|NATIONAL INSECURITY: As dramatized by Will Smith, the state's ability to monitor and interfere in the private affairs of citizens has grown with the post-9/11 growth of the national security state (Photo: Touchstone).|
It goes without saying that part of the reason the initial revelation of widespread surveillance was so shocking is because when we watch the NSA bug Will Smith's house we imagine that could be us. That's what makes those kinds of movies so compelling; the idea of an ordinary person reacting to and overcoming extraordinary circumstances goes to the fiber of what we like to believe about the strength of the human spirit. That's one of the reasons films like that remain a perennial favourite of Hollywood. One can rightfully quibble with some of the messaging in these programmes — the tendency toward stereotype in casting and screenwriting is seasonally constant problem area, which I will explore later — but the films make money because drama, especially ones laced with lots of tragedy, is the genre of optimism. It makes us feel good because it reminds us, after the catharsis of the villain's demise, that there is reason yet to hope.
Hope must be a cold comfort to many who work in national security. After all, we're talking about a fairly broad field that involves finding out just how much people want to kill each other, and mostly kill Americans. We’re a lucky bunch, even if we’re arrogant as hell and it is when that arrogance transmogrifies into hubris when we find ourselves most in trouble. National security is littered with the carcasses of operations that are most helpfully seen as judgments of their time, ideas thought to be good and just in the moment whose ramifications undid their worth in more severe ways we only now understand. Time is like that, though time itself does not excuse the horror of events past, especially because evidence often exists in the same period that show how there might have been a better way. Slavery is a good example. We knew it was wrong when we founded America and it is hard to see the uneven development in sectors of the American economy now hobbling our recovery from the Great Recession as anything but a product of our own designs. The same goes for denying women the skein of rights afforded to men in 1776; how many unheard letters of protest were written by women whose intellectual and physical labour had gone into the founding of the country only to be shut out of enjoying its fruits? The answer, as the glass ceiling remains cracked but not shattered, is too many.
“The historian looks backward. In the end he also believes backward,” Friedrich Nietzsche is said to have written, which should not be understood as a reason to stop studying the field. Nietzsche was a philologist, so history was very important to him. Rather, Nietzsche was critiquing the way we codify identities and, in typical Nietzschean fashion, being a jokester about it. Identity is also something we cannot live without; the first thing language does between different people is identify who belongs and who does not. So, what Nietzsche must be saying is that while it is important to know history it is similarly important not to identify with it so much as to blind you to the ways in which time makes history, and identity, irrelevant.
At the crux of national security is a tension between an appreciation for historical knowledge and forward thinking analysis. It is far better to prognosticate based on some kind of analysis of the facts, even if you’re wrong, than to do nothing at all. Now that we know Iran — a country with which our relationship is quite checkered by actions of bad faith on both sides — has manufactured centrifuges that can process uranium faster than anything we have, it makes sense to make a deal. We can demand all we want that they tell us where all of their missiles, that the Ayatollahs go into exile or that the Shah be returned to the throne — those things might very well be in the interest of our national security. But what we don’t already know about their military program and what we do know about their country’s history — including and especially the good bits between our countries — makes a compelling argument to hammer out a deal and get back to a pre-Mossadegh and pre-hostage crisis status quo. The issue boils down to whether we are willing to go to war with a country that can make weapons-grade uranium faster than we can? However rudimentary we may think they are, they have missiles too and the revelation from this week’s meeting in Vienna that the P5 + 1 are finding themselves hamstrung in getting information about Iran’s military capabilities is a good indication that Iran feels secure enough in its position that saying no presents a lesser risk than saying, “Yes, sure. We’ll be the first military in history to open up our secret bunkers to people who have consistently betrayed us.” What we do not know can hurt us, but it is also possible that what we do to get that knowledge can hurt us much more. Do we want more war in the Middle East, with our soldiers on the frontlines for weapons that may not exist?
|444 DAYS: For over a year, the hostage crisis galvanized popular|
American support against the new Iranian government, spawning years
of sanctions and confrontations that recent diplomacy is bridging.
When I learned that Edward Snowden steal 1.7 million documents from the US government I was furious. I saw someone who I thought, more or less, was not only telling the world something that should have been obvious by even the most cursory viewing or reading of spy dramas, but also someone who having dropped out of high school (Hey, I get it buddy) was, in my estimation, missing a lot of knowledge about the history of the nation-state. Spying is part of maintaining government, even in a democracy, and it has been since the days of the Greek polis. We need spies to find things out and give our leaders advice because sometimes there’s no other way to understand what threats or opportunities lie before us or just beyond the horizon. Moreover, it made sense to me that as technology proliferates there would be ways to use it to find things out. Again, anyone who has ever watched enough movies about spies should have some knowledge of this. The Waterloo Station scene in The Bourne Identity is a good example: they may not be able to execute citizens at will without consequence, but those situation rooms, where calls the shots on a live video feed from security cameras, exist in the basement of any private security company at your local entertainment complex. While I lived in London in 2005, surveillance was so common and widely discussed that it was the butt of many jokey cultural references — band names like The Stars of CCTV, for instance. Television reports showed how it was possible to track a person trying to flee a crime across parts of the city using CCTV cameras. Learning to live an honest life around it and having a sense of humour about it became necessary, and so I did.
|PATRIOT GAMES: Snowden's revelations caused|
diplomatic tensions to flare, though they have also brought
about needed reforms in national security policy (Photo: AP).
