Time to Buy a New Toolbox

Stasi Officer: What do you have to tell us?

Citizen: I’ve done nothing. I know nothing.

Officer: You’ve done nothing, know nothing. You think we imprison people on a whim?

Citizen: No —

Officer: — If you think our humanistic system capable of such a thing that alone would justify your arrest.

– Scene from The Lives of Others (2006)

The above snippet of an interrogation scene from the film, The Lives of Others, speaks volumes about the relationship between the individual and the State in an authoritarian system of governance. A citizen is called in for questioning, like K. in Kafka’s The Trial. The State’s presumption is that if he was called in, then he’s guilty of something. Because someone you “know” has turned you on ‘suspicion of’ — blank to be filled in during the interrogation. It’s a world where you are presumed guilty, and there is no condition of innocence. Man has fallen and needs the State to regulate the state of play of his being in the world. In the scene above, the citizen is expected to be ready to confess — anything. On behalf of the “humanistic” State, the petty officer is insulted that the citizen would claim he knows nothing, for he was called in for a reason. It’s an insult that is arrestable.

Such was life under the Stasi — the secret surveillance service of East Germany in the Cold War years, which included not only officers of the State but informants, many already “compromised” themselves. Eyes everywhere, eyes straight ahead, the eyes have it. America almost went to hot war with the Soviets over the wall they built around East Berlin (in his book, Doomsday, Daniel Ellsberg even worries retrospectively that a speech he wrote helped inflame the situation that eventually led to the dangerous stand-off at Checkpoint Charlie in October 1961). Ich bin ein Berliner, said JFK in Cape Cod English, on a visit to Germany. And, years later, Reagan uttered, “Mr. Gorbachev, tear down this wall!” Americans, still flush with the afterglow of WWII triumphalism, weren’t having any truck with nasty Stasi mind control over its citizens.

Arguably, Americans have always been caught up in the fine tuning of the social contract between the individual’s rights and needs versus the State’s mandate for governance. Americans have a strong central government, sprinkled with Amendments to correct the vision of the Founders; property-centric rights had to be leavened with individual liberties, and thus was, essentially, right wing versus left wing politics born. These days Americans seem to be struggling with an unspoken constitutional crisis again, largely brought about by the demands of a shrinking Right elite (1%) that wants to eat into the liberties of the Left. President Eisenhower, who once promised to nuke the North Koreans if they didn’t sign an armistice with the South (Doomsday), also intimated in his Farewell speech to fellow Americans his fear of a rising “military-industrial complex” that would inevitably erode Constitutional guarantees in protecting propertied elites and bring about a corruption of the American Experiment.

All of this is both background and prologue to the small, but important narrative that Jessica Bruder and Dale Maharidge tell, tag-team style, in Snowden’s Box: Trust in the Age of Surveillance (Verso 2020). The short book tells the story of the delivery and distribution of a treasure trove of state secrets Edward Snowden sent from Hawaii to Jessica Bruder shortly before his off-the-radar flight to Hong Kong, where he eventually hooked up with Glenn Greenwald, Laura Poitras and Ewen MacAskill at the Mira Hotel. As dumb and risky as sending hard copy documents of this type seemed to be, the authors support Snowden’s contention that snail mail was, counterintuitively, the way to go, as he expected that all his online electronic transmissions could or would be monitored. Using the US Postal Service was a way of ‘guaranteeing’ that the goods would be delivered.

Many readers will be familiar with Jessica Bruder’s work through the adaptation of her travel memoir, Nomadland, which recently won the Oscar for best film, and for which she worked with the director, Chloé Zhao, to create a screenplay. Her road travels, living the life of a nomad for months, and talking Studs Terkel-like to American wanderers, travelling from job to job as a lifestyle, jibes quite nicely with co-author Dale Maharidge’s background. Maharidge won the Pulitzer Prize in 1990 for And Their Children After Them, his follow-on to the James Agee study of Alabama sharecroppers, Let Us Now Praise Famous Men. They’re People people, and so are the cadre of journalists and independent filmmakers they hook up with in telling this side story.

