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Surveillance is made of dogs. It’s also made of us. In Bottoms Up and the Devil Laughs: A Journey Through the Deep State, Kerry Howley dives into what surveillance is, what stories are told with intelligence data, and, ultimately, how the brunt of state power falls on whistleblowers.
Surveillance looks like us
In Bottoms Up and the Devil Laughs, Howley explores the physicality of surveillance, writing about what the labyrinth of electrons and tubes – and yes, guard dogs – looks like. “Data is physical,” Howley writes. “It can therefore be confronted.” Data exists in networks of electrons stored in massive computer banks, with the incidentally collected data of US people stored alongside vast troves of foreign surveillance data. The deep state has a physical imprint that journalist Dana Priest terms an alternative architecture. DC office building directories are missing floors. In Langley at CIA headquarters, there is a memorial wall featuring stars without names, for undercover agents killed in action whose identities were never revealed.
We are made real in part by our data, Howley argues. Our connections to others, laid bare in signals intelligence metadata, tell their own story. “We want to believe we exist in what we choose to say, but this overstates our autonomy; we are at least as realized in our connections to other people,” Howley writes. Metadata has a distancing quality; our three-letter agencies hang their hats on an inability to read the content of our communications, when the simple data of who we’re contacting and when tells an intimate story even in isolation.
But if our data can tell one story, it can also tell many. There’s an all-too-human art to interpretation. Saudi-funded jihad recruiting centers in Brooklyn, Atlanta, Boston, Chicago, Pittsburgh, and Tucson raised few hackles until after 9/11, when the national security state developed an obsession with homegrown terrorism.
This storytelling caught up John Walker Lindh, who happened to be traipsing across the Afghan desert at precisely the right time to be branded in national news as the American Taliban. A convert to Islam, Lindh departed the US for Yemen as a teenager, and later, Afghanistan. Repeatedly excluded from the heart of the war in Afghanistan, Lindh first ended up at a lesser training camp for people who did not speak one of the operational languages of the Taliban, and later, a more serious training camp where he encountered Osama Bin Laden. Uninterested in the proceedings, Lindh fell asleep during Bin Laden’s lecture. He declined the chance to attack the US, and continued to fight in what was, up until 9/11, an obscure foreign war. Lindh was out in the field when he was informed by his fellow soldiers that the Twin Towers had been hit. The way Howley describes it, from Lindh’s perspective, the terrorist attack had little to do with him. He hadn’t been involved in the planning; he didn’t consider himself part of Al Qaeda. The freshly branded War on Terror had little to do with him – right up until the US captured him, tortured him, and collected his testimony without a lawyer present, something Jesselyn Radack would later blow the whistle on.
Howley masterfully juxtaposes Lindh’s story with Reality Winner’s. While Lindh was out in the field in Afghanistan, young Winner was discussing geopolitics with her father, developing an early interest in learning Arabic. She would later become fluent in several of the Taliban’s operational languages and enlist as a military linguist tasked with eavesdropping on the conversations of people an ocean away, shunting this data into those classified NSA computer banks. Her penchant for language drew her ever closer to the War on Terror security apparatus. She longed to be on the ground helping people, while Lindh longed for a war. Both were caught up in a global machine far bigger than either of them.
The War on Terror national security state would eventually mobilize against them both. Lindh was strapped to a board and interrogated, his brief encounter with Bin Laden magnified into a damning portrait of an American traitor. When Winner faced Espionage Act charges for the unauthorized disclosure of a single document showing Russian phishing attacks against voting officials, Winner’s penchant for languages and interest in serving on the ground in Afghanistan would be used to portray her as an inchoate traitor from the outset – an infiltrator, rather than a disillusioned prisoner of conscience.
The narrative gravity of the national security state
Three-letter agencies take in vast swaths of data. Dragnet surveillance in its own endangers civil liberties, and the problem is compounded when human assumptions come into play during the interpretation of data. Signals intelligence is paradoxically both precise and blurry. Sigint data can show every phone call made and every number texted – but not who’s holding the phone. In Afghanistan, the human cost of that blurriness was laid bare by drone whistleblower Daniel Hale. Hale revealed that an overwhelming majority of drone strikes were off-target, driven in part by the common practice of sharing cell phone SIM cards. The combination of flawed data input and politically motivated post-hoc determination of who was a combatant was heavily error-prone. In one five-month period, 90% of those killed by drone strikes were not the intended target. Without Hale’s documents provided to The Intercept, the Obama administration could have continued to tout the success and accuracy of its drone assassination program.
Howley draws parallels between the misuse of SIM card data and the perils of more analogue intelligence. When the United States captured suspected terrorist Abu Zubaydah, the CIA fed him through a secret prison network, then repeatedly waterboarded him to extract information. When it became clear Zubaydah had no useful intelligence to give, CIA psychiatrists invoked this fact as evidence that torture had proved of some utility – without torture, they reasoned, they wouldn’t have known Zubaydah had no information. It was the common-practice FBI interrogation that elicited useful intel from Zubaydah, not an experimental and illegal torture program run by two torture resistance experts taking shots in the dark. In the CIA’s storytelling, this method of intelligence gathering was useful, necessary even. Howley writes, “Fairy tales are stories in which darkness precedes transformation, and this is a story for America’s children: We stuffed a man in a small box to set you free.”
