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Wednesday, August 21, 2013

The Barbarians: I'll Be Watching You (on NSA survelliance, Edward Snowden, Glenn Greenwald, Laura Pointras, and Bradford Manning)

the barbarians: I'll be watching you
by Douglas Messerli

This 1975 work (The Lost Honor of Katrina Blum, the movie with which I close with these comments) clearly calls up the illegal public revelations of figures such as Wikileaks head Julian Assange, Bradford Manning, and, most explicitly, Edward Snowden. Snowden has attempted to warn us that through the vast NSA “haystack” of billions of emails, telephone messages, and other everyday communications anyone might possibly be perceived as a terrorist, and, under quick investigation, perceived to be involved with terrorism simply because of suspicion. Writing in yesterday’s Los Angeles Times, former director of the National Counterterrorism Center, Andrew Liepman, predictably mocked any of us who might fear of government intrusion into our lives in an article titled “What Snowden got wrong: Everything”:

                        The government isn’t interested in your phone call with your
                        aunt. Unless she’s a terrorist.

In the context of the movie I’ve described above, however, almost anyone might be suspected of terrorism. What about an accidental meeting? An incident like Katharina’s “one-night” encounter? I am a publisher, focusing on international writing. What if I get an order from someone from another country (or from the US for that matter) who happens to be a terrorist? Must I personally know everyone, even their moral values, with whom I communicate? When does one suddenly become a “needle,” as Snowden suggested, or, worse yet, a kind of “nettle,” a twisted weed of irritation.

     Soon after 9/11 a friend of mine, born and raised in Pakistan, was suddenly hounded by the CIA or other government figures who “visited” him even at a university classroom where he teaches. His American girlfriend was similarly “stalked.” The owner of my office building, described how he and his secretary were forced to intervene in the case of one of their tenants—who they had long known—when he was illegally arrested, imprisoned for a few weeks, evidently, because he had never sought out US citizenship!

       With hundreds of Facebook “friends,” many of whom I’ve never met, am I and others like me in danger of simply communicating, through photographs and general information, if one of these unknown readers happened to be suspected of terrorism? I want to answer Mr. Liepman by reminding him that most of us, these days, live not in a world of domestic isolation, writing our aunts and grandmothers only, but often communicate on an international level, sometimes (particularly on the internet) with people from all over the world. My six blogs (one each on fiction, poetry, film, theater, travel, and US cultural masterpieces) receive visitors—for which I’m very pleased—from across the planet.

      Finally, I have one aunt who, although she is not a terrorist, is an evangelical Christian who has written some pretty awful things, in the past, about President Obama (she is convinced, for instance, he was not born in the US). Although I no longer communicate with her, might I be in trouble if I did? Her kind of limited vision of the world might be seen by some to be as dangerous as that of an outspoken critic of our country. What happened to Katharina Blum in Schlöndorff’s and von Trotta’s moving film, might easily occur again. And yellow journalists, print and digital, are only too ready to help destroy the lives of innocents. One need only recall the young Brown University student, Sunil Tripathi,* who, missing from his Providence, Rhode Island room, suddenly was mistakenly rumored by Reddit and other gossip Facebook posters to have been the second bomber at the Boston Marathon, reporters soon after camping out on his family’s lawn in Bryn Mawr, Pennsylvania. Whether because of these accusations or not, Sunil’s body was found in the waters off India Point Park in Providence on April 23rd, a victim, evidently, of suicide.

 *There are several recountings of this on the internet and in print. See, for example, The New York Times, April 25, 2013.

Los Angeles, August 12, 2013
Reprinted from International Cinema Review (August 2013).