And that’s really what the co-authors, Bruder and Maharidge, promote throughout the book — the seemingly diminishing notion that trust is the key factor in all human communications. That our common reality is a negotiation, often propped up by words, and that vocabularies and narrative dominance matter. That, without trust, we slip into paranoia and suspicion, which inevitably corrupts demo-cracy and leads to clown-show authoritarians like Trump.

They set such a tone in the Foreword. After a copious description of the physical box that arrives one morning at Jessica’s doorstop — her noting the return addressee as “B. Manning,” and how the USPS scans all mail these days, and how easily the package might have gone missing (boxes were stolen all the time) — the co-authors tell us what to expect from the their story as they unpack the essence of the box:

The story of Snowden’s box is deeply human, somewhat messy, and more than a little weird. It’s about a brief moment when strangers worked together to build an underground railroad for secrets — a high-stakes endeavor that relied, more than anything, on bonds of trust. That’s no small thing. We live in an era of suspicion, marked by an eroding faith in government, the media, and even each other.

Almost like a latter day Salem environment, people everywhere in America seem to be pointing fingers at each other, yelling out, “Conspiracy theorist!” And the Deep State wins, tossing one after the other of us into the lake to see who floats.

Strange phenomena are taking place. The military is now admitting that they chase UFOs. More and more people are describing to their psychologists a condition that brothers Joel and Ian Gold call Truman Show Delusion, which they fully describe in their book, Suspicious Minds: How Culture Shapes Madness. As the name suggests, it is a conviction that one is being watched and televised, as if imprisoned in a reality TV show, wherein everyone is a player acting out a script. And another set of psychology brothers, Jason and Daniel Freeman, tell us we are being played (or seem to be) in their book, Paranoia: The 21st Century Fear.

I reviewed both books here.

Bruder and Maharidge are in tune with such phenomena. They bring in Snowden’s motivations for his skipping town with state secrets. The pair relate:

The materials he’d taken, Snowden told reporters, revealed “an existential threat to democracy…I don’t want to live in a world where there’s no privacy and therefore no room for intellectual exploration and creativity,” he added.

That’s the thinking in a nutshell; when the surveillance state begins to work its magic by calling us conspiracy theorists, and has us double-guessing our own thoughts, we are well on the way to what the East Germans left behind. The authors add,

The constant monitoring of a population, [as scholars have noted], “fosters suspicion,” undermines “cohesion and solidarity,” and amounts to “a slow social suicide.” In other words: paranoia will destroy you.

Needless to say, such paranoia works against the common liberties Americans were born into, while aiding and abetting the nefarious MIC as it slides into corruption.

Like a lot of things Americans have been forewarned about, many of us have used the freedom we were born with to look the other way when the meanies muscle up. We prefer words to get things done. But sometimes we let rogue Righties speak on our national behalf, without our input or knowledge, such as when the late ex-CIA operative Duane Clarridge told investigative journalist John Pilger that we could just “lump it” if we didn’t like regime-changing American foreign policy. Sobering stuff.

Bruder and Maharidge go back to the Frank Church hearings of 1975, when the senator told Face the Nation of the danger Americans faced — even then — with the surveillance technologies evolving. Church warned,

If a dictator ever took charge in this country, the technological capacity that the intelligence community has given the government could enable it to impose total tyranny, and there would be no way to fight back because the most careful effort to combine together in resistance to the government, no matter how privately it was done, is within the reach of the government to know.

And this is exactly what Snowden revelations tell us, in great detail, has now happened. The question is can we salvage our democracy — and humanity?

The first half of Snowden’s Box is essentially about such salvaging among the lefty journalism and independent film-maker set. The box arrives at Jessica’s, who hands it off to Dale, who turns it over, unopened to Laura Poitras. We’re told of Laura’s impressive feats as a film-maker — My Country, My Country (Iraq recovering); The Oath (bin Laden’s driver dishes), and later, the Oscar-winning Citizenfour (Snowden) and Risk (Assange). Then Poitras meets Glenn Greenwald, who’d moved his high-charged political blog from Salon to the Guardian. She also meets Micah Lee, a technologist at the Freedom of the Press Foundation, who will be instrumental in setting up secure communications between the participants of this revelatory happening.

