Not true that they cannot say they aren't?

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Levi Montgomery writes to me:

I have read the question in this report (TSA Let 25 Illegal Aliens Attend Flight School Owned by Illegal Alien, CNS News, 18 July 2012) at least a dozen times now, and I'm not sure which answer means what (although I freely admit the intent is clear, both from the questioner and from the answerer). I thought you'd like to see it.

Stephen Lord, who is the GAO's director of Homeland Security and Justice Issues, testified about the matter Wednesday in Rogers' subcommittee. Rogers asked him: "Isn't it true that, based on your report, the Transportation Security Administration cannot assure the American people that foreign terrorists are not in this country learning how to fly airplanes, yes or no?"

Mr Lord responded: "At this time, no."

Ye gods, that sort of crazy multiple negation makes me afraid, very afraid, of having to take the witness stand.

What did Lord's answer mean? Let's go slow.

He said "No."

So that would be no to the top-level question, "Isn't it true…?" — a biased question, generally understood to expect and encourage the answer "Yes." He's violating the expectation by denying that it's true.

What is he denying? That the TSA cannot assure the American people of something. What is the something? That foreign terrorists are not in this country learning how to fly airplanes.

Mr Lord is therefore saying no, it's not true that the TSA is not able to assure us that foreign terrorists are not here learning how to fly.

If it's not true that they're not able to, then those two cancel out, and they can assure us of what we want to know: that foreign terrorists are not acquiring flying skills in America.

Phew. I hope that is indeed what Mr Lord meant. And even if it is, what a hell of a way to get there. Did everyone in the room understand the question? If they did, their syntactic and semantic processing of negation is better than mine. Our poor monkey brains are not made to handle this sort of thing.

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