November 01, 2006

Is there coded language in the House?

Ruth Marcus of the Washington Post (see here) believes that if or when the Democrats gain leadership of the House of Representatives, it would be a bad idea for the incoming Speaker, Nancy Pelosi, to appoint Rep. Alcee Hastings of Florida to head the House Intelligence Committee. Hastings has the seniority to take over that role but Marcus points out that he has a serious blot on his record, because in 1988 he was impeached and removed from his office as a Federal judge.

So what does this have to do with linguistics? And why comment on it on Language Log? Because linguistic analysis played a role in Hastings' impeachment process and Marcus, who covered this event for the Post, still recalls the salient factors, as follows:

"The evidence against Hastings is circumstantial, but it's too much to explain away: A suspicious pattern of telephone calls between Hastings and Borders at key moments in the case; Borders' apparent insider knowledge of developments in the criminal case; Hastings' appearance at a Miami hotel, as promised by Borders as a signal that the judge agreed to a payoff; a cryptic telephone conversation between the two men that appears to be a coded discussion of the bribe arrangement."

So what is this cryptic conversation that leads Marcus to say:

"I don't worry that as chairman he'd suddenly be for sale: If he could be entrusted with national security secrets as a committee member, why not as chairman? But this is no ordinary crime, and Intelligence is no ordinary committee."

It all began in 1981, when a DC lawyer, William Borders, and Judge Hastings were involved in a criminal extortion proceeding. Borders was convicted but Hastings was acquitted. Months later, the House Subcommittee on Criminal Justice was not convinced of Hastings' innocence and it started its own lengthy investigation of the matter. At issue were several intercepted telephone calls between Borders and Hastings. To the Subcommittee, the conversations looked like coded messages but they couldn't figure out how to prove this. In 1988 they called on me to analyze the conversations with the sole purpose of answering the question about whether or not they indeed contained some kind of code.

The main focus was on one very short conversation between the two men. The ostensible topic was the judge's plan to write support letters for Hemphill Pride, a South Carolina attorney who had run afoul of the law and was now trying to reverse his disbarment. The government believed that Hastings and Borders were involved in a plot to extort money from a man they believed to be Frank Romano but who was actually an undercover agent using the name, Rico. Borders assured Rico that he could get a judge to provide a favorable sentencing report if Rico would ante up $50,000. The government further believed that part of this money was to go to Judge Hastings. No linguistic analysis of the conversations were made at the trial.

My task was to discover whether the conversation was actually in code. But first, let's look at what they actually said to each other in this short, 19 line conversation:

Phone ringing:

(1) B: Yes, my brother.

(2) H: Hey, my man.

(3) B: Uh-huh.

(4) H: I've drafted all those, uh, uh, letters, uh, for Hemp.

(5) B: Uh-huh.

(6) H: And everything's okay. The only thing I was concerned with was, did you hear if, uh, did you hear from him after we talked?

(7) B: Yeah.

(8) H: Oh, okay.

(9) B: Uh-huh.

(10) H: Alright then.

(11) B: See, I had, I talked to him and he, he wrote some things down for me.

(12) H: I understand.

(13) B: And then I was supposed to go back and get some more things.

(14) H: Alright. I understand. Well, then, there's no great big problem at all. I'll, I'll see to it that, uh, I communicate with him. I'll send the stuff off to Columbia in the morning.

(15) B: Okay.

(16) H: Okay.

(17) B: Right.

(18) H: Bye bye.

(19) B: Bye.

If this was a code, it certainly wasn't a total, obvious code. That is, it wasn't the type that cryptologists deal with where the intent of the coding is to be so unclear that the message can't be deciphered by outsiders to the code. Such codes look like codes and strive to be impossible for outsiders to understand.

Nor was it the usual partial and obvious code, where ludicrous nouns and verbs substitute for the intended meaning, similar to the ones Oliver North described in his 1989 book, Taking the Stand: "If these conditions are acceptable to the banana, then oranges are ready to proceed."(p. 143).

If Hastings and Borders were using a code here, it was a partial and disguised code, one in which words were carefully selected to make it appear to anyone who should happen to intercept it that the participants are talking about one thing while, in reality, they are talking about something very different. In his Encyclopedia of Language David Crystal cites such a code used in a murder case in India: "Go clean the bowl" was used to man "Prepare the grave."

In partial and disguised codes both participants must understand the code, which must be relevant to real life situations, be plausible, be specific, be consistent, and they generallly require more confirmation of mutual understanding than we find in everyday conversation. So the question was whether this type of code was being used here.

