June 11, 2013

In Praise of Mess, Chaos and Panic

An immense and unexpected sadness now suffuses the last part of my life. I did not anticipate, when we are ruled by a Death State which grows more brazenly callous in its murderous practices by the day, that those who challenge authority and seek to push back against the ascendance of brutality and oppression would willingly adopt critical aspects of the monsters' manner of destroying us. Whatever radicals and revolutionaries may be found among us, they are, with extraordinarily rare exceptions, always intent on minding their p's and q's, and never, ever soiling their cuffs with even a smidgen of dirt or dust. Even when we speak of peaceful revolution founded in civil disobedience, if you think that an unfailingly polite, neat, and manicured revolution is a contradiction in terms, you're correct. A well-mannered revolution is one doomed to fail. In the current circumstances, polite, rules-abiding challenges to authority have been rendered irrelevant and utterly without meaning.

If you wish to challenge authority in any serious manner, you must be prepared to provoke an unholy, chaotic, extremely messy scene, one punctuated with howls of outrage by those in power, where everyone is mortified, humiliated and riven with panic -- including you. Anything short of that is merely a very small speed bump on power's journey to ever-increasing destruction and death. (This point was the theme of an essay from 2007, "Break the Goddamned Rules": "Friends, if this country -- and if you individually -- are to have any kind of human future at all, and by 'human,' I mean a life with any genuine meaning and joy, a life not fatally compromised by ongoing murder, torture, and brutality -- you had better fucking disturb the peace every second of every day.")

I refer to the United States government and the machinery of terror it has erected as a Death State. I chose that phrase because of what the United States is and what it does:
For more than a hundred years, the foreign policy of the United States government has been directed to the establishment and maintenance of global dominance. To this end, violence, overthrow, conquest and murder have been utilized as required. (See "Dominion Over the World" for the sources and development of this policy [the earlier essays in that series are listed at the conclusion of that article].) More and more, oppression and brutalization have become the bywords of domestic policy as well. Today, the United States as a political entity is a corporatist-authoritarian-militarist monstrosity: its major products are suffering, torture, barbarism and death on a huge scale.
I wrote that over four years ago; it was true then, and it is more true today. A nation whose primary products are suffering, torture, barbarism and death on a wide scale is a Death State. For those of us who desperately wish for a world where life and happiness have a significantly better chance of realization -- and in many cases, any chance of realization at all -- the Death State is the enemy with which we must contend. To use an expression which is trivially inapposite but which nonetheless captures an aspect of what I want to convey: This ain't beanbag. If your manicure is that important to you, you may want to sit out this battle.

In what follows, I will discuss only a single aspect of the continuing NSA/Prism leak stories. It is an aspect that is unforgivingly revealing with respect to methodology. More particularly, it demonstrates the extent to which almost everyone has internalized the primary importance of obedience to authority, and how this remains true even when individuals believe they seek to challenge authority.

The Profound Threat that WikiLeaks Represented

I wrote extensively about WikiLeaks three years ago. I spent a great deal of time on one particular issue, for I regarded it as of singular and unique importance. It was also an issue that, in my view, was widely misunderstood -- and, of even more importance, it was an aspect of WikiLeaks' approach that was widely disapproved of and even intensely disliked. I should note here that I speak of WikiLeaks in terms of the promise it offered, and the radically different approach it utilized in the dissemination of information. While that promise was briefly realized, the ruling class quickly understood the threat WikiLeaks represented -- and they therefore set about destroying it as completely as they could. As a prefatory matter, I also state that I will not be distracted by questions about Julian Assange and his personal behavior. In my articles about WikiLeaks, although I offered praise when I thought it was deserved (and Assange unquestionably deserved high praise in critical respects), I always made a distinction between the phenomenon of WikiLeaks itself, and those individuals associated with it. In fact, that distinction is not a difficult one to make. When people refuse to understand the difference between the nature of an action itself and the judgment we might pass on the person who undertakes the action, it is usually because they are trying to get away with something.

In the case of WikiLeaks, before the rape allegations against Assange surfaced, it was very clear that many people were deeply uncomfortable with one aspect of WikiLeaks' operations above all. Although I acknowledge that some people sincerely condemned Assange's personal behavior (or what that behavior appeared to be, based on those reports that surfaced), it was also entirely obvious that many people used the personal allegations to condemn someone -- and something -- that they very much wanted to condemn anyway, and for entirely different reasons. I have my own views of what has been suggested about Assange's personal life, but I will not discuss them because I consider them entirely irrelevant to an analysis of WikiLeaks and the system with which it was contending.

