Thursday, August 17, 2017
Book Review: 'The Snowden Files' by Luke Harding
This is a story about what one American saw atop the tip of an iceberg called the "American national security state." In the end, Ed Snowden, a 29-year old, $200,00/year High School dropout turned Computer Systems Administrator for Dell, and then Booz Allen Hamilton, both of which were under contract with the NSA, is little more than a proxy for the rest of us: the "paying customer" zombies and drones for the American "national security state."
As he tried to "ride out" his tenure astride this violently bucking institutional Orwellian Frankenstein, Snowden quickly realized that he was losing ground to this secret self-fashioned protector of America's deepest values. In our life time, the NSA had joined a long string of other self-justifying, self-certifying, security institutions, like the CIA, the FBI, Swat Teams, the DEA, even local police intelligence units, especially in America's inner cities. In our lifetime, these institutions have acquired immense and unwarranted powers, often even unauthorized, unconstitutional and unearned and even criminal influence over our democratic institutions. Today, as this evolving behemoth huffs and puffs and bucks wildly out-of-control, Snowden decided he had no choice but to "jump ship," taking with him a treasure trove of all that lay below the national security waterline.
What exactly is it that Ed Snowden saw that frightened him out of his wits and out of his $200k job and into the hands of a most curious savior of last resort: Vladimir Putin's Russia, the ex-Communist ex-superpower that, since it was forced to commit suicide as an empire, has now become a capitalist Wild West frontier, a land full of out-of-control oligarchs, which is exactly where Ed Snowden's favorite political hero, Ron Paul would like to take America -- if he is ever elected president, that is.
As he now sits ensconced somewhere in Russia, one thought above all else must have occurred to Mr. Snowden: Is this some kind of sick joke? That me, a freedom-loving American, who willingly exercised my civic duty as a free-thinking defender of American values and the U.S. Constitution, conveying crimes being committed against that very Constitution, is now forced to run, hide and seek refuge in a failed ex-Communist state?
That Snowden's reality is true in a nation that is still living on moral credit, and that takes much more credit for being democratic than it deserves or its historical record can substantiate, is almost as embarrassing an irony and contradiction as seeing the U.S. being "in hock up to the hilt" to Reagan's other Axis-of-evil: the last standing Communist Police State, "Red China." And lest we conveniently forget, said "Red China," is the same state that less than three decades ago, we were referring to mockingly and derisively as being backwards? Now, that they are in bed with our capitalist oligarchs (the Red Chinese "Job Creators," par excellence) rather incongruously, China has now become the world's leading capitalist country, holding 60% of our debt, while the U.S. slides noisily, defiantly, but nevertheless persistently and decidedly, backwards. There is an embedded poetic logic to this irony that Snowden's Ron Paul-Ayn Rand Libertarian sensibilities seems to have missed?
This book rather inarticulately unravels the story of exactly what it is that Ed Snowden saw; why he was so alarmed; and why he had no choice but to expose what he saw to the American public and then had to run. It tells how in the ultimate act of patriotic suicide, Snowden had to respectfully sue for the mercy of the "Obama Courts." However, since he knew that with the "Obama Justice Department," a fair trial was already off the table, he had no choice but to "punt early" by "going on the lam," and seeking protection and a haven elsewhere.
Taking a hint from the severe prosecution of others like Bradley/Chelsia Manning, Tom Drake, and the one million black men in American prisons, Mr. Snowden elected to skedaddle with his four laptops full of the intelligence community's "most sacred family jewels." And when you read this book and see what Ed saw, you will clearly understand why he had no choice but to "go on the lam." Someday, Ed Snowden may be remembered as a patriotic American hero; but not today, because today, "we the people," the "paying customer zombies" are still very, very much asleep or dead.
