By John Kendall Hawkins
Those of us who care about the criminal excesses of the Orwellian dystopia that we find ourselves thumb-driven under by predatory algorithms that ferret out our alpha waves for “security” and commercial purposes, might want to remember that if not for legitimate whistleblowers we would know next to nothing about what the Bastards are up to. It’s a far more depressing world for the knowing, but like climate change, we’re no better off for the ignorance. So, here’s to Julian Assange, Edward Snowden, and Chelsea Manning — all of whom have given up their freedom in order to reveal the criminality and deceit of the Masters of Endless War and pocket Marshall plans (Rebuilds ‘R Us). Here’s to our Three Amigos in this festive season of convenient whistleblowing.
First, thanks to Julian Assange, who told us years ago that the Bastards just wanted him to be put on a plane to Sweden so that he could be put on another plane to America — against his will. He rightfully sought asylum in the Ecuadorian Embassy in London to avoid such extradition that would have made him a circus clown before a politically-motivated ‘national security’ trial in America that would have seen him jailed for life. The MSM took his wiki goodies and made money selling papers with them, but bailed on him when the government told them to attack his character. Now, out of self-interest, the MSM will be forced to begrudgingly defend Assange’s journalism credentials should he be forwarded, like a soccer ball, to America’s fascist foot.
It looks grim for Julian. He will be tried, if brought to America, under the Espionage Act, a version of which has been shored up under each of the Five Eyes super-surveillance partners. His best chance at avoiding being putsched before a show trial is for lawyers to show that Spanish security company, UC Global, hired by Ecuador to provide security for its London embassy, actually spied on Assange and his visitors with mikes and cams, and handed their work over to the CIA. This would (or should) demonstrate that Assange can’t receive a fair trial in America (again, the reason he took refuge in the embassy), and provide lawyers with the ammo they need to knock back the extradition.
Now would be a good time to catch up on the issues surrounding his case, and, really, the best way to do that is by reading the collection of supporting voices — from computer technicians to philosophers — put out by OR Books, an independent publisher, In Defense of Julian Assange. Next, write to him. You might actually be able to get a message to him, in this festive season, if you go online and send him a letter — either through L-Mail, which takes your e-message and snail-mails it to him, or, more conveniently, you can use Email A Prisoner (don’t forget to use a VPN). He’s said he wants messages short and sweet. Maybe send him a joke or limerick. I sent him a poem.
And there’s Edward Snowden to salute. Others have made zoodles of dollars explaining the importance of his 2013 revelations, including Glenn Greenwald, who won a well-deserved Pulitzer for his details of Snowden’s global surveillance revelations and his subsequent escape to Russia. Then Snowden put out Permanent Record, his memoir full of insider details of the deep state (his words) that he worked for as a kind of demi-god of data — before its criminality (his words) made him unable to go on lying and collecting for the government. He revealed, with diagrams, how the US government spies on everyone connected to a communications system — Internet and mobile services. Importantly, he shows how contractors (see chapter, Homo Contractus) are the ball carriers of the deep state.
Unfortunately, but predictably (his words), the US government sued his publisher to take his book profits away — and they won. Snowden, now larfing as a much-sought-after six-figure online speaker, has suggested that the public buy a copy and hand it off, when finished, to a friend. Great idea (remember the days of file-sharing)! A short cut to obtaining a free copy of his memoir is to visit the wondrous Internet Archive where several borrowable copies are there for downloading. “I wanted to help, but I didn’t know how,” he writes of his decision to whistleblow. “I’d had enough of feeling helpless, of being just an asshole in flannel lying around on a shabby couch eating Cool Ranch Doritos and drinking Diet Coke while the world went up in flames.”
Thanks again to Assange and Wikileaks, for risking further criminal abuse, by helping Snowden escape from Hong Kong. And remember that the audacious Obama would have nailed Snowden had he been on the Bolivian president’s airplane when it was forced down. This gangster cut-him-off move might have led to a hot WWIII had the plane been Putin’s, instead of Evo Morales.
Edward can be reached in his exile, either by mailing him at Freedom of the Press Foundation or through his account at Twitter: @Snowden .
And finally, thanks to Chelsea Manning, for getting the ball rolling back in 2010 with the Iraq Logs and Afghan Logs, but, most devastatingly, the so-called Collateral Murder video that not only showed s double-tap helicopter gunship attack on civilians, including two Reuters reporters, but provided the gunship audio that suggested jolly titillation as bodies fell. The video demonstrated, among other things, that the so-called War on Terror was going to involve its own moments of terrorism, with not a lot of hand-wringing, once the gloves were off.