    Having just completed the above comments, on August 18, 2013 I was faced with  an intelligent long essay in The New York Times Magazine, “Snowden’s People,” by Peter Maass, which revealed—at least to me—how wrong the American government has been about the activities of Edward Snowden, and just how brave have been Snowden’s “people,” Laura Poitras—an independent documentary film-maker who had already been working on US and other government surveillance of individuals, when Snowden first contacted her—and  Glenn Greenwald, a columnist for the British paper The Guardian, whom Snowden had attempted, unsuccessfully, to contact even before Poitras. Together, the two formed a bond, at first very cautious, contacting Snowden, and gradually building a sense of trust that turned into complete support of the so-called “whistleblower” that might be described as a sense of moral outrage. Just reading this essay, and realizing the extent to which the US government and others have gone to intimidate and even terrorize the brave reporter and documentary writer, should, I would argue, bring every American’s blood to a boil. But then most Americans, seemingly, cannot begin to comprehend what Snowden’s revelations about how thoroughly our privacy has been erased in way unimaginable even by the prescient writer George Orwell. While American government officials and the President himself continue to mumble on about the need for protection from terrorists, we have little evidence as a people, that this vast network of information being collected by the NSA, CIA, and other government spying organizations really do focus in on terrorism as opposed to just a vast collection of information on every single American and foreign contacted by Americans who go about their daily business. Certainly Poitras, as the article reveals, who has undergone hours of pointless interrogation every time she has attempted to travel, no longer has any personal privacy, recognizing at the end of this highly lucid but emotional piece, “I don’t know if I’ll ever to be able to live someplace and feel like I have my privacy” again.

       Despite everything I’ve read by government authorities, and I feel I am a fairly reasonable and, at times, gullible being, I cannot perceive these two “reporters” and Snowden’s own actions, (despite the pretend outrage of the actually conservative-pretend-liberal Diane Feinstein’s feisty proclamations) as anything but saintly. Certainly, such revelations might well reveal our weaknesses to terrorists and others who might seek to destroy our “democracy,” but do we, truly, have a democracy when such vast governmental powers are keep secret from the very people they are supposedly intended to protect? Might a democratic society be able to make these decisions for themselves instead of secretive government officials behind closed doors? As in a Kafka novel, everything has been reversed. People are suspected before they have even done anything, their personal records compiled, with the government’s ready ability to enter into those e-mails, internet site visitations, and private phone calls simply if they might suppose some nefarious connection, however innocently that “connection” might have been. As opposed to the major premise of our justice system, that an individual is innocent until proven guilty, the NSA, CIA and other information-gathering systems seem to presume that we all might be guilty unless proven innocent.

     Peter Maass’ report shook my faith in the government to the core: could this really all be happening in a seemingly enlightened democratic country? Of course I knew of all those  terrible years of  government abnegation of Japanese-American citizen’s rights during the early years of World War II, the attacks on so many politicized (and even non-political) Americans during the McCarthy years—to say nothing of the Jim Crow laws against Blacks through the century. I lived through the nefarious lies of our government’s involvement in Viet Nam, saw whole South American dictatorships rise and fall with CIA involvement. I knew the history of our government in relationship to American Indian history and land-rights. I knew well how the government treated illegal aliens and even, sometimes, foreign visitors to our shores. I even knew that, since Howard and I were acquaintances of Vice-President Walter Mondale and his wife, and I had visited their home, during his presidential run, a couple of times, that I had surely been under surveillance by the FBI. When you live in Washington, D.C., you become somewhat inured to these things. But the fact the Obama administration was somehow collecting all the data that my numerous internet visits and international and local telephone calls might reveal has made me quite furious. I am not a terrorist, and, despite my open criticisms of government, I care about and love this country. Why had I and all my neighbors, friends, and even poosible enemies, suddenly become suspicious beings in our own homes?