What Ed Saw from the Clinton/Bush/Cheney-Bush/Obama clock Tower at Fort Meade and Langley
What Snowden saw, in full operational glory, was a series of very sophisticated interconnected computer programs, any one of which alone, unbridled, was capable of undoing our democracy in one fell swoop, full stop. But when taken together, as Snowden witnessed up-close and personal at the NSA, as an interconnected institutional suite of government sanctioned malware, they constitute nothing short of the greatest spying machine ever known to man: a virtual global cyber-panopticon, a hidden architecture for worldwide oppression. Here at the very nerve center of "democratic America," we find a virtual omnipotent and omnipresent 21st Century Stasi style Cyber-Frankenstein, one that so far has not yielded to open democratic debate, or democratic tinkering, or limp-wrist oversight, or indeed to any other attempts to rein it in, whatsoever.
And without getting too far down into the weeds, allow me to explain briefly the danger one such component exposed in this book, posed to our democratic freedoms.
PROMIS, PROMIS, PROMISES?
To start with, there is the mother of all spy programs called PROMIS, which (lest we again forget) first surfaced in the mid-to-late 1990s in association with the death of Danny Casolaro, a reporter who was murdered in a motel in Kentucky just before he was about to blow the cover off of what the people in Little Rock, Arkansas were doing with PROMIS through a small software firm (established and funded by Jackson Stephens) called Systematics. And although Wikipedia describes PROMIS as little more than a sophisticated "data capture program" that "Hoovers-up" data for later analysis, we know better. We know that it is much more than just a "stand-in Hoover."
We know that it has played a much larger more sinister role as a "backdoor cyber-Trojan Horse" for financial enterprises and the Banking industry. We know that PROMIS was invented by the Inslaw corporation out of Reston, Virginia, as a foolproof way of tracking drug profits, and uncovering the contents and numbers of Swiss bank accounts -- among many other things. (Does BCCI ring a bell for anyone? If Vince Foster were still alive today, what are the chances he could tell us a lot more about PROMIS?)
What we now know mostly from the blogosphere is that PROMIS is one computer program that NSA contractors have wantonly and maliciously sold to both friends and enemies, and then have used it against them as an embedded cyber Trojan Horse, a "permanent backdoor electronic sleeper spy," laying in wait within the unwitting company's financial and other software structures, only to spring forth at the appointed time to carry out its malicious and clandestine tasks. Hidden within both the unsuspecting hardware and software, PROMIS is used at the system's administration level (the same level that Mr. Snowden pilfered secrets from the NSA) to take control of its customer's computer and then to collect everything about the entire operation, from stealing all of its valued information (bank codes, names, passwords and account numbers, etc.), to redirecting and relabeling the content being processed, to using it to launder and process funds used for the U.S. own "black" intelligence operations, to sabotaging the host's system as a whole -- if and when that should be needed. This of course is always done under remote control and under a veil of secrecy from either Fort Meade or Langley. The Stuxnet virus that the U.S. and Israel developed and used jointly against Iran's nuclear facilities, is just one of many modalities PROMIS, the ultimate "state sanctioned malware," could be used in.
Only peripherally aware of PROMIS since the Clinton administration, it was not until Mr. Snowden's revelations did we learn that, under the auspices of the perverse legal monstrosity enacted by the Cheney-Bush administration after 911, cynically referred to as "the Patriot Act," abetted by the secret FISA Court and weak-kneed bi-partisan Congressional oversight, and a weak genuflecting president, did we come to see PROMIS being recruited into the game again, only this time, ostensibly, to play an entirely different role: that of collecting, filtering, analyzing, measuring and then storing enough Big Data to eavesdrop on the entire world. To add insult to irony, even Mr. Obama, himself an NSA team player, can be eavesdrop on by the NSA malware.
If we can trust what the NSA and the CIA slides stolen by Snowden, now tell us, then, what PROMIS is doing is the equivalent of a "drive-by hijacking" of 100 of the major communications firms within the U.S. These firms were given a dead man's choice: "Give us access to all of your customer files, or your economic life?" Only a few balked and tried to resist this threat. The others, asked for and got a quickly "jerry-rigged" secret piece of legislation of questionable constitutional integrity and legitimacy, that ordered them to do exactly what the NSA had threatened them to do in the first place. They then all fell in line. At least in this way, they were assured a tissue thin layer of moral "top cover."
