By John Kendall Hawkins
Dunbar’s number, the famous estimate of how many relationships you can meaningfully maintain in life, is just 150.
- Edward Snowden, Permanent Record (2019)
I am he as you are he as you are me and we are all together
- The Beatles, “I Am The Walrus,” (1967)
Dot-Dash. Here-Gone. Off-On. In-Out/Out-In. One-Zero. 2B or 2B. Being and Nothingness. At the same time. Anal-Digi-Quanthump. The Dot Com lowers the boom. Fuck me, if I can follow; I need help. Is this AA; am I in the right place? It makes me think of what Eddie Snowden said last year in his illegal memoir, Isn’t “journalism about following the bread crumbs and connecting the dots? What else did reporters do all day, besides tweet?” (About the president’s tweets.)
They could start with the dot. A little dot’ll do ya. You, me, her. Them, especially Them. Connect the dots, degrees-of-separation style. Think of us all as synonyms and antonyms (fer me or agin me) and how definitions change, depending on who’s calling the narrative shots. Plug a word into the Visual Thesaurus (try Friend) and see what happens. Like Snowden wrote in Permanent Record,
We are the first people in the history of the planet for whom this is
true, the first people to be burdened with data immortality, the fact that our
collected records might have an eternal existence.
It’s hard to get your head around — digitals dots of electromagnetic self, jittery particulates of consciousness, arrayed someWhere, forever. And the closer we get to total online hivemindedness (the Internet as a need), the closer we get to the self-conscious extinction of our species.
This all sounds hokey and hoochy and maybe even a little hallucinogenic. But think about it, reader. Recently, I was reading (and reviewing) a book on consciousness by Philip Goff, Galileo’s Error: Foundations for a New Science of Consciousness, wherein he leads the reader toward a vision not-so-splendid:
[Integrated Information Theory] predicts that if the growth of internet-based connectivity ever resulted in the amount of integrated information in society surpassing the amount of integrated information in a human brain, then not only would society become conscious but human brains would be “absorbed” into that higher form of consciousness. Brains would cease to be conscious in their own right and would instead become mere cogs in the mega-conscious entity that is the society including its internet based connectivity.
Scary, true stuff in theory. But here’s the big question, as it approaches: Who’s in charge? Time to re-read your dogma-eared copy of The Portable Marx.
We need sure-footed sherpas for the Himalayas of heaped-up shit ahead. And that’s what Bart Gellman proposes to be in his new book, Dark Mirror: Edward Snowden and the American Surveillance State. Who’s in charge? The worry is built right into the title. We live now in a world divided by a pane of tinted glass behind which unseeable (but sensed) protectors of our Way of Life (whatever that means this week), without our permission, watch and store all of our activity — Internet and Mobile — as if we were little more than data points requiring constant scrutiny for signs of terrorism, -vertently or in-, and every dot-person we connect to will go into a special database when we visit Counterpunch magazine. (Too late, buy your buds a Bud and sheepishly apologize. They’ll smile, with revelations of their own, raising the ante: Hustler. Douché! now you’re in the Raunch database.)
Another question that comes up while reading Gellman’s book is the question of why the book now? Sad to say, it’s almost nine years since Snowden spilled the beans on what the Bastards are up to, and while his brilliant memoir last year served to plump up a thinking man’s pillow to sleep on, nobody seems to give a shit any more, again — a default position, it seems, in the postmod age. But Gellman seems unquieted by such indifference and is providing a long-overdue, and welcome, account of what makes Snowden run — from the point of view of a self-described mainstream journalist (he’s ‘free’ now, after many years at WaPo, where darkness has fallen on democracy).
I found it quite valuable for him to page-perform the political pressures and legal issues an MSMer was up against as he worked alone, and with journalistic rogues and renegades, such as Laura Poitrast, Glenn Greenwald, and even Julian Assange. Maybe Gellman was inspired by the film, Official Secrets, which features the hand-wringing of journos at the Observer in London as they report on a whistleblower’s leak (Katherine Gunn) proving the NSA’s attempts to get the GCHQ to extract kompromat from members of the UN Security Council in the lead-up to the vote on going to war with Iraq.
