by John Kendall Hawkins
“He who fights with monsters should look to it that he himself does not become a monster; when you gaze long into the abyss, the abyss also gazes into you.”
- Friedrich Nietzsche, Beyond Good and Evil
“Are you sure that you can skin griz?
– line from film Jeremiah Johnson
Edward Snowden’s newly-released memoir, Permanent Record, is a timely and welcome entry into the current clown show debate on whistleblowing that has filled the Big Tent in Washington with hot air, old farts, and effete lions sitting around eating bon-bons and reading Sartre’s Being and Nothingness — in French. Because, among other things, Snowden’s book strives to ignite an albeit self-serving ‘national conversation’ on whistle-blowing, how it differs from mere leaking, and why he qualifies for the protections afforded those who cop a whistle against government abuses. Indeed, not only is he arguing his own patriotic virtues, but he is calling on government-embedded “geeks,” like himself, to wake from their slogmatic dumber and pull a BogieBugle for the team. You want some liberty — or don’t you?
Snowden insists there’s a serious distinction between a whistleblower and a leaker. “A ‘whistleblower’ … is a person who through hard experience has concluded that their life inside an institution has become incompatible with the principles developed in…the greater society outside it, to which that institution should be accountable.” Snowden has often referred to Daniel Ellsberg, distributor of the Pentagon Papers, as a model for the type. And he sees himself in this vein. He compares this to leaking, which refers to “acts of disclosure done not out of public interest but out of self-interest, or in pursuit of institutional or political aims.” As Liberty might inquire, a la Bobby Dylan, “Are you willing to risk it all or is your love in vain?”
By Snowden’s rule, the recent anonymous hand-ringing CIA figure who dobbed Trump in to Congress is — well — still working and presumably, being anonymous, available for future leaks. He sounds more akin to what Snowden describes in the book as a politically-motivated ‘conscience’. These kinds of leakers tend to be practicing tradecraft (Snowden knows; he worked for the CIA), and can be likened to what Obama did — coyly denying the existence of drone warfare, while spending Terror Tuesdays personally selecting a new joker from his “disposition matrix” card deck to ‘take out’.
Writes Snowden, “By breathlessly publicizing its drone attack on al-Aulaqi to the Washington Post and the New York Times, the Obama administration was tacitly admitting the existence of the CIA’s drone program and its “disposition matrix,” or kill list, both of which are officially top secret. Additionally, the government was implicitly confirming that it engaged not just in targeted assassinations, but in targeted assassinations of American citizens.” Where was the whistleblower for that? Snowden seems to wonder. This is the lawlessness he just couldn’t hack any more.
But Permanent Record is far more than simply a personal appeal to be regarded as a hero in the public’s eye; it is a continuation of his alarm ‘call to arms’ against the serious “criminal behavior” of the US government and the catastrophic threat to democracy and privacy that its intentional actions have wrought with the rise of the surveillance state out of the ashes of 9/11.
To recap what’s at stake, according to Snowden: The American government claims ownership of the Internet. All of it. In America. In Europe. In Asia. And some day, inshallah, on Mars. They haven’t ‘officially’ announced it, but that’s how they’ve decided to proceed. They invented it. They developed its working protocols and technologies. They know more and more people will rely on access to it religiously (45% online now, according to Snowden), and they intend to keep people hooked on the sugar for life. First mass surveillance, then mass control. It’s monetized; it’s militarized; it’s locked and loaded with a full metal jacket of jingly algorithms. Not a gift to the world at all, like, say, America’s Deluxe Democracy for The Betterment of Mankind™.
Such a “Frankenstein” system is a long way from the Internet Eden Snowden claims we started out with. Far from merely describing a government on a temporary, and unconscious, surveillance sugar high, Snowden makes sure we understand to our roots that it’s much worse than that. “The president’s office, through the Justice Department,” he notes, “had committed the original sin of secretly issuing directives that authorized mass surveillance in the wake of 9/11.” Once that 9/11 serpent offered the US government that Apple of the Eyes, there was no turning back.
Snowden contends that we’re handing over more and more data, more of our lives, to the control of these unknown demigods in the clouds of Cyberspace. Who are they? Fantasists — all dem Deep State geeks, like Snowden, before he broke good, and Bush and Cheney, and Rove, saying shit like,
“We’re an empire now, and when we act, we create our own reality. And while you’re studying that reality — judiciously, as you will — we’ll act again, creating other new realities, which you can study too, and that’s how things will sort out. We’re history’s actors . . . and you, all of you, will be left to just study what we do.”