Once this extra-Constitutional "fake democratic dog-and-pony show" was over, then all the companies' files were commandeered, rifled and "culled for meta data" about every citizen in the U.S. (and potentially every citizen in the rest of the world) that uses any form of electronic communication (i.e., fiber-optic cables, gateway switches, or data networks). Once culled, this Big Data base is all stored so that it can later be further processed, analyzed, and interrogated as needed, all, ostensibly, in a last-ditched effort to find the "last standing terrorist in the global haystack?"
The cost to the taxpayer for this very inefficient, expensive and questionable protection (that is, if we could ever know the NSA's budget), must clearly be calculated in the billions; the cost to our nation in the way of lost democratic freedoms and rights, is clearly incalculable -- but is approaching the complete capitulation of our democracy in every direction.
Another program called "Stellar Wind," with the help of the UK, was used to build a "global social network graph" out of the stored Big Data, both within the U.S. and across the globe through a technique called "contact chaining." It amounts to a dragnet surveillance of the world's internet users. It allows the NSA, abetted by the British, to set up fake Internet cafes, where unwitting users can be monitored and where needed, entrapped. However, I leave the details of this and other programs like UPSTREAM, BOUNDLESS INFORMANT, TEMPORA, SAMUEL PEPYS, BIG PIGGY and BAD WOLF for discovery by the readers of this book.
For now I want to get to what in my view, is the more important aspect of this book, its unacknowledged subtext, which is: Why has our nation, despite all democratic pretensions and sensibilities to the contrary, felt the need to develop under the shield of secrecy, a menacingly anti-democratic Frankensteinian authoritarian self-certifying Cyber architecture of oppression? Clearly, such an institution is a greater threat to our nation's survival than Al Qaeda could ever be? Whatever is the value of our national security state infrastructure for protecting us, it cannot be worth the wholesale destruction of our democracy, which is exactly the direction in which the NSA's and CIA's freedom-destroying and oppressive cyber developments are headed. Do we need to recall that one of Osama bin Laden's goals was exactly to destroy the U.S. from within, by causing it to implode either through financial disasters or national suicide and self-destruction from rightwing fascist over-reach?
I believe the answer to why "we the people" have been led down the primrose path of erecting a menacingly evil national security state apparatus, one that even the worse Communist country would envy, has a long and sordid pedigree. And part of that pedigree, whether we like it or not, is that the synonym for "national security" is "fear," fear at a visceral but collective psychological level. Arguably, America, more than most nations, has survived, thrived, and now it seems, will commit suicide on the altar of its own primitive inner psychological fears that have become intertwined with our cultural meanings.
The Nature of America's National fears: the tribal-fear meme
There is an embarrassing and very unbecoming truth to be told about our nation. It is one that we must come to grips with sooner rather than later. It is about a subconscious historical arc that unmistakably has become our primary "meme of fear." This deeply embedded cultural meme is the foundation stone of America's "institutional fear system."
This "meme," like everything else in America, has evolved in tandem with our culture. And like our culture, it to has become more specialized as its role within the culture has demanded it to adapt. And then it has metastasized and oozed out into the national blood stream. And like everything else that eventually oozes into the American blood stream, once it enters, it becomes invisible, "second nature," and is no longer recognizable for what it really is. In this case the meme is the "motive psychological force" that defines, shapes and helps maintain the racist American social order. The "American fear meme" is one that all Americans hold close to their hearts. It is the one most responsible for our gun culture. It is one that has always had a grip on the national mind and has animated and guided the nation throughout it's short turbulent history.
The arc of fear that animates the collective American mind began at the nation's inception and has evolved continuously throughout. It goes somewhat as follows:
At the most primitive level, American collective fears all derive from the romantic notion of tribal or racial purity, coupled with the equally potent notion of tribal heroism. And in the world of this tightly drawn very sensitive tribal logic, anything that appears to threaten tribal purity, or its associated notion of tribal heroism, is perceived as an existential threat to America's cultural meanings -- especially to the "mother of all American cultural concepts," American Exceptionalism. And while there is nothing intrinsically evil about a fear system being based on tribal purity and tribal heroism, no one can deny that it is unbefitting to a self-conscious multi-cultural democratic nation. Moreover, and again, lest we forget, Hitler has already shown what can happen when such fear-based societies become criminalized and then spin out of control.
