In association with my question of the usage of “blood-dimmed (flood /tragedy) in Maureen Dowd’s article in New York Times- http://www.nytimes.com/2013/06/09/opinion/sunday/dowd-peeping-president-obama.html?hp - there was the following statement:

“It was quaint to think we had any privacy left, once Google, Facebook, Twitter and Instagram braided themselves into our days and nights.
As Gene Hackman, playing a disillusioned N.S.A. analyst in the 1998 movie “Enemy of the State” put it, the agency has been in bed with the telecommunications industry for decades, and “they can suck a salt grain off a beach.”

Though I surmise “they can suck a salt grain off a beach” figuratively means to obtain private information of people indirectly, not through a direct contact (to the sea - people) I’m not sure of.”

What does “sack a salt grain off a beach” mean? Is it an idiomatic expression, or twist of a saying? If it is the twist of, or borrowing from something, what is the original source? Why did Dowd put the phrase in parenthesis (correction: quote)?

  • 1
    1-It's in quotes, not parens. 2-It's a direct quote (that's why it is in quotes), so it was not created by Dowd. 2-It's not a set phrase; I've never heard it before, and google shows no hits other than those related to the movie.
    – Mitch
    Jun 10, 2013 at 1:21
  • Mitch. Correction, Yes it were quotation marks.I absentmindedly misused parens for quotes. Jun 10, 2013 at 1:59
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    I've never heard this expression before, but sand on the beach is often used metaphorically when discussing something that is innumerable, like bits in cyberspace. (I need to be careful what I type here; I think the NSA is listening.)
    – J.R.
    Jun 10, 2013 at 2:39
  • Doess the "they" in Hackman's quotation refer to the agency or the telecommunications industry, or perhaps both? One thing is clear: the ability to suck a single salt grain off a beach is a "scary" talent. As far as governmental snooping in the lives of citizens is concerned, the Fourth Amendment in the U.S. Constitution affords the people the right to be secure from "unreasonable searches and seizures." Hackman's hyperbole puts a fine point on the term "unreasonable searches and seizures!" If government can easily suck a grain of sand,how much more can it violate our privacy with ease. Jun 10, 2013 at 2:55

3 Answers 3


A little more context:

BRILL: They can tap anything as along as it’s an airwave intercept. Cellulars and pagers your kid can do. Hard-line calls we'd pick off the relays as they were being fed into ground cables or fired up to the SATs. We’d suck in everything. All foreign, most domestic. Domestic was my group. Druggies, radicals, loud-mouths. Anyone we wanted.
DEAN: How’d you have the manpower to--
BRILL: Meade has 18 underground acres of computers. They scan every phonecall for target words like "bomb" or "President". We red-flag phone numbers or voice prints...whatever we wanted. When the computers found something, it was bounced to comparative analysis.
DEAN: Jesus.
BRILL: That was twenty years ago. With digital? They can suck a salt grain off a beach.

It’s a metaphor: the NSA’s capability is analogous to being able to survey an entire beach and identify a specific grain of salt as being of interest. ‘With digital’, they have no need to ‘suck in everything’ and analyze it manually, as in the 70s; they suck in only the specific information they need.

It may be hyperbole; or it may not. In the 80s I had a friend ‘in the intelligence community’ who dealt with satellite imagery. He was fond of saying “I am not telling you we can read a license plate on a Mercedes in Red Square. I’m not telling you that.” That was a quarter-century ago . . .

  • The speaker may have tired of using "They can find a needle in a haystack", and moved on to a different location for variety's sake. Jun 10, 2013 at 13:55

The phrase "they can suck a salt grain off a beach" is, as far as I can tell, neither idiomatic nor a reference to something - it is rather a vivid, if subtle, description of the precision with which the NSA can (allegedly) work - the beach is made of grains of sand, making a single grain of salt very hard to find, but they have the technology and personnel to do it.


Extraction with vacuum ("sucking") is quite crude; when you generate a vacuum at the nozzle of a hose, it picks up everything within a radius of the nozzle. If you can literally vacuum a particular grain which is in a clump with other grains, without disturbing the other grains, that means that your vacuum extractor is extremely fine and precise.

Moreover, if you do extract a single grain from a beach, hardly anyone can tell anything has been touched. The net effect exerted on the beach is vanishingly tiny.

So to be able to vacuum just a particular grain is a metaphor which refers not only to the difficulty of identifying a particular conversation channel in a vast multitude of them, but also of intercepting it so delicately that the interception is very difficult to detect.

It is not to be taken for granted that, for instance, a (literal) wire tap can be carried out without detection. Electronic instruments like reflectometers can detect the placement of a tap onto copper wire. But digital tapping is undetectable, because it's done on some trunk switching equipment which can just be programmed to look for a flow passing through its fabric and bifurcate a copy.

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