Carnegie Mellon University

Leaks and the legitimation of state power: How the 2013 NSA disclosures reshaped debates over U.S. government surveillance

Author: Calvin Pollak

Degree: Ph.D. in Rhetoric, Carnegie Mellon University, 2021

Scholars in discourse studies have defined legitimation as the justification (and critique) of powerful institutions and their practices. In moments of crisis, legitimation tactics often shift. This dissertation considers how such shifts are incited by unauthorized leaks. Leaks, I argue, constitute freshly available texts that reveal privileged institutional information presented in a specialized rhetorical style. Some leaks bear culturally, semantically, and formally valuable features that help them to circulate widely, stymying institutional efforts to thwart their circulation. But few scholars have examined how the recontextualization of leaked texts affects legitimation arguments’ content and style.

To explore how leaked documents are harnessed in the public arguments of institutional critics and defenders, my dissertation examines the 2013 leaks of classified National Security Agency (NSA) documents. Combining corpus analysis with discourse analysis, I explore how the NSA leaks affected the online writing of the anti-NSA American Civil Liberties Union and the pro-NSA Brookings Institution. I also consider overlaps between the rhetorical patterns in the leaked NSA documents, the news reports about them, and the ACLU’s and Brookings Institution's post-leaks writing. In addition, I directly compare how these two organizations’ ideologies – civil-libertarianism and national-securitarianism – affected their styles of argument in response to the leaks.

Findings from my analyses suggest that both ACLU and Brookings writers moved from a more informal, character-based style pre-leaks to a more informationally-dense, technical style post-leaks, and that they shifted their arguments from those primarily grounded in the law to those primarily grounded in power dynamics and authorization by other institutions. I also find that in the post-leaks period, the two organizations’ ideologies break down over a set of core questions, often building diametrically opposed arguments on the same (or very similar) sets of evidence. This dissertation defense will contextualize and clarify these findings with recourse to the leaked textual material that inaugurated the controversy. Thus, I will use key leaked NSA documents drawn upon in the post-leaks texts to explain the stylistic and argumentative changes that my analyses have uncovered. Overall, my work suggests that leaks of this quantity (many texts) and quality (culturally, semantically, and formally valuable) are likely to influence the legitimation styles of subsequent policy arguments.