Chelsea was court-martialed and sentenced to 35 years for delivering classified information to Julian Assange and Wikileaks. President Obama commuted Manning’s sentence (after six harsh years in the slammer) — just before the Trump inauguration in Jan 2017. In February 2019, she was found in contempt of court for refusing to testify before a grand jury looking to gather evidence on Julian Assange and Wikileaks and put back in jail. Then, upon release, told a new grand jury to fuck off, and is back in prison again on contempt charges. She reasoned that, “[T]his grand jury seeks to undermine the integrity of public discourse with the aim of punishing those who expose any serious, ongoing, and systemic abuses of power by this government.”
As with Assange above, Manning can be reached through a convenient write and snail-post system, called Jmail. She can be reached by post at:
The William G. Truesdale Adult Detention Center
2001 Mill Road, Alexandria, Virginia 22314
You’ll have to call the switchboard to get her prisoner ID number.
In this festive season, as we ready ourselves for the short-lived Senate dismissal of the House’s impeachment of Trump (yawn), just in time for the presidential primary season, let’s remember that there are still other things that we can do to bolster the defenses of Assange, Snowden, and Manning, as they ready for consequential appearances before judges in the next few months. We can, for instance, put our heads together and try to force the government into ‘necessity defense’ legislation that Assange and Snowden could use in the future to defend themselves. And we could also file, online, Freedom of Information Act requests, say, the Rogers-Brennan-Clapper emails leading up their DNC hacking assessment in 2016.
Me, a couple of days ago, I filed a FOIA for access to the poems Khalid Sheikh Mohammed was said to have penned to his interrogator’s wife after 183 waterboardings. I very much look forward to reading these ‘Sufi sonnets’. Talk about curing writer’s block, huh?
By John Kendall Hawkins
In these musical times, it’s important to distinguish between a whistleblower and a leaker. Probably the last place to look for the difference is the Main Stream Media, which is caught up in partisan politics and often blurs the line between the two, guided not by public interest but corporate self-interest. What does the term “whistleblower” mean to you? Take a moment, divest yourself of the MSM brainwash (all the same news all the time), the same way you divested yourself of those South African apart-hate stocks back in the day. Can you feel a jaunty Johnny Nash song coming on?
Personally, I like the comparison Edward Snowden draws in his recent memoir, Permanent Record (a title meant to bring attention to the fact that the US government now has an illegal dossier on every netizen in the world, and, he says, is willing to use it to take down its enemies — and we’re all suspects). It’s a straightforward distinction: “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 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.”
The problem is, as Matt Taibbi so eloquently lays out in Hate Inc., his take on the Washington bread-and-circus shenanigans of the last few years, the MSM has abrogated its Fourth Estate duty as Bastard-Outer for the republic, because they’ve become caught up in the often-juvenile partisan snark attacks. Taibbi argues that the Press seems, more than ever, driven by profit motives, acceding to jingos, character assassination and sensationalism, rather than following the rules of journalism, as they close down and are forced to move online, where they don’t call the shots on what’s news (and not) any more. In short, the Press (and MSM) will name anyone a ‘whistleblower’ if it helps them sell ads, on paper or online.
Take, for example, Citizen X, the Ukraine quid pro quo whistleblower. The MSM has released very little information about him, other than acknowledging that he’s a CIA officer, because they don’t want to publish details that would inevitably allow free-thinking individuals to work out who he is. Why? Because their agenda is to kill, kill, kill Trump’s presidency. Foot soldierin’ for the Intelligence Community may be a noble cause, but it’s not very honest (balanced) journalism. The name of the whistleblower has been circulating for weeks in alternative-to-MSM publications, such as realclearinvestigations.com, run by, ahem, a former NY Times editor. There’s a lot of that going on: The Intercept is staffed with star reporters from the MSM who couldn’t hack it anymore.
If our third-hand-wringing whistleblower is who these altos say he is, then he doesn’t fit the criteria that Edward Snowden sees — a Daniel Ellsberg type — but rather a pawn in the Deep State game. The one-and-only CIA analyst to ever go to prison (albeit deeply minimum) for whistleblowing, John Kiriakou, has weighed in on the master debate. “If he’s a whistleblower,” writes Kiriakou, “and not a CIA plant whose task it is to take down the president, then his career is probably over.” Elsewhere, he says, “[I]nside the CIA, I guarantee you that people are saying, ‘Well, if he’s willing to rat out the president, he’s probably willing to rat out us.’ And so no one is ever going to trust this guy again.”
Spooks don’t rat. Snowden brought this reality home in Permanent Record when he describes LOVEINT, a computer interface that allows analysts to snoop and stalk love interests. But even though there were penalties in place for such abuses, nobody was ever even chastised, writes Snowden, a self-acknowledged abuser, 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.” Ostensibly, girlfriends would look at their Snowdens, their menfolk having the look of someone who’s been looking at them already. And for the Snowdens, their love interests “had the look of flowers that are looked at,” as that old mermaid whisperer TS Eliot puts it, referring to his wastrel years.