       The very next day, Monday, August 19th, things got worse, when Greenwald’s Brazilian companion, David Miranda, carrying encrypted computer data between Laura Pointras (now in Berlin) and Greenwald, was stopped and interviewed for nine hours (the limit of England’s Section 7 of their Terrorism Act) about his activities. It is clear that Miranda, not even a journalist, is no terrorist, but it is also clear that London’s Metropolitan Police Service—with notice to the Prime Minister, the British Secret Service, and the American government—was involved with what I see as a completely “illegal” arrest, determined to abuse this provision to find any secret information they might. Miranda and Greenwald threaten to sue, and Greenwald’s paper The Guardian is behind him, having themselves been previously threatened for presenting the Snowden leaks. Unlike the United States, Britain has neither a written constitution nor Bill of Rights. Several human rights figures, such as Robert Wintemute at King’s College, London, hope that Miranda will indeed sue. But the British government, meanwhile, continues to assert their rights to stop Miranda despite his lack of involvement with any terrorist threat. What is even more disturbing is that they confiscated his computer, cellphone, and thumb-drives, ultimately, with The Guardian editor called to their offices to oversee the act, destroying thempersonal property being purposely destroyed instead of returned—although it is clear, from the Guardian’s viewpoint that this was better to destroy them than simply leaving the files to the British authorities. Obviously, those authorizes must have already copied them—but fortunately, so too had Greenwald and Pointras, who insist the information will eventually come out. As expected, however, the time period was extended, and the British authorities have claimed (without revealing any evidence) that the Snowden material is utterly dangerous, and should be allowed to be released. The whole issue of individual privacy has become—as we know it always has been—a political issue. People in control obviously want to remain in control!

     At the very moment I am writing this essay, the NSA, highly castigated by an 85-page ruling by Judge John D. Bates, form chief judge on the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court, for illegally collecting domestic e-mails and other internet communications of Americans, has pretended a total absolution of their acts, as if this public accusation might diffuse the increasing criticism and revelations. This seems to me to be a weak attempt to squirm out of the fact that they’ve been so completely caught with their hand in the cookie-jar—although my metaphors cannot match the horrendousness of the NSA’s acts.

      And behavior around the world might be even more disturbing as other revelations have suggested that NSA has targeted numerous countries, including friends such as Britain, Brazil, Argentina, and Germany and enemies such as Iran. Germany, given the history of the film I reviewed above and changes after in German governmental behavior, has been particularly outraged by the NSA’s actions in gathering information and breaking into media and other sites internationally, and Brazil has expressed outrage for the security breaches.

     President Obama, continues to pretend a concern for these acts, but seems to suggest that by the Bates declarations show that “the system is working.” The problem, of course, is not whether or not the “system” works, but that that there is such a system that has been monstrously established. Obama continuously pretends concern, but, in a much darker side of his personality, continues to seek out all people like Snowden and Manning before him as criminals, in order to bring them to justice. He has threatened more journalists and others than any President before him with legal action. Although I’d like to believe in his “concerns,” I no longer, with conscience can. He appears to be a kind of likeable liar. It’s just words, while we all must look for action, changes in the “system” he continues to is necessary to protect us. As Glenn Greenwald said today (September 1, 2013) on a CNN interview, the NSA has created the largest spying system ever, incorporating all information around the world, suggesting that they had turned the great tool of democratization, the internet, into a force that totally may have totally done away with privacy. After the Snowden revelations, we might say that the world has now witnessed the end the private self. We are now all in the limelight, perverse celebrities in a world not of our own making, without perhaps even knowing it.