What was it that WikiLeaks did that aroused so much consternation and condemnation? It wasn't simply that WikiLeaks provided "secret" information that the State was determined to keep from public view. It wasn't even that WikiLeaks provided a huge amount of such information. It was that WikiLeaks provided masses of "raw data": the original documents themselves, whether they be battle reports, inter- or intra-agency communications, or documents of many other kinds, sometimes with redactions, often complete. And WikiLeaks offered them with no filters whatsoever: no one was going to hold our hand as we read the documents, telling us what was "important" and what wasn't, and what its significance was, or whether it was significant at all. If we wished to understand the documents and what they revealed, all of us had to do the work ourselves.

What we discovered was that many people didn't want to do the work. More than that, they resented the fact that such responsibility was demanded of them. They wanted some "authority" figure to explain it all to them, they wanted "experts" to tell them what it meant. In one of my later WikiLeaks articles, I discussed the gross misunderstandings and mythologizing attendant upon the Pentagon Papers. I excerpted a Frank Rich column, noting that it was surprising that Rich got so much of this right, when he can be depended upon to get so much wrong. I wrote:
Rich also identifies one of the reasons for the reaction of indifference by so many to the Wikileaks release:
The [war] logs also suffer stylistically: they’re often impenetrable dispatches from the ground, in contrast to the Pentagon Papers’ anonymously and lucidly team-written epic of policy-making on high.
In part, many members of the mainstream media as well as many bloggers reacted with indifference because of intellectual and class snobbery and elitism. These critics unabashedly adore the "lucidly team-written epic of policy-making on high," for this approach is self-evidently "important" and "significant." Such critics don't have to slog through the innumerable, often dizzyingly unclear details: the "important" issues are handed to them on a platter. They can eat the meal at their leisure, gently masticating their own added morsels of wisdom.

They can't do this with the Wikileaks material, as I discussed in detail in the preceding installment. If we want to make sense of the Afghanistan documents, we have to do the work; in part, as I said, we have to be "intelligence analysts" ourselves. This is what I've identified as a crucial part of Wikileaks' genuinely revolutionary approach: it transfers the demanding work -- understanding the material in the first instance, and then making those judgments we think justified -- to each and every one of us. Many people don't want the responsibility. Their greatest preference is to defer to authority, to obey. Wikileaks deprives them of that opportunity. One of the results is that many people profoundly resent Wikileaks and wish only that it would instantly dissolve into nothingness.

This particular resentment stands largely separate and apart from a writer's political beliefs, and you find it on both right and left. It is more deeply personal than political convictions alone. Wikileaks allows people no excuse merely to obey, and they no longer have justification for being intellectually lazy. Wikileaks' critics often decry the manner in which government systematically and increasingly disregards citizens' voices and concerns -- but present them with the means to take back their own power in a meaningful way, and they recoil in horror. In addition to being invaluable in itself, Wikileaks' work provides this additional benefit: it reveals many people's actual motivations and concerns. And one great truth that has been revealed (again) by this latest episode is that the majority of people want to be guided by authority, by "experts," by those with "secret information." Give them that "secret information" so they can judge it for themselves and they immediately cry: "Oh, we can't possibly understand that! Only the State, or 'experts,' can be trusted with that information and explain it to us!" Most people want to obey. They've been taught obedience as the primary virtue, and they now believe the lesson and have fully internalized it.
As I discussed in the WikiLeaks series, it was only to be expected that such resentment would be found on the right. What I found more intriguing, and particularly revealing, was that the same resentment found expression on the left. I spent considerable time analyzing such complaints from the left, emphasizing how the complaints proceeded from the same preferred deference to authority (see here and here).

On this same point: at the outset of my WikiLeaks series, I excerpted some very perceptive remarks from Jay Rosen concerning WikiLeaks' methodology. Here is part of what Rosen said:
And just as government doesn’t know what to make of Wikileaks (“we’re gonna hunt you down/hey, you didn’t contact us!”) the traditional press isn’t used to this, either. As Glenn Thrush noted on Politico.com:
The WikiLeaks report presented a unique dilemma to the three papers given advance copies of the 92,000 reports included in the Afghan war logs — the New York Times, Germany’s Der Speigel and the UK’s Guardian.

The editors couldn’t verify the source of the reports — as they would have done if their own staffers had obtained them — and they couldn’t stop WikiLeaks from posting it, whether they wrote about it or not.