It’s good to know what struggles some newsroom journos go through to report on abuses by our elected political governors. If nothing else, such a struggle is unexpectedly uplifting to witness in an era when reporters are often likened to stenographers. The film played out the dramatic tension that exists between the public’s right to know and the government’s need for secrecy, ostensibly in order to protect its citizens from harm, which is what Gellman is interested in examining when he looks back at his meetings with Edward Snowden in 2013 and thereafter.
A key moment in all this wonderment came in 2004, just before the November presidential election. James Risen and Eric Lichtblau wrote a blockbuster piece on mass surveillance in America for the New York Times that their Editorial Editor, Bill Keller, quashed, expressing, according to Risen later, a desire to avoid being an October Surprise for the upcoming election. Risen knocked back Keller’s argument, writing in the Intercept, “I pointed out that if he decided not to run the story before the election, that would also have an impact, but he seemed to ignore my comment.” Mass surveillance is not the same as some pol’s unwanted hand down a woman’s panties — revealed just before the election — it’s potentially a clear and present danger to democratic values; voters should’ve been allowed to factor in Bush’s surveillance.
In the piece, finally published in the Times more than a year later, in 2005, and only after Risen had informed them that he would be including the story in his upcoming book, State of War: The Secret History of the CIA and the Bush Administration, Ris and Lichtblau describe how the Bush administration,
Under four collection programs overseen by Vice President Cheney, the NSA and FBI began wide-ranging surveillance of internet and telephone communications within the United States.
It was unknown to the public; they had no idea that a secret program, known as STELLARWIND, existed, and that Bush authorized the comprehensive collection of all American communications without any kind of warrant, and with the full cooperation of telephone and internet providers.
The program raises many questions, among them, “Are citizens equipped to hold their government accountable?” writes Gellman. And, Risen adds that, sadly for democracy, the decision to exclude the piece may have come as a result of the personal friendship between NSA Director Michael Hayden and Philip Taubman, associate editor for national security issues at the Times: “Keller now says that Taubman’s relationship with Hayden played an important role in the decision to not run the story.” The NSA (Michael Hayden) and FBI (Robert Mueller) were in on this illegal activity. Snowden, Risen and Gellman all point out that this information on STELLARWIND would have come nine years before Snowden’s revelations, and, all agree, that the story’s suppression affected his later decision on how to publicize the information.
An unhappy Risen recalls that “the impact of the story was immediate and explosive. George W. Bush was forced to confirm the existence of the program, even as he called the leak of information about it a ‘shameful act.’” Federal agents were unleashed to hunt down the hoodoo everythere. Congress was professionally “outraged” that the Bush administration would have the chutzzies to hide such a program; they called investigations (later, they helped pass legislation that retroactively legalized Bush’s executive order and passed immunity to the telecoms for their role in the extra-constitutional activity). Bush justified his “terrorist surveillance program,” using Unitary Executive theory as his basis.
Turns out, it would have been a critical issue in the presidential campaign. As Snowden put it, “Had that article run when it was originally written, it might well have changed the course of the 2004 election.” (Hurts even more, when you consider that Greg Palast, in his new book, How Trump Stole 2020, shows that John Kerry was robbed of the presidency by vote manipulation.)
This is a lot of cyber ink spilled on the failings of the New York Times in October 2004 and Snowden’s revelations later — a long time ago — “but Dark Mirror is not a book about Snowden, or not only that,” writes Gellman. “It is a tour of the surveillance state that rose up after September 11, 2001, when the U.S. government came to believe it could not spy on enemies without turning its gaze on Americans as well.” He adds, “At its core this is a book about power.”
Gellman first heard of Snowden through independent filmmaker Laura Poitrast. He writes that “three days before Christmas 2010, she turned up unannounced at my office, just off Washington Square.” He had admired her film, My Country, My Country, which traced the failed attempt to install democracy under U.S. occupation in Iraq. She would later go on to win an Oscar for the documentary of her 2013 encounter with Snowden in Hong Kong, called CitizenFour.