     On September 6, 2013, through the New York Times, the leaks from the Snowden tapes further revealed that the NSA has worked intensely to breach the encrypted information of various internet communication organizations, seemingly, as the government might express it, to protect the communication giants, but also, more likely, to again intervene on public privacy, sometimes working with the organizations themselves, even threatening them, to find ways to further intrude upon public messages. Although they have worked hard to keep secret the organizations involved from public revelation, it is quite clear, if one reads between the lines, that vast publicly shared organizations such as Google, Facebook, Yahoo, Hotmail, and other communication giants have probably worked with the government and the British GCHQ, sometimes the NSA outrightly paying them for their involvement, to collect as much information as possible from the consumers. We might even wonder why Google, in particular, has offered up so much space to allow the vast blogs and email spaces, mostly without cost, to millions of individuals—including, I might add, my own six blog sites. What may seem like a gracious invitation to help spread internet information internationally, which is how I have used this open invitation, could actually be perceived as a way to collect vast amounts of information that might reveal, even if one might naively perceive it as positive, information may possibly be used against the millions of individuals that have used these sources. I have, on the surface, no difficulty in having government authorities read my several blogs on poetry, fiction, drama, film, and American classics—unless, of course, they are perceived by stupid and incompetent authorities as somehow “dangerous” simply because of their call for international relationships. That my press makes no money, and that I publish bilingual editions in several languages (one, recently in Chinese, another in Dutch) might almost make my various activities seem almost as a “duck in the water,” ready to be shot down for its seemingly suspicious existence. I am not a capitalist, nor a mindless promoter of loyalist American artistic activity, advocating, as I do, an international perspective for no financial gain—in short, for what I might imagine as the many mindless NSA moles, pounding out their keyboards, as a kind of inexplicable terrorist for advocating an international literary perspective for no other reason than the love of literature! How might that ever be explained?

     Later in September of this year, it was revealed that the agency had collected far more telephone and e-mail information on individuals who had nothing to do with terrorism. As a New York Times editorial summarized the seemingly endless situation: The violations were both so frequent and so systemic…that the privacy safeguards the court ordered ‘never functioned effectively.’ Alarmingly, the agency itself acknowledged that ‘there was no single person who had a complete technical understand’ of the system its analysts were using.” As the judge who who heard the case in 2009 ruled, there is “little reason to believe that the most recent discovery of a systemic, ongoing violation…will be the last.” The very same day The Guardian and Los Angeles Times revealed that a lot of the raw citizen information that the NSA collected was shared, without sorting, with the government of Israel; there is no evidence that Israel destroyed this tangential and often meaningless information.

     In an excellent summary of NSA and CIA intelligence-gathering systems and their secrecy from even members of the Senate Intelligence Committee, the New Yorker’s Ryan Lizza reiterated not only the illegitimacy of numerous of these organizations’ meta-data gathering but both President Bush’s and President Obama’s administration obfuscations of the facts. The December 16th essay describes the long-time efforts of Oregon senator Ron Wyden and a few others who have joined together in what they describe as the Ben Franklin caucus (in honor of Franklin’s “admonition that a society that will trade essential liberty for short-term security deserves neither”) to defeat the Patriot Act and stop the huge meta-data gathering operations,   as opposed to Senator Diane Feinstein and the majority of Intelligence Committee members who allow themselves to be led by intelligence gatherers rather than attempting to dictate their limits. Along with Snowden’s important revelations, this essay should outrage Americans who to date have seemingly demonstrated no major concern in having nearly all of their e-mails and telephone calls tracked, with perhaps thousands of them—either intentionally or unintentionally—actually being read without any “reasonable, articulable suspicion” (RAS) or approval by the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court (FISA).
     After reading this essay, it would be hard for anyone to imagine that if Edward Snowden had attempted to simply “report” his discoveries to “authorities,”—whoever these authorities might have been—would have resulted in anything but his dismissal and arrest. And I have been continually outraged by the President’s administration members and members of the intelligence community who describe Snowden as a traitor and even suggest, without any real evidence, that he spied for the Chinese or Russian governments.
     It all reminds me, somewhat, of the frightening scene in Luchino Visconti’s film, The Damned, in which the Nazi SS officer Aschenbach shows his cousin Sophie, the heir of a large German steel plant, the Gestapo’s secret file room.

 Aschenbach: These are the most complete archives ever conceived. This
                       is the secret Germany. Nothing is lacking, You can even
                       find your history and Frederick’s. Can you believe it? You
                       see it’s not very difficult to enter into the lives of people. Every
                       German citizen today is potentially one of our informers.
                       The collected thinking of our people is now complete. Don’t
                       you think that is the true miracle of the Third Reich?

