Sun, Aug 08, 2004 - Page 9 News List

Intelligence reports renew focus on the pitfalls of `groupthink'

By William Safire  /  NY TIMES NEWS SERVICE

Hawkish commentators (like me) objected strenuously to this staff formulation; when the final report was issued, signed by all members of the bipartisan commission, a modifier had been added to the controversial phrase, which became "we have seen no evidence that these or the earlier contacts ever developed into a collaborative operational relationship."

What does collaborative mean, and what does the addition of operational do to the relationship?

The word labor is right in the middle of collaborate. The co- in front means "together," and the -ate at the end makes it a verb: "to work together." Add an -ive, and you have the adjective collaborative. Synonyms are "collective, cooperative" and the most tightly connected, "joint."

Evidently the appearance of "no collaborative relationship" was too sweeping for some commissioners. Needed was another adjective to narrow the scope. The modifier chosen was operational. The specific sense of "able to function" is not what is meant here. A more general sense is defined by the OED as "engaged in or connected with active (military) operations, as distinct from being under training, in reserve, etc."

That modifier satisfied the commissioners who believed that contacts between al-Qaeda and Iraq were evidence of sinister cooperation. It also satisfied others who believed that the contacts did not amount to actually working together to conduct terrorist operations. This demonstrates how all it takes to tone down a controversial adjective and make peace in the family is another, unfamiliar adjective.


I recently ordered the Bush administration to "downhold nondefense spending." Readers who could not find this verb in their dictionaries were outraged.

It is newspaper telegraphese. The old United Press, which wanted to hold down its costs, used to wire its overseas correspondents, "Downhold expenses," thereby saving the cost of a word. UP reporters called their favorite bar "the Downhold club."

To those on usage's ramparts: You uphold tradition. I'll downhold expenses.

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