Beginning in 2013, they began working together to determine whether a contact reaching out to them, and his alleged cache of top secret documents, were legitimate. He went by the name “Verax,” Latin for speaker of truth. Early on Gellman wonders,
Was her source the whistleblower he claimed to be? A fabricator who used public records to feign inside knowledge? A real intelligence analyst peddling fake intrigue? A half-informed official who misread something benign?
Gellman and Snowden didn’t hit it off right away, as Snowden was mistrustful of his MSM credentials, which he felt would lead to journalistic compromise and leave Snowden stranded with his story not properly told to the public (making a return to America impossible without facing Espionage charges.) Snowden wants to work with adversarial “voices.”
Gellman mentions how Snowden had been reaching out to Guardian blogger Glenn Greenwald. “Months of effort, however, had failed to elicit a reply from Greenwald,” writes Gellman, “who disregarded emails from Verax and a how-to video on encryption.” Thus begins Gellman’s ambivalence towards the personality that Greenwald is, in his militant advocacy for Constitutional integrity in government and his concomitant commitment to in-your-face spotlighting of congressional and presidential abuses.
It’s an amusing tension returned to several times. Greenwald has been especially effective highlighting the abuse of the pocket-writs called executive orders that Greenwald warned, before Trump arrived, could be catastrophic in the wrong exec’s hands. Uh-oh. But for all his genius, Gellman doesn’t seem to like Greenwald. He seems to be a bit of Luddite, slow to adopt encryption, and, Gellman thinks, a bit of a backstabber and a primadonald. It helps the reader to see such friction between two prize-winning journalists.
Gellman is not especially fond of Snowden when he meets him either. He’s been informed of Snowden’s personality from reading old forum posts Snowden made as TheTrueHOOHA on the Ars Technica website. He reads: “blended show-offy erudition, teenage irony, righteous anger, generous advice, and orthodox libertarian bromides.” And even reading Snowden’s memoir you can feel elements of that sort of vibe coming from Snowden. But there’s more to Snowden than Gellman seems to suggest, perhaps he’s nodding to the need to seem balanced.
For one thing, Snowden has a devilish sense of humor. Gellman misses out on some of the revealing anecdotal information Snowden offers up in his memoir. Snowden comes from Mayflower stock; his forebears fought in the Revolutionary Wars, and afterward “abolished their family’s practice of slavery, freeing
their two hundred African slaves nearly a full century before the Civil War.” Gellman fails to consider the place of that sale or government “expropriation” (Snowden suggests), and how that legacy might have informed his whistleblowing when he sees the Constitution at risk. Gellman seems to miss the supreme irony of knowing that the headquarters of the NSA was built right there where that slave plantation used to be. Pass the fuckin’ bong.
As egregious a violation of the Bill of Rights that the NSA’s STELLARWIND program was, using sneaky backdoor tactics to get around the limits imposed by their agency mandate (“incidentally” gathering up the data of Americans in their cyber trawls of potential foreign “enemies” numbering in the millions), another program, PRISM, went even further, and gives the lie to alibi that such trawls are anything but criminal and totalitarian in intention. Gellman writes,
In film and fiction, the NSA mostly listened in on telephone calls. PRISM had capabilities far beyond that…NSA analysts could not only review stored account information but also dial in and record live “audio, video, chat, and file transfers.” Analysts could ask for instant notifications when their targets logged on to Hotmail or AOL or Yahoo Messenger.
And with keystroke exploits thrown in, “They can literally watch your thoughts form as you type,” Snowden told Gellman.
Ultimately, as Gellman alluded to earlier, it’s all about the power. In his chompy sit-down interviews with the likes of Michael Hayden and James Clapper, and other apologists for benign totalitarianism, Gellman makes it clear that these men see no room for oversight, and can’t or won’t comprehend the ethical and constitutional limitations to what they are doing. They just want us to trust them and narrow-visioned patriotism. This turned Snowden off to a career of public service (in which he was following in the footsteps of his deep state parents). In his memoir, he describes his in-office participation in 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.
