US Constitution: A revered piece of paper that no one pays much actual attention to any more, especially if it interferes with American safety from terrorism.
Amendments: Retrospectively unnecessary additions to the US Constitution guaranteeing a series of things, some of which may now put us in peril (examples: First Amendment, Fourth Amendment, Fifth Amendment "due process" clause). Fortunately, amendments turn out to be easy enough to amend within the national security state itself.
Checks and balances: No longer applicable, except to your bank statement.
The fourth branch of government: Classically, the US had three branches of government (the executive, legislative, and judicial), which were to check and balance one another so that power would never become centralized in a single place unopposed. The Founding Fathers, however, were less farsighted than many give them credit for. They hadn't a clue that a fourth branch of government would arise, dedicated to the centralization of power in an atmosphere of total secrecy: the national (or today global) security state. In the post-9/11 years, it has significantly absorbed the other three branches.
FISA court: The Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act of 1978, much strengthened since September 11, 2001, created a FISA "court" to oversee the government's covert surveillance activities. A secret "court" for the secret world of surveillance, it can, at just about any time, be convened and conducted via cell phone by the NSA or FBI. There is never a defense lawyer present, only the equivalent of a prosecution request. The search warrants that result read more like legislation by an unelected body. All national security requests for such warrants are granted. Its decisions are not made public. In its arcane rules and prosecutorial stance, it bears a greater relationship to the Inquisition courts of Medieval Europe than any other American court. Its motto might be, "guilty—there are no innocents." We have no word for what it actually is. The activity it performs is still called "judicial oversight," but "undersight" would be a more accurate description.
FISA judge: There is, in essence, nothing for a FISA judge to judge. FISA judges never rule against the wishes of the national security state. Hence, a more accurate term for this position might be "FISA rubberstamp."
Congressional oversight: When a congressional representative forgets to do something. (Historical note: this phrase once had another meaning, but since 9/11, years in which Congress never heard a wish of the national security state that it didn't grant, no one can quite remember what it was.)
National Security Agency (NSA): A top-secret spy outfit once nicknamed "No Such Agency" because its very existence was not acknowledged by the US government. It is now known as "No Such Agency" because its work has been outsourced to high-priced high-school dropouts, or "No Snowden Anywhere" because it couldn't locate the world's most famous leaker.
American security (or safety): The national security state works hard to offer its citizens a guarantee of safety from the nightmare of terror attacks, which since 9/11 have harmed far more Americans than shark attacks, but not much else that is truly dangerous to the public. For this guarantee, there is, of course, a necessary price to be paid. You, the citizen and taxpayer, must fund your own safety from terrorism (to the tune of trillions of dollars heading into the national security budget) and cede rights that were previously yours. You must, for instance, allow yourself to be "seen" in myriad ways by the national security state, must allow for the possibility that you could be assassinated without "due process" to keep this country safe, and so on. This is called "striking a balance" between American liberty and security. Or as the president put it, "You can't have 100 percent security and also then have 100 percent privacy and zero inconvenience... We're going to have to make some choices as a society... There are trade-offs involved." By the way, in return for your pliancy, this guarantee does not extend to keeping you safe from cars, guns, cigarettes, food-borne diseases, natural disasters of any sort, and so on.
The Global War on You (GWOY): This term, not yet in the language, is designed to replace a post-9/11 Bush administration name, the Global War on Terror (GWOT), sometimes also called World War IV by neocons. GWOT was famously retired by President Obama and his top officials, turning the ongoing global war being fought on distant battlefields and in the shadows into a nameless war. That may, however, change. You are, after all, being called to the colors in a war on... you. Congratulations, son or daughter, Uncle Sam wants you (even if not in the way he used to in your grandparents' day). You, after all, are the central figure in and the key to GWOY and the basis upon which the new global security state will continue to be built.
Tom Engelhardt, co-founder of the American Empire Project and author of The United States of Fear as well as a history of the Cold War, The End of Victory Culture (just published in a Kindle edition), runs the Nation Institute's TomDispatch.com. His latest book, co-authored with Nick Turse, is Terminator Planet: The First History of Drone Warfare, 2001-2050. To stay on top of important articles like these, sign up to receive the latest updates from TomDispatch.com here.