So they were basically left with proving veracity through official sources and picking through the pile for the bits that seemed to be the most truthful.
Notice how effective this combination is. The information is released in two forms: vetted and narrated to gain old media cred, and released online in full text, Internet-style, which corrects for any timidity or blind spot the editors at Der Spiegel, The Times or the Guardian may show.
Before I address one particular aspect of the current NSA/surveillance stories, there is a further passage concerning WikiLeaks and "raw data" that I need to provide. This will also indicate a radical proposal I have in mind, which I will get to shortly. Almost three years ago, I wrote:
Given the unrelieved fraud that is "intelligence," and in light of the conclusively and repeatedly proven inability to trust any part of the Establishment to "filter" any of this or any other material whatsoever, including "raw data," I view it as a complete and shining triumph for Wikileaks and other organizations to release as much information, and as much "raw data," as they can get their hands on. Wikileaks thus increases what is in the public record, and thereby provides more information on the basis of which you can make your own judgment. We -- by which I mean you, me and everyone else -- certainly can't do any worse than the politicians and "experts" in trying to make sense of it. Moreover, I consider it much more likely that we will do a significantly better job. And even if we don't, we aren't the ones who will be ordering bombing runs, assassinations, or invasions.

The broader point remains the most critical one. By acting as it does, Wikileaks entirely bypasses the structures of authority, "order" and obedience. By stepping outside them altogether, Wikileaks diminishes their power -- and transfers that power to all of us. Just think about what would happen if ten or twenty organizations did this many times a week, releasing "secret" and "confidential" information closely guarded by governments, multinational corporations, and others who exploit, brutalize and act in innumerable destructive and cruel ways. The world as it exists today would be severely threatened as people began to see the details of what is actually transpiring.

And many people -- many of those "ordinary" human beings across the world who today are entirely disregarded and only brutalized, and who "merely" provide the labor and often the blood that sustains the power structure that rules us -- would make sense of it. At a minimum, they would make sense of it in ways that the prevailing powers ceaselessly try to obfuscate and cover up. A lot of "ordinary" people would begin to see a fuller version of the truth.

That's exactly what States and those who rule and enable them are afraid of. That's why they condemn Wikileaks with such vehemence, in a manner that frequently verges on hysteria. The ruling class understands very well indeed the threat that Wikileaks represents, and what would happen if additional organizations utilized the same strategy. If you want to understand the threat embodied by Wikileaks, do what I suggest: multiply Wikileaks by ten, or a hundred. The ruling class sees that possibility with startling and unnerving clarity. Why do you think they're scared shitless?

And they are.
The Filtering of the NSA/Surveillance Stories

As I said, my focus at the moment, with regard to both WikiLeaks and to the NSA/surveillance stories, is primarily on methodology, as opposed to the specific content of the stories. I have a lot to say about the content of the NSA stories itself, and I will get to it in time. I'm concerned with methodology specifically as it discards, or embraces, obedience to authority. I regard this as a foundational issue of extraordinary importance, as I recently discussed yet again.

In connection with the NSA/surveillance stories, we should begin with the remarks of the leaker, Edward Snowden. I state at the outset, with immense gratitude, that I am filled with admiration for Snowden. He is very young and, because of what he viewed as a transcendently important matter of principle, he chose a course of action which may well affect the rest of his life -- and even tragically end it an unforgivably premature fashion. These are actions of great bravery and courage.

What follows is not intended as a qualification or diminishment of my admiration for Snowden personally. I am concerned with a question of method and approach, because I view it as of special importance. Some of the reasons for the importance I attach to these matters are set forth above, and this further discussion will hopefully amplify those reasons. Snowden offered several statements concerning how he selected those documents he would provide to journalists. Snowden said:
"Most of the secrets the CIA has are about people, not machines and systems, so I didn't feel comfortable with disclosures that I thought could endanger anyone".
Which people in particular is Snowden concerned about? We aren't told. It's possible that ordinary civilians are included in his statement, although that seems unlikely. It's more probable that he means those who are connected in some way with the U.S. government. Perhaps "assets" -- that is, spies -- are among those he doesn't want to "endanger." It matters which particular individuals he means, but we have no means of evaluating his statement. I'll come back to this.

Snowden also said this:
Snowden said that he admires both Ellsberg and Manning, but argues that there is one important distinction between himself and the army private, whose trial coincidentally began the week Snowden's leaks began to make news.

"I carefully evaluated every single document I disclosed to ensure that each was legitimately in the public interest," he said. "There are all sorts of documents that would have made a big impact that I didn't turn over, because harming people isn't my goal. Transparency is."