     Finally, on December 16 of this year, Judge Richard J. Leon (a George W. Bush appointee) ruled the NSA bulk collection of telephone messages to be unconstitutional: describing it was a truly Orwellian phenomenon.

                           I cannot imagine a more ‘indiscriminate’ and ‘arbitrary 
                           invasion' than this systematic and high-tech collection 
                           and retention of personal data on virtually every single 
                           citizen for purposes of querying and analyzing it without 
                           prior judicial approval.

Leon suggested that James Madison, the principal author of the Constitution, would be “aghast.” The judgment, however, applies only to the individuals who brought the issue to court, and the judge, moreover, immediately stayed his own decision to allow the government to file an appeal.
     From Russian, Snowden announced, through reporter Glenn Greenwald, that he had hoped for just such a public airing of the activities of the NSA and other governmental agencies. “Today, a secret program authorized by a secret court was, when exposed to the light of day, found to violate Americans’ rights. It is the first of many.”
    Yet, we are unlikely to see the immediate cessation of such massive governmental encroachment of individual information. And, of course, there are numerous other kinds of surveillance methods that are yet to be perceived. The New York Times and The Los Angeles Times revealed that facial scanning by U.S. security has been highly developed, and will soon be sophisticated enough to use as a terrorist determent. In other words, the government may, in a few years, be able to perceive all of us, in any crowd, just by our faces. So we come to the end of the “masses”: we are each an individual—suddenly documented singular beings—who are increasingly being seen as dangerous and potential figures who suddenly might go rogue and destroy the very society of which we are part. That kind of logic—which might, at first, seem even a bit appealing—results in its own conclusions: who might not want to destroy a society that already has presumed you have sought to destroy, and may, at any moment, threaten and even punish you for the very idea? The barbarians, as the Greek poet Cavafy predicted, are at the gates: “they are us.”
     The further revelation on September 27, 2003 that a small number of NSA workers and other contractors used their surveillance powers to spy on friends and lovers again brought up the obvious question of “who’s watching the watchers?” and reanimated the whole conversation of what these voyeuristic procedures might mean for the culture as a whole, a question that, in some respects, was brought up in Michael Haenke’s 2005 film, CachĂ©, which I review below.
     As Charles Bernstein has brilliantly summarized, in his aphoristic work, "How Empty Is My Bread Pudding":
                                      Injustice in the pursuit of order is oppression.
                                     Mendacity in the pursuit of security is tyranny.

      Army leaker Bradford Manning was sentenced—in what some described as a lenient sentence—to 35 years of imprisonment. At the grand age of 57—or perhaps as early as 32—he may be freed to remind us, if he lives out his prison sentence, how misled and perverse our current policies are about honest revelations of dangerous government intrigues. The Los Angeles Times described the sentence as lenient, but I think The New York Times editorial, describing it as an “excessive sentence” got it right, arguing “In the drastic attempt to put Private Manning away for most of the rest of life, prosecutors were also trying to discourage other potential leakers, but as the continuing release of classified documents by Edward Snowden show, even the threat of significant prison time is not a deterrent when people believe their government keeps too many secrets.”  
     Perhaps a little government honesty and revelation might have freed us from the Bradley Mannings, the Edward Snowdens, and even the Julian Assanges of the world, and allowed these men (one, a possibly future woman, Bradley Manning uncomfortable with his present gender) to remain free from the governmental “hounding” which they now face. Of course, every government has secrets, but when secrets begin to define that government we can only imagine its quick demise, for surely secrets eat away the very soul of any open society.
Los Angeles, August 20-22, 2013, September 1, 2013, September 6, 2013, September 12, 2013, September 27, 2013, October 21, 2103, December 5, 2013, December 14, 2013, December 17, 2013.
Reprinted from Green Integer Blog (August-October 2013).

1 comment:

Joyce Kornblatt said...

best thing i've read about all of this, douglas. thank you for your clarity and courage.