Unfortunately for the fused agendas of the MSM, our intrepid Deep State Throat, if the alt media information holds up, was a confidante of Joe Biden when he was the “point man” for Ukraine affairs after the CIA-encouraged coup there in 2014. In fact, according to the Real Clear whistleblow on the ‘whistleblower,” he was more than that: Deep State Throat was Obama’s NSC director for Ukraine. I’m a former newspaper journalist: This possibility is worth checking out, as it resounds with implications.
Even worse, and more heartbreaking for our nation’s future prospects, according to the report, he worked for serial liar and criminal John Brennan, who recently said of al-Bagdadi, as he was being chased by ungloved US forces, suicide-invested and clutching kids, “He died like a dog, he died like a coward…He died after running into a dead-end tunnel, whimpering and crying and screaming all the way…The thug who tried so hard to intimidate others spent his last moments in utter fear, in total panic and dread.” Oh, wait, I was thinking of Brennan’s retractable account of the bin Laden take-down he witnessed in the situation room. I dunno, maybe Trump was having a go at Obama again — some kind of conspiracy-theory riff.
There’s something wrong in America; you can tell, outside looking in. Elections, the heart-and-soul of democracy, aren’t working and nobody wants to fix them (electoral college issues, continued voter disenfranchisement, gerrymandering, and voter box hacking). The MSM, once the champion of Keeping the Bastards Honest, has settled into a selfish, stenographic funk, and has abrogated the moral authority embodied in the principles of sound journalism. They let evil, criminal doings off-the-hook with a warning, and blow up the bullshit and keep all eyes on the fan.
Those of us who still have marbles rolling around in our heads know George W. Bush probably stole the 2000 election, and maybe even 2004 (when the NYT quashed an October surprise story by James Risen that was a heads-up, eight years before Snowden’s revelations, about the NSA’s illegal dossier-building on everyone). When Bush called on the NSA to talk British intelligence into surreptitiously obtaining kompromat on UN security council members to sway their votes on the question of war with Iraq, as described in the recent whistleblower film, Official Secrets, he should have been brought before The Hague. When the WMD ruse was revealed, Bush, Cheney and Rumsfeld should have been imprisoned. Hell, I’d have thrown in Kissinger, too, Nobel peace prize with him.
And Obama, who all we Lefties once praised, with hopeful audacinations, went dud so fast, even before his Inauguration, when he had to bail out too-big-to-fail Wall Street bankers, who’d tried to make zillions and zillions off the housing bubble that were little more than cynical bets that mortgages granted to millions of Black and poor people would fail. It almost qualified as a pyramid scheme. Bush came at Obama like Wall Street was a Twin Tower that terrorists missed that September morn and had come back around for, six years later. Neo-cons everywhere must have laughed to see that Mandela-like bounce of Obama disappear, as Bush whispered Dixie in his ear.
Well, some character whistleblowers say he was an asshole anyway, and his breaking bad had nothing to do with the Bail Out. It’s hard to say. If I were a conspiracy theorist, I could see some IC guy sitting him down and pushing a dossier of his secrets across the table at him, with a wink, and walking away. Or maybe Donald Trump’s birther hallucination unnerved the Big Guy (he did feel obliged to post the b/c to the White House website). Whatever it was that turned him, he turned to a life of crime.
You could start with an investigation of the legality of his secret wars. His indiscriminate use of drones (secretly, at first), and then, later, setting the criminal precedent of droning American citizen Anwar al-Awlaki, and, more, of drone-murdering Abdulrahman, his 16 year old American son. Forcing down the plane of a head of state in the mistaken belief that a fugitive was on-board. He expanded the Orwellian surveillance machine. And the impeachable offense (separation of powers) of ordering the CIA to break in to the Senate intelligence sub-committee that was investigating the CIA for its illegal abuses during the Bush torture regime. And his overwrought prosecution of whistleblowers, under the Espionage Act, perhaps with the intent to obstruct justice.
Ironically, if we may be loose, Barack Obama was the first to blow the whistle on Trump’s presidency — even before DJ was inaugurated. You consider the source, of course, but Trump has been largely correct when he says that the Obama administration did, indeed, spy on him while he was a candidate. There’s even some evidence that Obama state department officials acted as go-betweens for ex-UK (now contract) spy Christopher Steele and, later, the Clinton campaign. It may even be that, as with Edward Snowden “working” for Dell Computers, Steele may have been a “contract” worker for MI6 at the time of his dossier-building on Trump, doing their business disguised as Orbis. In each collection of data, the president’s and the ex-secretary’s, the intention was to give Hillary a political edge in the 2016 presidential election. Why, that sounds criminal.