If you’re sensitive and thoughtful, and still can’t trust yourself around such technology, then who can you trust?
Well, ultimately, Gellman and Snowden don’t trust and reject the power argument — that because we have such technology at our disposal we must use it, the capability of knowing what everybody’s up to (except the Bastards in power, of course). We see the Brennans, Clappers, Haydens, Bushes, Obamas and Trumps just lie about their excesses. They conjure up a world of enemies — for the sake of using dreadful technology without concern for privacy or democracy. A fascist drift into a world of dystopian psychotronic nightmares ruled by algorithmically-generated tailored gargoyles intent on turning us into things. Dots. And ultimately, Dots. Right inside our heads.
Failed States of Conscience
Last year saw the publication of the first sizable waves of what promises to be a coming tsunami of ‘data driven’ apocalyptic narratives detailing the accomplished ravages of latter day technology and shouting out the horrors to come, perhaps no matter how humanity responds now. Some stand-out examples include, Thomas P. Keenan’s Technocreep, which describes the all-pervasive penetration of the technological into every facet of our lives and posits that we may have already reached the point of no return in the symbiotic dialectic between man and machine; and Elizabeth Kolbert’s The Sixth Extinction paints a similarly abysmal future, arguing that we may have so fouled our own nest that humans are now irredeemably on the path to extinction. Andrew Keen’s The Internet Is Not the Answer, while certainly dire in its analysis and outlook, does at least offer up a token hope and point to solutions, even if they are unconvincing.
Keen’s thesis really can be neatly summed up by laying out the Question and then expanding on its implications. He asks: “What can help us create a better world in the digital age?” Originally, he says the answer was the Internet. Citing New York Times columnists and assorted economists, Keen describes an almost-idyllic late 20th century American middle class, citing what New York Times columnist George Packer calls a period noted for “state universities, progressive taxation, interstate highways, collective bargaining, health insurance for the elderly, credible news organization,” as well as publicly funded research; in short, a system that the Internet might have helped tweak and fine tune. But now, Keen sees that all as an exploded dream, and cites innumerable examples of how the Internet has been usurped by the usual greedy, unregulated controllers of our collective destiny.
To Reader: This is a slightly altered version from that which appeared in the Prague Post a few days ago. And I am actively considering revamping and expanding it for the blog, as I feel the subject merits more than a 1200 word max limit.
While there can be no question of the transparency value of all those primary documents that Julian Assange splashed out to the public through Wikileaks a few years ago now, nor of the immense importance of the Snowden revelations in coming to grips with the staggering implications that the Five Eyes global secrets stalking represents for democracy and privacy, an aspect often under-appreciated is the gatekeeper crisis that all these startling eye-openers have brought with them. Fact is, while the hidden gods are having their merry way with Words, it’s virtually impossible to know which oracle to trust any more.
And there are all kinds of oracles these days. There’s the mainstream media, which includes what’s left of the Press; there’s the Assange prototype of open media based on posting sensitive documents; there’s the Greenwald selective leak method; there’s Google’s Erich Schmidt calling for a kind of committee to oversee leak distribution; and then there’s Stephen Aftergood’s Secrecy News which publishes important governmental documents that get suppressed through willful underpublicizing. It’s worth briefly considering the pros and cons of each method.
Directed by Laura Poitras.
With Glenn Greenwald, William Binney, Jacob Appelbaum, Ewen MacAskill, and others.
The Watchers, the Watched, and a Future of Walls with Ears
The first thing I learned from watching Laura Poitras’ long-anticipated new film, Citizenfour, is that the term ‘amnesia‘ refers to the Tor onion network, which provides a user with a non-persistent operating system environment in which dissidents and privacy defenders, and the like, can browse the ‘Net and send emails without risk of data later being recovered from one’s computer, because, once shut down, Tor forgets everything. (Or so we were told, until even the protections of Tor were shown to be highly vulnerable at the end nodes, and that spooks were actively engaged in cracking it.)
