The question has come up whether the phrase “trust but verify” is meaningless, and if it’s meaningful (which I think it is), what it’s meaning is.
We must keep up our guard, but we must also continue to work together to lessen and eliminate tension and mistrust. My view is that President Gorbachev is different from previous Soviet leaders. I think he knows some of the things wrong with his society and is trying to fix them. We wish him well. And we’ll continue to work to make sure that the Soviet Union that eventually emerges from this process is a less threatening one. What it all boils down to is this. I want the new closeness to continue. And it will, as long as we make it clear that we will continue to act in a certain way as long as they continue to act in a helpful manner. If and when they don’t, at first pull your punches. If they persist, pull the plug. It’s still trust but verify. It’s still play, but cut the cards. It’s still watch closely. And don’t be afraid to see what you see.
A little earlier in history, Oliver Cromwell is alleged to have said,
While preparing to cross a river to attack the enemy one day, Oliver Cromwell stopped and turned to address his troops. “Put your trust in God,” he famously declared, “but mind you, keep your powder dry.”
Finally, to judge from the Google results, the phrase has become common in computer security circles.
This paper introduces a trust-but-verify framework for web services authorization, and provides an implementation example. In the trust-but-verify framework, each web service maintains authorization policies. In addition, there is a global set of “trust transformation” rules, each of which has an associated transformation condition.
If I understand it (not so very likely), the problem is that a web service may require information that’s only obtainable through an intermediary. So A asks B for information that B will request of C. The web service (A), essentially tells B what sorts of conditions ought to be placed on C. B gets the information from C and reports back to A that the conditions were met.
That’s not really different from what Reagan apparently meant by it. Trust is a behavior—I accept what you say, or what you do, but I’m monitoring the situation.
The people who object to the phrase don’t see trust that way. Acceptance is one thing, trust is another. On the mailing list where this came up, one person said, “Which part of that situation is ‘trust’? I see accept and verify.” On this view, trust seems to be blind, an acceptance without verification.
When it comes to the meaning of ordinary words, you can, to paraphrase Yogi Berra, hear a lot just by listening.