But they’re not at liberty to talk about it.
Snowden grew up reading Aesop’s Fables and Bulfinch’s Mythology and so is steeped in the stuff of heroes and gods and chimaera, parables and symbolism, deus ex machina, and the whole Lord of the Flies thing about wanton gods. But you can tell there’s a certain class of sleazester that grubs its way into national politics alluding to the glories of our shared classical Greco-Roman past (without which we Exceptionals would be nothing), dropping names and taking names, set on seeming and beaming. Types that make a more humble man, standing across the room seeing such seeming, cold-cock his fist as an instinct.
This God stuff really pisses Snowden off. You can tell by the way he introduces legends and mythology to the narrative, like he’s trying to speak their Dungeons and Terrorists language on some kind subtextual level that has sadistic overtones. My favorite bit comes when he comes up with a kind of origin story for his surname. He relates the tale of Rhitta Gawr, monster king of Wales, who took on and killed every king around him, cutting off their beards before he cut off their heads, and making a hair suit out of the scalpings. “Enraged at this hubris,” writes Snowden, “Arthur set off for Rhitta Gawr,” they fought and Arthur split Gawr in half with a sword on a mountain called …Snaw Dun….”
Rhitta Gawr would seem to represent American imperialism, and King Arthur would be the hubris-sapping champion of virtue and noble causes. Snowden is no Arthur, but he is invoking his spirit, his courage, his determination to slay tyranny, while at the same time making it clear he’s just an ordinary patriot. In fact, Snowden goes through some pains to recount his Mayflower heritage, family military history, and civil service roots. Sometimes he goes too far in the telling, as when he recounts the demise of his paternal ancestor who died at the hands of the British during the Revolution. He adds, seemingly gratuitously, “(Legend has it that they killed their POWs by forcing them to eat gruel laced with ground glass.)” Funny way to recall a relative’s death.
Speaking of family history, his most bizarre, and perhaps most revealing, tidbit of personal history is his mention of the founding of Fort Meade, Maryland, the location of NSA headquarters. The land on which the fort is built was once owned by Snowden ancestors. It was a plantation, but they “abolished their family’s practice of slavery, freeing their two hundred African slaves nearly a full century before the Civil War.” But there’s some strange, residual resentment. Snowden claims that the plantation was “expropriated” by the federal government to house Civil War soldiers. Head-spinning stuff.
Snowden emphasizes throughout his memoir that the terrorist-seeking, “surveillance capitalist” state is striving to have a permanent record of every human on the planet. All information going back perhaps even to birth — every phone call, email, text message, every trip taken, every purchase, medical data, service records, and a digital link to everyone you know. A permanent record without probable cause, waiting for you to be accused of a crime to be named later.
Snowden worked in a system in which, “[E]veryone’s information was being collected, which was tantamount to a government threat: If you ever get out of line, we’ll use your private life against you.” The government as goombah. A dystopia similar to the film Minority Report, but with algorithms, machine thoughts, replacing pre-cogs, cutting out the middle-seer.
Snowden spends considerable time reiterating his revelations of the specific secret government surveillance programs he shared with journalists beginning in 2013. He had originally intended to contact the New York Times, he writes, but remembered how they had quashed James Risen and Eric Lichtblau’s important piece on the Bush administration’s illegal wireless surveillance of Americans (revealed later by Snowden as NSA’s StellarWind program) that “well might have changed the course of the 2004 election” had it run. The story ran more than a year later to shrugs.
Instead, a second Bush/Cheney term allowed the NSA and CIA to expand their global surveillance programs. Snowden revealed further evidence of extra-Constitutional data-gathering. He writes:
“PRISM enabled the NSA to routinely collect data from Microsoft, Yahoo!,Google, Facebook, Paltalk, YouTube, Skype, AOL, and Apple, including email, photos, video and audio chats, Web-browsing content, search engine queries, and all other data stored on their clouds, transforming the companies into witting co-conspirators.”
These criminal co-conspirators, above the law themselves, were treating everyone else as potential terrorists, sleeping cells of personality disorder that could erupt at any moment and reveal themselves by “keyword” Google searches for trouble, such as “Mr. Google, what ever happened to the photo and DNA evidence of bin Laden’s Abbottabad execution?”