However, the appearance of Tor and amnesia early in Citizenfour gave me an a-ha moment because I’d just had published my review of Peter Carey’s new book, Amnesia, but neglected to include this Tor reference in my piece, although it now seemed like such an obvious thing to have done. Of course, though Carey’s main character, an Assange-like female hactivist, uses Tor, the title principally refers to how quickly Australians forgot the deposing of sitting Prime Minister Gough Whitlam back in 1973 at – some say – the insistence of the Nixon/Kissinger government. Anyway, I sighed and whistled and moved on.
Last year saw muted celebrations in commemoration for the 25th anniversary of the demise of the Berlin Wall and the rise of the Velvet Revolution, which seemed back then the first tiles to fall in the reverse domino effect that signaled the collapse of totalitarian communism and the triumph of democratic republicanism and the free market.
Havel called for a new global humanism and for awhile was the toast of Harvard elites and the think tanks of Washington, D.C.
Western bankers and corporations lined up, like gold rush conestogas, in gleeful anticipation for all the loot and booty to come, and which soon windfell, even as Boris Yeltsin repeatedly did the “vodka locomotion” on stage after stage, in lieu of leadership cluefulness. It all ended badly; leave it at that.
by Joel and Ian Gold
Free Press, 2014
Available from Free Press and online retailers
Are You Talkin’ To Me?
In the famous ‘mirror scene‘ of Martin Scorsese’s classic Taxi Driver, cabbie Travis Bickle (Robert De Niro) rhetorically confronts himself with aggressive remarks. He seems to say, “You see what you see; now what are you going to do about it?” When you gaze into the mirror abyss, it gazes back, and there is no fleeing. Bickle, a war veteran who no doubt witnessed atrocities, doesn’t implode inward but explodes outward and confronts a world in which corruption and degeneracy have been normalized, and people conform by looking away. He does as the voice of his conscience bids him in an effort to bring redemption.
Long before Bickle was even flicker in Scorcese’s eye, the radical Scottish psychiatrist R. D. Laing lashed out at blind conformity and the psycho-social regimen that coerced individuals into moral assimilation, even at great cost to their psychic integrity. Said Laing in The Politics of Experience (1967), “Society highly values its normal man. It educates children to lose themselves and to become absurd, and thus to be normal. Normal men have killed perhaps 100,000,000 of their fellow normal men in the last 50 years.” Conformity can provide safety and certainty, but by necessarily submitting to authority it contains a strong potential for evil.
‘If we accept that privacy is at the core of freedom, then it’s clear we are rapidly moving away from, not toward freedom’
If the Bill of Rights had never been tacked onto the US Constitution back in September 1789, Americans would have been ruled by a landed gentry, presided over by a titular monarchist, and governance would have principally consisted of protecting business interests, copyrights and trademarks.
There’d be no link between taxation and federal policy; popular representation in Congress would be meaningless, since simple secretive Executive orders could over-ride the most exhaustive processes of lawmakers. Trade agreements would be reached head-to-head, with no input from anybody’s noisy peoples.
By declaring a universal existential threat the president could keep the country in a state of war, soft martial law in play, the commander-in-chief in charge; there’d be no protected liberties — no privacy, no press probes, no dissent — beyond lip-service jingo-ism (and lip-service would be banned throughout the Winn Dixie South).
But, oh, what a difference 225 years makes, right? Let them eat iPhones.
When Google’s Eric Schmidt and Jared Cohen got together with Julian Assange on June 23, 2011, Assange was staying with a WikiLeaks sponsor in rural England and had just completed his sixth month under house arrest as he fought extradition to Sweden for questioning regarding sexual assault charges. He was also dealing with the aftermath of the funding freeze on WikiLeaks, arranged by the US State Department, in retaliation for his publication of embassy cables and war-related secrets leaked to him by Chelsea Manning, including the now-infamous Collateral Murder video. Though he was the recent recipient of prestigious journalism awards, including the Martha Gellhorn prize and Australia’s premiere journalism award, the Walkley Award, the re-established sexual assault charges (Swedish authorities had dropped them and allowed him to leave the country) cut deeply into his popular appeal and began the intense counter-assault on WikiLeaks and on Assange’s character that continues to this day.