But even the president of the United States
Sometimes must have to stand naked
— Bob Dylan, “It’s Alright, Ma”
SPOILER ALERT — Plot lines of the film Official Secrets revealed.
In May 1989, just a few months before the Berlin Wall fell, the United Kingdom upgraded its Official Secrets Act (OSA). Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher, unhappy with the way embarrassing classified information had been leaked to the press during the Falklands War, saw to it that the OSA was tightened up to such a degree that future breachers of government non-disclosure agreements would face serious jail time.
Future whistleblowers would even be limited in their legal defense, as they would be unable to discuss the confidential leak with an attorney. The OSA of 1989 was the stuff of police states.
From John F. Kennedy (“Ich bin ein Berliner”) to Ronald Reagan (“Mr. Gorbachev, tear down this wall”), the Berlin Wall had been regarded by the West as the symbol of the Iron Curtain separating free democratic societies and closed totalitarian regimes controlled by Moscow.
But the OSA suggested that the West had learned the value of deep, unnecessary secrecy. As the East opened up, the West began its movement toward clamping down on privacy and freedom, through the growth of the Internet, leading to the surveillance state we have today.
In 2016, NSA whistleblower Thomas Drake, noted this catastrophic irony. Speaking before the European Parliament Committee on Civil Liberties, Justice and Home Affairs, a disillusioned Drake said,
I never imagined that the US would use the Stasi playbook as the template for its own state sponsored surveillance regime and turning not only its own citizens into virtual persons of interest, but also millions of citizens in the rest of the world.
Of course, it’s not only America that’s gone this route, but the UK (which has the most surveillance cameras turned on its public than anywhere else in the world, bar China), Australia, New Zealand and Canada — the Five Eyes that control world surveillance.
But long before Drake, Chelsea Manning, Edward Snowden, and many other whistleblowers and reporters drew our attention to the secret criminal activities of our governments, in our names and against our democratic interests, in 2003, Government Communications Headquarters (GCHQ) translator and analyst Katharine Gun refused to stay silent — non-disclosure agreement or not — while her country was ‘special-friended’ by the US into illegally going to war against Iraq.
Daniel Ellsberg, leaker of the Pentagon Papers that detailed the active US criminality of the Vietnam War, said of Gun’s leak that it was “The most extraordinary leak … of classified information that I’ve ever seen, and that definitely included and surpassed my own disclosure of top secret information….” Gun was trying to stop a war, not end one.
The newly released Official Secrets is a docudrama that tells the story of Katharine Gun’s heroic decision to risk everything (career, marriage, freedom) to blow the whistle on Great Britain’s collusion in blackmailing UN Security Council members into supporting an illegal war (the US and the UK knew there were no WMDs) against Iraq in the spring of 2003.
The US was looking for “legal” cover and was willing to use the NSA and GCHQ’s extraordinary surveillance abilities to find kompromat on UN members to force them to vote Yes on war. This is war criminality — the kind the UN was established to prevent and punish.
Official Secrets is directed by Gavin Hood, whose last major film was the British surveillance thriller, Eye in the Sky (2015). The film stars Keira Knightley, MyAnna Buring, and Ralph Fiennes. It is one of those must-see films that seems almost impossible to find. Cinema runs seem limited. It’s available through Apple, Amazon and Vudu, but, of course, online, your viewing is duly noted and databased.
In a flashback, very early in the film, we see Gun lounging at home watching British journalist
on TV in an with interview Prime Minister Tony Blair. Frost is pushing Blair to come clean about war path allegations that Saddam Hussein has weapons of mass destruction, and therefore represents a clear and present danger to America and her allies.
The film has very effective editing. Once the viewer is reminded of Blair’s criminal collusion with the Bush administration about WMD in Iraq months before the invasion (here, Gun is heard shouting from the couch in protest of Blair’s lies), we cut to the GCHQ office Gun works in and watch as she reads, for the first time, the document she will leak to the press. The scene enacts two colleagues unhappy with the contents of the document from the NSA, and the first stir of conscience for Gun.
As the memo indicates, the push to go to war with Iraq in 2003, brought in a variety of actors, including “good guys” like Colin Powell, whose favorability among the American populace — Democrats and Republicans alike — was leveraged; he was the lipstick on the flying pig. Still unaccountably, he allowed himself to be the ‘credible’ salesman for a criminal lie. It was a mistake that cost him the chance to be the first Black American president. (Even during the 2016 presidential election, three electors ignored the public vote and chose him for president. Which tells you something about the electoral college process.)
There are a lot of anxious moments depicted in the film — people just not knowing what to do: friends are afraid of being caught up in a situation that could amount to treason; Gun’s husband, a Kurd, is threatened with deportation; newspaper staff fear giving up a cozy relationship with the government; lawyers who tell their clients, ‘I think you might be fucked.’ This is what the criminals exercise and leverage. All the people who signed on to do the right thing as friends, lovers, reporters, and lawyers wring their hands in anguish, while the lying leaders sleep. And Official Secrets makes certain that the viewer knows that the prospect of war with Iraq was “historically unpopular.” It’s a war crime from the onset.
After Gun secrets the NSA memo out of GCHQ she calls a friend, Jasmine, an anti-war agitator, who she knows has press contacts, so that she can get the word out. This is a poignant moment, because implicit is the proposition before the viewer: What would you do? And you can feel Jasmine and Gun’s terror at being caught.