You could argue that the Trump campaign’s alleged “collusion” with the Russians, as “assessed’ by the four intel agencies, after a finding on the alleged DNC hack, was a form of cover-up for Obama’s lame-duck moves, and an attempt to lock in a political posture on Russia before leaving office, effectively sidelining Trump’s presidency, and keeping eyes off the American doings in Ukraine. If the CIA was used, on a phony pretext, to gather data on a presidential candidate in America, for the purposes of helping the opposing candidate win, as they’re so famous for in banana republics, then they broke the law and should have been (should be) tried. Maybe we could try them on the Espionage Act of 1917.
The forensic analysis done by the DNC’s computer security, Crowdstrike, was an online job; nobody seems to have bothered checking the servers physically — not even the FBI, who were told in almost hysterical terms that our Democracy had been ravaged by those Viking-like Russians. Yet, the Mueller Report, like James Comey’s FBI, relied on Crowdstrike’s hands-off analysis. Maybe because Crowdstrike has FBI connections, including Shawn Henry, who “joined CrowdStrike in 2012 after retiring from the FBI, where he oversaw half of the FBI’s investigative operations, including all FBI criminal and cyber investigations worldwide….” Again, this is the homo contractus stuff Snowden warns us of.
Further diminishing the ‘slam dunk’ evidence that Mueller relies on to call the DNC server breach a hack is Julius Assange’s August 3, 2016 revelation on the PBS NewsHour that the emails he published were leaks, not hacks, and that he knew who the insiders were. He went on to name them. All of which, the Crowdstrike association with the FBI and the Assange assertion, put the IC “findings,” upon which an indictable case against Russian hackers is drawn, in reasonable doubt. Who knows, maybe the server isn’t even at the DNC. You could turn a laptop or even, potentially, a mobile phone into a server, if so inclined; just download and configure a mail server app. After all, just because someone works at the State department doesn’t mean that’s where they have their mail server.
(Funny side speculation, Russia is said to have meddled in Ukraine’s recent presidential election, maybe giving them Volodymyr Zelensky, a comic actor, and political apprentice, as a way of further tweaking the nose of the CIA, and showing them how it’s done. Check out the Ukraine president’s IMDB rating!)
All red flags point to Ukraine still, not Russia. The latter’s many LNG gas lines to Europe all currently go under Ukraine, and it’s known that America wants to disrupt that flow. The obvious criminality of Trump’s quid pro quo telephone conversation with his fellow apprentice Zelensky, aside from whether it leads to Trump’s impeachment, had as its focus the continuation of the investigation of Burisma Gas Holdings, whose fields lie mostly under Crimean soil.
There may or may not be anything to the Joe Biden quid pro quo he successfully executed in 2016 and bragged about on live TV, with minor hand-wringing by the MSM, but it is worth noting that the continued investigation into Burisma that Trump was pushing would also have resulted in the question: Why is Cofer Black on its Board of Directors (since just after Trump’s inauguration in 2017)?
It’s speculation, but not wild, that Deep State Throat, Obama’s former NSC liaison for Ukraine, received a call of his own, perhaps from the American embassy anxious to continue the anti-Russian work of the previous administration. As Edward Snowden writes in Permanent Record, “The worst-kept secret in modern diplomacy is that the primary function of an embassy nowadays is to serve as a platform for espionage.”
This might help explain Cofer Black’s presence. The long established 9/11 narrative says that it was Cofer’s dire warnings to Bush of an imminent attack by al-Qaeda that were ignored; he was put in charge thereafter of tracking down bin Laden; he set up the renditions and black sites and torture program that followed; he helped found the private CIA group, Blackwater, with its basket of mercenary deployables; he is chairman of Total Intelligence Services, likely the homo contractus version of the Deep State’s Total Information Awareness program. Who knows, maybe he swaps secret men’s spit with Christopher Steele. It’s a small world when you’re a small man. Surely, with Black in town, it won’t be long before heads of departments are on sticks in Kiev and flies are crouch dancing across eyeballs in the Crimea. Metaphorically, of course.
Because Western democratic citizens live in a politically dysfunctional world — Five Eyes nations are enforcers for nation-state gangster goons guarding their ever-acquisitive interests — without a respected unifying governmental agency, such as a real league of nations, we get nothing crucial done as a globe — see climate change. We’ve become hive-minded, interconnected in uncomfortable ways, and seem to be suffering from some kind of colony collapse of consciousness.
This would help explain how these things keep happening under our noses, while the MSM looks the other way. Or leads us in a rendition of Two Minute Hate. Tiny cornball characters who see themselves as swaggering Gods. As Bobby Dylan sings,
They all play on the penny whistle
You can hear them blow
If you lean your head out far enough
From Desolation Row
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.