Whether we want to recognize it or not, it is "tribal fears" that are at the root of the U.S. fear system. Our gun culture, our crime system, our justice system, the racial structure of our society, and the NSA, CIA, FBI, the DEA are just straight-line evolutionary versions of slave patrollers, Indian raiding parties, lynchings, the KKK, and vigilant groups more generally. Across American history, they all are but the organic institutional expressions of the "meme of cultural fear" -- just with several turns of the generational wheel and raised to a slightly higher power.
And while it may not be easy for the casual eye to see that our tribal fear system is connected by multiple turns of the generational wheel to such institutions as our police forces, our military, FBI, CIA and NSA, our gun culture, and even our "rent-a-cops," and our "gated communities," the truth is that this "root node fear" is the cornerstone upon which the National Security State itself ultimately is built. Brick-by-brick, it is the edifice that Mr. Obama uses to make his appeals for us to "just trust him to make us safe?"
But we know that even on Mr. Obama watch, the national security system has a sordid track record: There is Hoover's FBI, Richard Helm's CIA, the killing of JFK, RFK, MLK, and Malcolm on LBJ's watch, Nixon's Watergate Caper, Jimmy Carter's BCCI scandal, the Reagan/GHW Bush Iran-Contra, Bill Clinton's Mena, Arkansas, GW Bush's "no WMD," his renditions, torture, Guantanamo; and now Obama's mimicking Junior every step of the way, as added drones with a vengeance -- including the recent NSA revelations revealed by Snowden. So we know that there is always a hidden tension and potential within the American psyche to turn the nation into a criminal "majority-rule" "institutional extra-legal tribal vigilante," at every opportunity.
So when Mr. Obama asks us to trust him, it is difficult to take him seriously, for history tells us that his appeals are empty, hollow, little more than "window-dressing" for a "state approved staged drama of tribal heroism." All, the heads of the departments of the "fear industry," really want from us (from Obama, on down to prison Wardens), and at least as far back as 11/22/63 -- is for us to close our eyes and go back to sleep. Like Anthony Winer, we are to fiddle more with our Twitter and Facebook accounts, while the powers that be roll the gates shut at Langley and Fort Meade, and steal away all of our democratic power and freedoms.
The press and our morally-challenged "do-nothing" Congressional whores (except during the four-year election cycle), also have a "let sleeping zombies lie" attitude towards "we the people" -- all the better to facilitate and enable the huge uncontrolled institutional behemoth to operate with impunity.
Thus, arguably, it is this primordial fear of Sartre's "dark-skinned Other" that serves as the gateway drug that, over time has allowed the national security state to slowly take over -- under the pretense of protecting our tribal interests. And why should we be surprised that they then strip us of all our democratic powers?
Sadly, "we the people," over our history, have repeatedly succumbed to this, the oldest divide and conquer trick in the Machiavellian Political Trick play book: divide people by their tribal fears and then demagogically pick their back pockets, taking away, all at once, all of their God-given inalienable rights and power in a single head fake. Like three-card Monty -- "now you see it, now you don't: All our rights gone in a poof! And then, after the fact, they drag out onto the national stage our "bought and paid for" politicians to tell us in unison not to believe our own lying eyes, that our reality is otherwise, that our democracy is just fine; that these Frankensteinian institutions are there only to protect us?
And while it may be true that this process may have begun as a continuous primitive conflation across time of myths about racial purity and especially about sex, when left alone in the subconscious as it has been for the last half millennium, to fester for many generations, this fear meme necessarily has evolved, become ever more complex and robust, even changing in its character; but always manages for each succeeding generation to loom larger and more menacing in the nation's mind's eye. Today, in addition to the NSA, the CIA, the FBI, the DEA, the, military, SWAT teams, Navy Seal Teams, Army Rangers, and inner city police departments that try to duplicate all of these functions at the local level, we also are a nation of 310 million guns?