Dale suggests an almost amorous attraction to Laura, beginning at party in Brooklyn in December 2011, when he notes “a striking woman with dark hair occasionally glancing my way” and he immediately asks the host for in introduction, Later, he wonders “why somebody as sophisticated as Laura would be interested in me — at heart, I still felt like a blue-collar kid from Cleveland.” The attraction continues, “Two nights later, we met for drinks and exchanged a lot of passionate talk —about our work. When I saw her name in my email inbox the next morning, I clicked eagerly.” Laura, grabbing his cellphone, introduces him to the birds and the bees of journalistic discretion: “I hadn’t known that a refrigerator could block cellular signals.” And he almost seems to swoon when she tells him, Eve-like, about how a switched-off phone can still hear you; a fact that busted the balls of a Genovese crime family member. (You’re thinking, it was probably RICO Rudy listening in.) It’s all good fun.

The “perfect match” hole up at Dale’s remote off-the-grid home in Northern California to — work — on separate projects together. He’s finishing his book, Someplace Like America, Tales from the New Great Depression (foreword by Springsteen) and she’s editing her short film on NSA whistleblower William Binney, The Program, in which he describes how ThinThread, an online spying technique he perfected, and meant for foregn surveillance, was misappropriated and turned against Americans. (In a last-minute change of priorities, the program was discontinued three weeks before the 9/11 attacks.) In the film, Binney tells the viewer:

This is something the KGB, the Stasi, or the Gestapo would have loved to have had about their populations…Just because we call ourselves a democracy doesn’t mean we will stay that way. That’s the real danger.

Yet another warning ignored. When he was arrested, Binney was naked and showering.

Then, Jessica explains her relationship to Dale and various experiences they’ve been through together: accidentally driving over a cow; clearing a wilderness trail with chainsaws; helping a rancher who’d managed to pin himself against a tree with his own truck and, pruning a Douglas fir using a shotgun. They were like “a platonic married couple.” But after Dale’s meeting with Laura, he shares a bite from the Tree of Knowledge gleaned from Laura: “Dale made a sudden request: could we put our cellphones in the refrigerator?” It’s almost sexy. And when Jessica finally meets Laura, and comes under the spell of her aura, she, too, seems smitten — in a platonic fashion.

Poitras collects the Snowden box and runs off to a hotel to sort through its dangerous contents. The narrative gets thicker, as Poitras attempt to engage Glenn Greenwald in the sorting and reporting, but he proves, at first, to be reluctant to engage a stranger (he’s ignored Snowden’s overtures) and bogged down with overwork, but, more importantly, was resistant to adopting encryption to protect his communiques. She writes,

When a mysterious person — using the handle “Cincinnatus” — pleaded with him to set up encrypted email, Greenwald blew off the request. “Despite my intentions, I never created the time to work on encryption,” he later wrote. “It was simply that on my always too-long list of things to take care of, installing encryption technology at the behest of this unknown person never became pressing enough for me to stop other things and focus on it.”

Though unintentional, the delay might have cost Snowden his freedom, as he waited for Laura and Micah Lee to convince and teach him how to use the TAILS thumbdrive. Greenwald’s reluctance sounds strange now, but Bruder points out “In early 2013, most journalists were like Greenwald. Protecting their email from prying eyes wasn’t a priority.”

Jessica explains that Snowden had wanted to have his revelations run in the New York Times, the nation’s preeminent paper of record, but was seriously bummed out when they quashed an October 2004 article that exposed StellarWind, the government’s illegal dragnet of American electronic communications. She writes,

Approaching the New York Times, however, was out of the question. Snowden didn’t have confidence that the newspaper would have the guts to break the story…The scoop was scheduled to run right before the 2004 elections, but Executive Editor Bill Keller deferred to Bush administration officials, who claimed the revelations would damage national security.

And the grandiloquent Greenwald had his head up his ass at the wrong time. Then WaPo pulled out,and the New Yorker wouldn’t engage Snowden in Hong Kong without a taste of the sugar in the box Laura had. Jessica recalls Laura saying, “I left Ed hanging. There were a few days where he felt like he was completely alone. He felt everyone had turned their backs on him.” Eventually, it worked out, and Greenwald, Poitras and MacEwell flew to Hong Kong to meet up with Snowden.