There were also a couple of monitor-level programs that were mind-boggling and disgusting, such as XKeyscore, “which is perhaps best understood as a search engine that lets an analyst search through all the records of your life.” Everything. Anybody. Anywhere. While you were getting over the shock of that, Snowden pointed to another salubrious practice — LOVEINT — “in which analysts used the agency’s programs to surveil their current and former lovers along with objects of more casual affection—reading their emails, listening in on their phone calls, and stalking them online.” Creepy, and probably rife, considering that no one’s likely to get prosecuted, “because you can’t exactly convict someone of abusing your secret system of mass surveillance if you refuse to admit the existence of the system itself.” Secret men’s business. High five!
Most everyone agrees that 9/11 was the catalyst for the political acceptance of mass surveillance. The pollies conned the People into buying into the “limited” and “temporary” need for security-enhancing privacy annihilation hastened the transformation from intensified vigilance to full-blown panopticon intrusiveness. Snowden sees two main causes: one, the transfer of paper data to digital data, stored online; and, two, contracting. To get around agency hiring limits set by Congress, contractors, not counted as employees, were hired. Snowden calls them Homo Contractus. He was one. Said to be working for, say, Dell computers, but actually doing the work of the NSA or CIA.
Homo Contractus has become an evolving species of worker for the US government. It is perhaps the most dangerous development of all, given that such contractors are the eyes and ears of the surveillance machine. Suddenly, agency analysts go into early ‘retirement’, only to put up a quick WordPress business website and hang a shingle out as ‘consultants’, who then get re-hired by the system they retired from. When such consultants start working overseas, in places like the UAE, they are mercenaries who can hack away as they please. They bring their skill sets, toolsets, and target lists with them; the US government cannot stop them. It was no surprise to see The Intercept, a publication for whistleblowing revelations, being hacked from the UAE.
Permanent Record is an excellent read. There is a sub-text to the narrative that makes you wonder whether he is pulling your leg at times. And a few seemingly contrived anecdotes, such as the tiny play child Snowden has with mom about the need for taxes; another childhood exchange with mom where she explains the immorality of opening his sister’s mail; and, the chapter, “From the Diaries of Lindsay Mills,” which are, ostensibly, entries from his girlfriend’s (now his wife) diary. I was surprised that this chapter didn’t qualify her for a byline. But also, the section was so finely manicured that it felt like an inauthentic voice. In a novel that’s okay.
I have questions. Like why the push to get people to use the Tor Project? Snowden says that setting up a Tor server can help others in highly controlled societies (he cites Iran) reach out beyond their cyberwall. But the safety of Tor use was debunked years ago, when it was revealed US spooks had cracked its encryption and were on to users setting up bridge servers. But a bigger mystery to me was the inclusion of a reference to the bin Laden execution of 2011: “a dialysis patient shot point-blank in the embrace of his multiple wives in their lavish compound.” By all other reports, bin Laden was shot dead from the stairwell, there were no “multiple wives” embracing him, and the compound was anything but “lavish.”
Responses to what Snowden did in 2013 seem to locate his actions somewhere between heroic and traitorous. One political analyst, however, believes he’s beyond such easy good or evil. David P. Fidler, editor of The Snowden Reader, writes in his introduction to the volume that Snowden’s actions “disrupted the trajectory of political affairs and forced democratic societies to reconsider fundamental questions, the answers to which help define the quality of the democratic experience.” This is, of course, vague, and maybe entirely unhelpful, but does give an idea of his reception of the intellectuals who may influence his fate, should he ever return to America.
The picture Snowden paints in Permanent Record is so bleak and — like he alludes to — such a fall from more relatively edenic times that there seems little hope. However, he does, like Julian Assange, assert that one place to start fighting back is for people to implement encryption — sealing their documents and using a safe VPN. Snowden notes, with hope, “The year 2016 was a landmark in tech history, the first year since the invention of the Internet that more Web traffic was encrypted than unencrypted.” In addition, many other people, like Tim Berners-Lee, the inventor of the World Wide Web, are pushing for the adoption of John Perry Barlow’s “A Declaration of the Independence of Cyberspace.” Meh. But the truth is, more radical actions may be required.
Personally, I believe we need a more benign, colossal catastrophe. For instance, I was reading the other day about the chances of Earth being spit in the eye by a giant hot loogie from the Sun. I read:
“In today’s electrically dependent modern world, a similar scale solar storm could have catastrophic consequences. Auroras damage electrical power grids and may contribute to the erosion of oil and gas pipelines. They can disrupt GPS satellites and disturb or even completely black out radio communication on Earth.”
Such damage, if it lasted long enough, might just be the best goddamned thing to happen to this planet in a long time. We’d talk more, face to face.