Remember, surveillance in the United States has existed for a long time. Technology today just makes it a lot easier. It exists within all nation-states too, though we do our best in Western democracies through due process laws to make sure that it does not get out of hand. J Edgar Hoover’s FBI notoriously investigated Martin Luther King Jr for the simple fact that he was a black man advocating on behalf of a constitutionally supported cause, goading him to try and commit suicide. But Hoover’s decision to harass and harm King was a product of its time, of an America when undoing the injustice of racial discrimination was not a popular social cause with many except, very notably, large portions of American Jewry who also had been left out of whole industries for not being ‘white’ (read: Christian). We don’t forgive Hoover because we understand the extent of his crimes against the idea of American democracy, that he was willing to harass anyone for their uniqueness while hiding his own ‘sexual perversion’ skeletons in the closet. It is the same hypocrisy that makes people like Larry ‘Wide Stance’ Craig so despicable, that he is so sure that the moral righteousness of denying himself and LGBT people nationwide the possibility of an honest life will outweigh his two-faced bathroom sexytimes in the eyes of the God he claims to believe in. If you are going to be something, then be it honestly and leave others to their own American dreams.
Snowden’s actions were motivated by a desire to preserve that American dream. We may not agree politically about a great many things, but I see now that I was wrong to suggest he is a traitor. I believe him when he said was blowing the whistle on uses of surveillance that, in fact, are an assault on the fundamental idea of democratic freedom. I do not think that he did what he did because President Obama is black; I am sorry. Similarly, I can see that Greenwald’s action are also, more or less, motivated by a desire to preserve the best of American democracy as macroeconomic and technological realities force the country through a restructuring that is painful for all at every level of society. Whereas I disagree with some of the content he releases and some of the way he frames his arguments about what needs fixing in the national security state, I now am not nearly as hostile as I once was to his reporting.
I am grateful, for instance, for Greenwald’s NBC report on the use of dirty tricks by GCHQ to discredit journalists who cover Iran. Those who know me, or have read my blog regularly, know I wrote a thesis on Iran in college and did very well on it. It is one of the things I am very proud of, considering it is the one complete book I’ve written and even if some of it is no longer relevant. But some nuggets are still very relevant, particularly as it discusses the way in that global media systems are used by the US and other Western countries to further national and regional security interests in the post-Soviet era. Social media has done a good job of eroding the efficacy of mass broadcasting; just look at the pro-democracy uprisings in the Middle East that brought Tunisia its first real democracy — without the US having to throw a coup!
I read that report and I did not know what to think. I’m a gay writer who has (or had) a certain level of journalistic credibility and does not think the drug war is worth fighting. I am openly critical of Israel, not because I do not support its existence (I do) but because as a well-educated minority I think that finding a workable and permanent solution requires looking at ‘the truth of the matter’ as more of a nexus of opinion than the current Israeli government sees it. I have no doubt Benjamin Netanyahu means well but the government’s decisions — from restricting the definition of Israeli nationality to proposals to ban Israeli students from studying degrees in languages other than Hebrew — smacks of an anti-intellectualism that I don’t want to associate with the people who stood with Dr. King. I favor a more open dialogue with Iran, if only to prevent stupid wars in an unstable region and to encourage Israel, which still plays football in the European leagues, to realize that it is a Middle Eastern country and ought to get along with its neighbours better — including the Palestinians.
|WHY, SPIES: GCHQ, Britain's NSA, ran a programme to |
discredit journalists covering Iran using sex, drugs and lots of lies.
Life is no movie, however. I don’t have the resources of the NSA or GCHQ. I cannot dispatch watchers and handlers to see what they’re up to. So I had a choice. I chose to believe that my government, despite all of its powers of surveillance, would do the right thing and wrote as much. To prove my loyalty, I even applied to work at the CIA, figuring that since I knew so much about Iran and wanted to see peace and American prosperity as much as the next guy I’d be a good person to have around. Considering my views on the legalization and use of drugs, I was not surprised or offended when they did not reply.
Whether or not I can attribute the some of the degradation of my professional and personal reputation over the last few years to honey pots and credential harvesting I do not know. I know that, some time ago, I knew that it was possible something was up but I did not know from where it might be coming. So, I did what any reasonable person would do and tried to meet those who I felt were suspicious on on their terms. I wondered if I’d really pissed off that many people in Hollywood, or if this was just an extension of the number of horror stories I’d read about actors and artists trying to make it to the top of the entertainment game only to discover that — surprise! — corporate espionage is a real thing, particularly for those who are lucky enough to rake in the big bucks, or get anywhere near. You don’t get to be that valuable as a business without someone checking up on you. But the flipside of Aristotle’s definition of rhetoric as ‘the ability to discern, in any situation, all the available means of persuasion’ is that you have to admit what you do not know. There was much I did not know and so I chose to admit that it was possible that all of the thoughts connecting Iran to me to strange emails and the confluence of technological trickery and events was… Nothing. Sometimes that is the best strategy.