Howley picks out an anecdote from Winner’s early life – resonant, if I suspect apocryphal – where Reality pointed out to her sister at a SeaWorld show that all of the dolphins’ echolocation drives the dolphins mad. At some point, the government drowns in the ocean of data it has created.
The data, by its sheer quantity, allows the government to engage in motivated storytelling, all the while missing true threats amid the narrative threads created. In the state’s estimation, the left has always been the enemy, while threats from the right are consistently understated (with notable exceptions, such as the FBI’s investigation of the Ku Klux Klan).
Where Howley’s book falters somewhat is in plumbing the depths of the character assassination conducted by the government against whistleblowers. While the book notes the absurdity of the lies told about Reality Winner – leading questions posed to her mother about the Taliban and interpreting Winner’s interest in language as possible allegiance to authorities abroad, the book stops short of extrapolating this lens to other whistleblowers. Chelsea Manning is mentioned only in passing, when the government’s attempt to pin the charge of “aiding the enemy” on her certainly merits mention. The protracted description of Julian Assange’s escapades in Sweden neglects the rather important fact that neither of Assange’s supposed accusers entered the Swedish police station with the intent of reporting a crime. These omissions aside, Bottoms Up generally navigates the terrain of state narrative power well, contrasting the messiness of the data input with the state’s crisp and damning characterization of whistleblowers.
Leaking as policy – or treason
Howley labels the million-odd Americans with security clearances as representative of a “caste system” separating those with access to secrets from those who don’t. But classification is a porous boundary. Carefully managed secrets are an everyday currency designed to throw the actions of the US government into a positive light. “Leaks are the way Washington, D.C., communicates with itself,” Howley writes. She cites a statistic that 42% of government officials admitted to leaking something when asked on a survey. Implicitly sanctioned disclosures are often strategic backchannels used for communicating with the press. Whistleblower advocates often point to the hypocrisy of whistleblowers serving long prison sentences for unauthorized disclosure of information by bringing out the case of CIA Director Petraeus, who pleaded guilty to only one count of unauthorized removal and retention of classified information when he leaked classified information to his biographer.
In her powerful memoir ReadMe.txt, Chelsea Manning points out that information was routinely leaked around her. The difference was that the information she disclosed about the true cost of the Iraq and Afghanistan wars painted a damning picture of the government, while state-endorsed leaks universally portrayed the US government and American forces in a positive light. In Bottoms Up, Howley points out that whistleblowers, with their innate contrarian streaks, eschew the language of “to be sure” and “the need to balance security and civil liberties.” They tend to be unequivocal about the importance of the information disclosed and why it must be public, while officially-sanctioned leakers seek to couch and contextualize. The disdain for whistleblowers extends to the journalists who cover their disclosures; deep state spook Michael Hayden once called debating Glenn Greenwald like “looking the devil in the eye.” On the extreme end of the national security state’s war on whistleblowers, Assange faces 175 years in prison under the Espionage Act for the publishing of truthful information.
Howley’s book closely covers Winner’s trial, diving into the labyrinthine procedures required by the government to protect its secrets – even though the secrets in question were easily readable in the headlines. Some of Winner’s lawyers had to await security clearance to look at relevant documents before the trial. During the security clearance waiting period, the government was permitted to conduct classified discovery, while a judge kept demanding deadlines out of the defense, who hadn’t seen any of the evidence yet. Winner’s lawyers were not permitted to access the document she leaked on The Intercept website, because doing so would constitute a violation of the terms of their security clearances. When eventually allowed to examine evidence, Winner’s entire legal team had to fly to a Sensitive Compartmented Information Facility, the scheduling of which was subject to government whim. The government could communicate via secure email; the defense had no access to the technology.
All of these procedural hurdles paled in comparison to the difficulty of presenting a defense to the Espionage Act. Because there is no public interest defense, Winner’s lawyers embarked on fishing expeditions, querying various agencies in discovery for evidence that the document Winner leaked was sufficiently broadly available so as to not be considered national defense information. The judge presiding over the case complained that these discovery tactics were “scattershot,” but what other option did the defense have? The Espionage Act leaves open no possibility of a viable defense. In the end, Winner pleaded guilty to the longest sentence ever given to a civilian for the unauthorized disclosure of classified information, with an accompanying gag order against monetizing her story even after release from prison.
Howley writes, “to study surveillance is to learn, over and over, that we cannot escape ourselves” (17). We can’t escape being surveilled; nor can certain people, learning about the true extent of surveillance and misconduct, escape themselves. The book engages in a sort of armchair psychology of whistleblowers. Referring to whistleblower Jessleyn Raddack, Howley posits that someone willing to go on television as a college student with the chyron “Advocate for Listing Names of Rapists on Bathroom Walls” was unlikely to stand down when an American citizen is tortured and interrogated without a lawyer present. Whistleblowers know how state power can be weaponized. They’ve seen it happen. And they exercise tremendous courage in bringing that information to the public, to be judged openly, outside the walls of secrecy erected by our government.