A more intriguing section Snowden’s Box comes when Jessica talks about how Poitras and Greenwald got together after the Snowden revelations began running in the Guardian and were invited by Ebay billionaire Pierre Omidyar to start up a new publication — The Intercept. It was meant to be a solid alternative to the corporatized MSM and a trustworthy reporting platform for whistleblowers. The publication garnered and poached some of the best journalistic talent from NYT and WaPo and elsewhere and seemed like the Travlling Wilburys of journalism. But there was trouble from the start. The Terms of Service (TOS) made it clear that readers could be expected to have their presence at the site logged and their comments scanned by Google and Amazon. Such surveillance was troublesome, if for no other reason than that the Intercept’s readership were probably the types the State would want to gather details about.

It recalled the deal that Greenwald had signed with Amazon to promote his Pulitzer Prize-winning post-Snowden account of the surveillance state, No Place to Hide. The deal offered to viewers of the site was an opportunity to receive Greenwald’s book for free, if they applied and were successfully approved for an Amazon credit card. The application details would be processed by Chase, who Greenwald had once excoriated for their corrupt practices. But more importantly, by accepting the deal from Amazon, Greenwald was effectively promoting the forwarding of private information to a corporation that would collect and store that data — and, no doubt, share with the government. Such readers, again, were exactly the kind of data points the State would be eager to collect.

Bruder writes broadly of Amazon in Nomadland. Workers suffer in her tale. She’s no acolyte of the Amazon schlong vibe. Here, she notes “Amazon patented a bracelet that could track warehouse workers and deliver a sensory buzz whenever they make mistakes.” She tells of the odd behavior of Alexa. “Users reported that she was emitting fits of unprompted laughter,” writes Bruder. “Some called it ‘creepy’ or ‘witch-like.’ Others heard her cackling away in the dark….” She doesn’t discuss the fact that Amazon openly works with the intelligence community and specifically has built a web services platform for the CIA. And it doesn’t help to recently discover that former head of the NSA, Keith Alexander, who some credit with being the architect of the stuxnet malware program that took down an Iranian nuclear research facility.

But almost heartbreaking is word from Bruder and Maharidge that Bruder was turned down by The Intercept when she wanted to continue working with the Snowden trove of documents. She was told, “First Look Media was asking us to sign an access agreement, stating the company would own all rights to any publication that resulted from our writing about the Snowden archive.” And, she continues, “We also learned that any notes we took at the archive would be confiscated for review — and possible redaction — by the Intercept.” And then the killer: “I laughed. The experience felt like something out of Kafka. And it gave me a sense of déjà vu, echoing how the NSA and the FBI had shut down our request to see our files.” The Intercept has since stopped writing altogether about the Snowden archive.

It gets worse when the reader learns that Laura Poitras was stiffed by The Intercept in her compensation package. Bruder writes, “Laura had been facing challenges of her own at the company, including the startling realization that her compensation was far below that of her male colleagues Greenwald and (Jeremy) Scahill.” Unbeknownst to her, Scahill and Greenwald had renegotiated their contracts, and the resulting pay disparity was “in the hundreds of thousands of dollars.” More recently, we’ve discovered that Greenwald had a falling out with The Intercept in October 2020 when he took umbrage at an editorial decision that “censored” (his word) his piece on the Nidens just before the election. It smelled of the NYT in 2004, and was deja vu all over again, as Yogi Berra put it.

A repetition of the book’s leitmotif is an appropriate way to end this review. Trust — at the interpersonal level, work environment and social contract with the State — is key. As Bruder and Maharidge put it,

Trust is the basis of all cooperative action in a free society. It’s the feeling of fellowship that allows people to take risks and grow. It’s also the underpinning of democracy. And it’s fragile, easy to undermine.

Succinct, true, and well put. But is it any longer a sustainable credo?

All in all, Snowden’s Box is decent read, with humor, intelligence, and a welcome sense of journalistic collegiality. An Appendix offers a “toolbox” of stuff journalists and readers can do to maintain their privacy and the documents of their whistleblowing sources.

John Kendall Hawkins is an American ex-pat freelancer based in Australia.  He is a former reporter for The New Bedford Standard-Times.