictive.
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bmaz @gideonstrumpet @nancyleong I wonder. Do young law students even know how much of the 4th has been lost+what Navarette potentially means?
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