This raises an interesting quandary, one that leads on from what I wrote about yesterday — about the lack of solutions through the outrage. That’s not entirely true. There are solutions to the conflict inherent in balancing national security to democratic concerns. It goes without saying that if GCHQ felt the need to discredit journalists regarding Iran then citizens in its partner countries must be wary of being operated on. But how do you know and how do you fight back? (Pro-tip: when you’re investigating yourself, or trying anyway, the use of feedback loops is fucking important. Also, you can't care what anyone around you thinks: you're investigating them too.)
Readers will note that I am incredibly hard on public university graduates in the United States. Read my lips: I do not think you are stupid or lack curiosity. My criticism is more directed at the structure of higher education administration, the kind of thing that sees politicized state governments deciding to throw out academic knowledge because it is difficult to swallow or not to personal taste. I do think that kids studying advanced biology or business administration should be required to take difficult upper-level courses in subjects like rhetoric because, more than any other tool, a robust liberal arts education is democracy’s best defense against the kind of tyranny that Snowden and Greenwald are warning us about. It disappoints me that, since the anti-war protests of the 1960s, public education in the US has been neutered of the ideas that may challenge the state’s hegemony in certain areas. While it is true that all private colleges and universities are not created equal, private post-secondary education has a vested interest in making sure that academically valid ideas* that displease the state stay in circulation if only to guarantee their own survival through competitive advantage. What is worth remembering from history is that even our leaders do not know when or what ideas will prove to be most valuable all of the time. Leaders are wrong all of the time, and not just on the level of Neville Chamberlain.
|FUN FACT: Many CIA jobs list 'a sense|
of humour' as a job requirement (Fox).
Which is why I want to propose one more reform. It is heartening to see that documents are now being declassified at a faster clip than before. The national security state does need reform in that manner. But it also needs accountability in a way that lets citizens get answers faster. The intelligence community is creating new secret documents to replace the 1.7 million ones stolen and it is naïve to expect that surveillance in the US will not continue in some form. But if you feel you are entrapped, how do you get reprieve, especially when contractors and private companies carry out so much of the work of the national security state?
One answer is to end the privatization of essential government functions and some of the silly uncompetitive pay tables that discourage citizens from pursuing careers in government. This would eliminate overlap, potential for conflicting missions, stop waste and hinder the spread of sensitive data that can be leaked. Another is to force intelligence agencies operating in the US to exhaust traditional interrogation methods — that is, knocking on your front door first — before hacking your computer. Another might be to require some kind of quarterly accounting of intelligence operations on American soil; they need not be specific, a number will do, like: California: 6; New York: 2, and so on. The other part of this is that an educated citizenry needs to take it upon themselves to be aware, to live in the moment, to be observant and to cross reference facts where necessary. If the state is going to turn someone's life into The Hunger Games, they deserve a fighting chance.
Admittedly some of these ideas are longer term and require that we hold the nation to a higher intellectual standard; we are a nation of educator and widget counters who, for historical reasons, often have a problem answering the question, “which widget?” I can see how, if it is the case that I’ve spent the better part of the last few years watching Five Eyes do its worst, they might have come to that conclusion but if that is so, then I will not let them off the hook for the racism and homophobia that steered those decisions. Racism and homophobia, as I said yesterday, are still problems in the UK too.
Those problems are exacerbated on an international level by the same media apparatus that I critiqued in 2008 writing about Iran. The downside of the racialized way that Hollywood casts its movies is that, for those whose critical thinking skills are not as sharp, it tells them that the bad guy is always black/Hispanic/Muslim and the good guy is almost always white. Even for those of us who are educated, the repetition of imagery seers prejudice, envy and — most importantly — expectations about others into our minds and souls. That GCHQ has had problems with racism, so much so that its employees leave because their loyalty to Britain is questioned, worries me. We become blinded by the cultures we are raised in and that too opens us up to threats to our national security. That is the chief reason that my media diet comes from as many newspapers around the world as I can read, in as many languages as I can read. I distrust American papers for the same reason I distrust European or British or Middle Eastern ones: for the most part, each is a for-profit entity with its own interests to look after. The truth is somewhere in the middle — a nexus of opinion —and it is important to find it.
But that is a discussion for another day. In the much shorter term, there is one more thing we can do that would signal that we understand that the post-9/11 decisions of our time created this problem for the health of our democracy: Give Nobel Prize (nominee?) Edward Snowden clemency so that he may return home.
*In my opinion, pseudosciences like intelligent design have no place in education, higher or otherwise. I respect the right of another to believe it but until an idea is subjected to rigorous scrutiny, and the repetitive experimental demonstrations, it does not belong in a classroom.