Drake knows how Gun is feeling when it comes to the conflict she has between holding to her non-disclosure agreement and her responsibility to make government accountable for criminal behavior. In a 2014 interview with Federal News Network, Drake said:
Is your non-disclosure agreement, which involves what’s actually classified, does that somehow trump the Constitution and First Amendment? Is secrecy, in this case the trust, even if it’s misplaced where trust becomes loyalty and if you break loyalty, then you get punished, which is sort of like the Omerta pact?
How the film depicts the press is amusing, suggesting a low-level of interest in rocking the ship of state. An Observer journalist named Ed Vulliamy (played by Rhys Ifans) is already working on a lead that supports the suspicion that George W. Bush is aching for an excuse to polish off Saddam Hussein. Nobody wants to touch his copy at the then pro-war Observer. Heading back to the States to track his lead, Ed yells over his shoulder at colleagues, “We’re the press, for God’s sake, not a fucking PR agency for Tony Blair.” Hear, hear.
Later, once the memo gets to the Observer, they muddle over what to do, as the document has come not directly from a GCHQ source but through a notorious intermediary, casting doubt upon the veracity of the memo. When they finally run the story, it is discovered by the Americans that the NSA memo uses British spelling — a secretary’s mistake, it turns out — making American media nervous about picking up on the Observer’s exclusive story. The story founders on the ‘typo’ and causes high anxiety at the paper. Even Gun begins to fear that she risked everything for nothing. Before the newscycle spits out the shaky story, Gun confesses to GCHQ: “I did it. It was me,” Gun says.
After that Official Secrets moves towards Gun’s legal defense. The Official Secrets Act is further spelled out. The harsh realities of the non-disclosure agreements signed amplified by the war with Iraq now underway and the indifference to Gun’s plea for understanding her rationale for whistleblowing become apparent. In the end they come up with a plan: necessity defense.
The necessity defense is a difficult argument to make, because, among other things, the defendant has to make the case that their action clearly supersedes an executive decision, often built upon confidential information the defendant might not be privy to. The defense had to show that by changing the Official Secrets Act in 1989 the Thatcher administration essentially locked in immunity from criminal executive behavior in the future. Further, they could demonstrate that the invasion of Iraq, which the Blair government signed on to, was predicated upon lies (WMD). Further, the NSA memo, with its request for British intelligence-gathering on UN Security Council members, for the purposes of blackmail, left the government open to criminal responsibility for the doings in Iraq.
Gun’s case was dropped by the government.
Gun’s experience and its aftermath raises a couple of important questions still relevant today. How do we strengthen whistleblower laws — internationally — so that otherwise decent, law-abiding government workers, like analyst Gun, are not forced by NDAs to become silent accessories to crime committed by their superiors. Gun was faced with having to live with doing nothing amid reports of the slaughter that Shock and Awe caused. Necessity defenses are not frivolous and should be an option for whistleblowers. Snowden would have a legitimate appeal to such a defense. Also, such trials should be held in neutral jurisdictions, such as The Hague. Real whistleblower trials are political events, not criminal.
Also, it should be noted that so much of what Snowden says in his memoir, Permanent Record, of his self-described Deep State career has the golden ring of truth to it. But his title says it all, really. The government wants to keep a permanent record — a dossier — on every person on the planet connected to the internet. (And the pressure is there to see that just about everyone is enrolled eventually.) As Snowden writes in Permanent Record:
At any time, the government could dig through the past communications of anyone it wanted to victimize in search of a crime (and everybody’s communications contain evidence of something). At any point, for all perpetuity, any new administration — any future rogue head of the NSA — could just show up to work and, as easily as flicking a switch, instantly track everybody with a phone or a computer, know who they were, where they were, what they were doing with whom, and what they had ever done in the past.
This is invasive surveillance capacity almost beyond belief; totally undemocratic — and all kinds of criminal. The NSA attempt to blackmail UN security council members is, as Gun knew, an example of their potential for evil deeds that nobody can stop.
The UK is saturated with surveillance cameras aimed at its population — by one estimate there are at least 4,200,000 cameras or one for every 14 citizens. At one point you could sign on to a now-defunct service (Internet Eyes) to monitor activity online and be paid for it. It’s not just the UK though — in America, there is a site where you can sign up to become an online ‘deputized’ set of eyes on the look-out for immigrants crossing the Mexican border. It’s even worse: another service invites presumably insomniac viewers to check out the live CCTV feeds from IP cameras around the world. We are becoming the beast with seven billion eyes.
Another important point Snowden makes in Permanent Record is that his is the first generation growing up in the post-9/11 world. A world of young people that has lived with mass surveillance its entire life. It has become normalized, institutionalized — a part of keeping Freedom ‘safe from harm’. Sounds sensible, but it’s scary — especially in the scoundrel patriotism it requires you to take refuge in. Thirty years after the fall of the Berlin Wall, former Stasi employees must look on at Five Eyes with penal envy. And we are in danger of getting to that point we see in another film, The LIves of Others, portraying the sinister brutalities of the Stasi, where the logic of our imprisonment is expressed as a contradiction in our introjected daily interrogation by the algorithms of our collective demise.
Meanwhile, speaking of smoking guns, Donald J. Trump continues to dog-whistle his basket-case full of deplorable supporters as he publicly savages the whistleblower who may spell his demise and lead to his impeachment. The unleashed press hounds are baying at the blood-red moon. Ukraine, not Russia, may bring his presidency down. And it remains to be seen whether the spy is a whistleblower or merely another a politically motivated leaker.
Official Secrets is the story of a hero. Like Snowden, Drake and Manning, and all the others who brought attention, at great risk to themselves, we need — of all things — more vigilance when it comes to our freedom and privacy. For inspiration see the film.
NOTE: excerpts from Official Secrets used as part of Fair Use act.
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.