For sure, as a nation we are scared as hell of a lot? Is it not an adult question to ask: What exactly is it that we Americans are so afraid of?
I am going to go out on a limb and suggest that the American fear meme has evolved from the image of the Tommyhawk-wielding noble-savage, to the out-sized penis wagging, ever white-woman lusting slave depicted in DW Griffith's movie "Birth of a Nation," to the Christ-killing Jews who sold our Nuclear secrets to the Russians; to today, where all of these images have been condensed in the American mind into a single ultimate fear/hate symbol: "a dark-skinned, rag-headed, desert rat: a non-Christian veiled-Muslim, whose eyes glint from behind the counter of every Seven-Eleven, as silently we hear them counting (as the comedian Capone says): "ticky-ticky BOOM!
At every Seven-Eleven, and on every airplane, it is impossible for the white tribe, already so thoroughly drenched in half millennium of the racial fear meme, not to see in his mind's eye, an outline of an image freighted with a history of fear, etched in the face of every immigrant, whether from the Middle East or not, Capone's "ticky-ticky Boom!" scenario; the terrifying visceral throw-back in the mind, of the crumbling twin towers?
The fear we collectively feel at a visceral level is that "they" can attack us at will; "they" will rape the women of our tribe and kill our babies. And then the drama of American heroism, called, Manifest Destinry, the White Man's Burden, and American Exceptionalism will be no more? Therefore, our nightly prayer to the National Security State is: Please Mr. Obama, our black prince, let loose your drones, your renditions, your torture chambers, your Swat and Seal teams, your PROMIS programs, your Stuxnet, and if necessary, another war of choice. You have our unconditional consent and power to continue to stand on that wall at Guantanamo and keep us safe? Amen.
Unfortunately this prayer is only half parody. For, Mr. Snowden, who calls himself a "Ron Paul Libertarian," must be as confused about the meaning of America, and its reliance on tribalism and tribal fears as the rest of us are? If like our divided Congress, and our grid-locked political process, he and Ron Paul also believe in bifurcating the nation even further into Ayn Rand's two Objectivist camps, which when all the veneer is pealed away, is just precisely a second order extension of the race and tribe-based fear meme mentioned above, then why worry about the NSA at all? We already know how that movie ends: in a holocaust-like genocidal cataclysmic race-based disaster. The logic: If our tribe is to stay on top, we need a brutal national security state apparatus to do so, is a lose-lose logic for all tribes as well as for America.
Is it then not fair to ask Mr. Snowden: just what sort of American meaning are you sacrificing yourself for? Do you really believe that a "Ron Paul America" is going to be any different than a Clinton, Obama, Christy, or god forbid, one of the other Republican clowns that will run for president in 2016?
I believe I am old enough and wise enough to safely say that all roads down this Republican-Libertarian/Ayn Rand track will lead, inexorably to a further tribal-based authoritarian regime more akin to Hitler's Third Reich than to a revived "people run"-democracy? Indeed, it does not take rocket science to see that under more, rather than less, tribalism, this is the only guaranteed eventuality.
Both the Republicans and the Democrats use their own versions of tribalism to bow to the sacred "national security state" out of visceral fears, and now we know the root node of those fears..
Mr. Snowden, may I remind you that it has been precisely through the "tribal fear meme," that America has built the National Security State in the first place, as an altar to the same primal psychological insecurities that Ron Paul and Ayn Rand champion? Don't be fooled, for it is a virtual dystopian temple, that right before our eyes is replacing our "still-born," always imperfect, never fulfilled, but now dying, democracy.
Through this Temple, Mr. Snowden, even in the aftermath of your imagined heroic deed to save what is left of our democracy, by throwing your lot in with the likes of the Ron Pauls of the world, you will have only proved one thing: that America still eats its young. Ron Paul's America will devour all of the "young Snowdens," just as surely as the Obama America has done: and without even a single burp. Four stars
Herbert L. Calhoun and has been reposted with permission. Like what you read? Subscribe to the SFRB's free daily email notice so you can be up-to-date on our latest articles. Scroll up this page to the sign-up field on your right.