Lines 1 and 2 appear to be a standard greeting routine between two friends but in line 3 Borders gives a feedback marker, "uh-huh," that suggests a willingness to give up his turn of talk immediately. Oddly, there is no request to Hastings about why he is calling such as "What's up?" or "What's on your mind?" Nor did Borders seize the opportunity to assert his own agenda, such as "I'm glad you called because..."

In line 5, Hastings explains that he's drafted those letters for Hemp, to which Borders says only "uh-huh," accomplishing no more that giving up his turn again. Note that Hastings used the pause filler, "uh," three times in line 5. Pause fillers can accomplish at least three things: to prevent interruption, to provide assurance that more is coming, or to struggle to find the right word to use. In hastily constructed codes, one expects speakers to struggle to find the word that accomplishes the code. These pause fillers tend to occur in exactly those places where the potential code word is to follow:

(4) uh, uh letters

(4) uh, for Hemp

(6) uh, you hear from him

(14) uh, I communicate with him

In lines 6 through 10, Hastings asks if Borders has heard from "him" after they last talked. Since "him" is not specified, we can assume that they both understand who this is. Borders says "Yeah," but oddly does not report what he heard from "him." Nor does Hastings pursue this, offering only "Oh, okay," to which Borders says "Uh-huh," and Hastings says, "Alright then." This odd exchange appears to signal that complete information has been given when it has not--unless "did you hear from" is code for "did you get X," for which the rest of the exchange would have been appropriate.

Borders makes his first substantive contribution to the conversation in line 11: "See I had, I talked to him and he, he wrote some things down for me." Note the care with which he constructs this sentence, including a false start and pronoun repetition at the points where a code word could be expected. This gives the appearance of Borders' struggle to not slip into uncoded talk along with his effort to remember the code consistently. Hastings' response, "I understand," serves as a confirmation of truth or the existence of facts presented by Borders. It's curious why Borders' sentence would require confirmation of undersanding unless it is a code for something else. Hastings' "I understand" can relate only to the "he wrote things down" part of the sentence, since it had already been established that Borders had heard from "him." Even so, writing some things down is hardly monumental enough to require confirmation of understanding. On the other hand, it is appropriate as a confirmation of the potential coded meaning of something else.

Lines 13 to 15 continue the odd sounding dialogue. Borders had already referred to "things" that someone had written down and now he elaborates a bit, saying that he was supposed to go back and get some more "things." if "more things" are things to say in the support letter for Hemp, one might expect it to be said differently, such as, "He couldn't think of everything you should say so he'll think about it more and get back to me." In any case, although it may be appropriate to write "things" down, it is odd to say that one will go back and get more things. Such wording can work nicely, however, for a different (coded) meaning of "things." Note also Hastings' false starts and pause filler in line 14, again in front of potential code words.

Other issues also point to the use of a partial, disguised and hastily constructed code here. For example, one would expect Borders to have said that Hemp wanted him to "come back" for more things rather than "go back." One also wonders why Hastings said that there was "no great problem" in a context where going back to get more things was allegedly benign. This suggests that there may have truly been a big problem about something else. And why, after Borders has said that he was supposed to go back and get more things (line 13), does Hastings change the plan so abruptly on line 14, saying that he will communicate with Hemp himself? Borders' response to this change in plan was only a mild, "Okay." Finallly, Hastings' change in the procedure includes, "I'll send the stuff to Columbia in the morning," more consistent with sending something other than a support letter.

The crucial expressions used here appear to be "letters," "wrote some things down," "get some more things," "I'll communicate," and "send the stuff," all easily translatable to other meanings. Apparently "things" had morphed into "stuff" by the end of the conversation. This gives evidence of a hastily constructed, partially disguised code in which the participants intended their meaning to look like support letters for Hemphill Pride. Interestingly, Pride informed me personally that he never requested such letters and that as far as he knew, none existed. At his impeachment hearing, Hastings claimed that the style of speech he used in this conversation was his typical mode of talk. But comparison of this conversation with the others in evidence showed none of these features that look very much like code.

Rep. Hastings is a congenial man who is generally well liked and thought to be competent. He has served in the House of Representatives since 1992 and has enough seniority to head the House Intelligence Committee. Marcus doesn't think it's a good idea to appoint him to that post, largely because of this 19 line conversation. She may have a point.

Posted by Roger Shuy at November 1, 2006 07:04 PM