He purposely chose, he said, to give the documents to journalists whose judgment he trusted about what should be public and what should remain concealed.
Snowden's comments about Bradley Manning imply a recklessness and lack of deliberation to Manning -- which is directly contradicted by the record and by Manning's own statements. I need not spend time on this aspect of Snowden's remarks, except to note that I consider them deeply regrettable, for this thoroughly excellent post addresses these questions in exemplary fashion.

Obviously, in both the Manning and Snowden cases, the first level of filtering that occurred resulted from the choices and standards employed by those individuals themselves. They chose the documents they would provide -- because they believed them to be "in the public interest" (a phrase so vague that it can mean almost anything), and/or because they would not endanger or "harm" people (although which people is something we still don't know).

As I say, that much is obvious, and everyone is aware of that kind of filtering. But I have yet to see anyone comment on the final paragraph from the excerpt above:
He purposely chose, he said, to give the documents to journalists whose judgment he trusted about what should be public and what should remain concealed.
And so we have a second level of filtering, exercised by the journalists to whom Snowden provided the documents. The journalists will decide "what should be public and what should remain concealed."

And did those journalists choose to keep certain documents "concealed"? Yes. Yes, they did:
The Guardian and The Washington Post, who both revealed the existence of the PRISM program Thursday, declined to release all 41 slides of the top-secret PowerPoint presentation they had obtained.

Barton Gellman, co-author of the Washington Post story, told The Internet Chronicle Friday, “We put up the [slides] we thought we should. Much of the document seemed to us to be classified for good reason.”

“We’re not engaged in a mindless, indiscriminate document dump, and our source didn’t want us to be,” Greenwald told Buzzfeed Saturday. “We’re engaged in the standard journalistic assessment of whether the public value to publication outweighs any harms.”
These additional comments are to the same effect:
On the issue of conditions for publishing the information from Snowden, Greenwald tweeted, “I have no idea whether he had any conditions for WP, but he had none for us: we didn’t post all the slides.” ...

Gellman, meanwhile, noted on Twitter, “BTW the Guardian didn’t publish whole PRISM brief either; chose ~same slides the WP did. There are things in there that should stay secret.”
Thank God we have the press to protect us. Who knows what might happen if we had the full truth, or at least a fuller version of the truth?

We're again told of the unassailable importance of "the public value." Who is "the public"? Are you "the public"? Am I? Do you want to see the whole goddamned thing? I sure as hell do.

And what "harms" specifically? And to whom -- specifically? Harm to those who work for the Death State, perhaps in the intelligence and national security community? Are we concerned about harming them? I surely hope not. Since the Death State claims the right to murder any one of us it chooses, whenever it wants, for any reason it invents, it seems to me that "the public" are the ones who ought to be concerned about being "harmed." Is it the great unwashed public that these journalists are worried about? Then let them say so. But how would that work? We might be endangered because some of the U.S.'s national security "secrets" might be exposed? The United States is the most powerful nation that has ever existed in the entire history of the human race, with a military capability that could obliterate all of life on the planet many times over. No nation would dream of mounting a serious attack on the U.S. for precisely that reason (and when I say "no nation," I absolutely include Iran, for all the hysterics who might see this). Moreover, isolated terrorist attacks, no matter how horrifying they may be in themselves, fall far short of an "existential threat" to the U.S., no matter the vast amount of propaganda designed to convince us otherwise. No nation would dare mount a serious attack on the U.S. precisely because they know how powerful the U.S. is -- because it is not secret.

The entire edifice of "secrecy," especially with regard to national security, is a vicious lie from start to finish. Put it all out there. If full disclosure endangers those who work for the Death State, the problem -- and the responsibility -- is with those who choose to directly advance the Death State's goals. It is decidedly not with the leaker, or with the journalists.

But all right. I recognize that, in this instance at least, no one is going to listen to the rantings of someone who is obviously an "irresponsible" madman who screams at shadows and eats live babies for breakfast. But at a minimum, I would expect to see as detailed an explanation as these journalists believe is "responsible" for what they have chosen to keep concealed and why. If "harm" is involved, I want to see at least a general indication of the harm involved and those individuals who might suffer it. And I will repeat that, as far as I'm concerned, when you do battle with a brutal, endlessly murderous Death State, "a mindless, indiscriminate document dump" is a superlative weapon. Yes, it would certainly cause chaos and hysteria -- but primarily among the ruling class, that is, among those who choose the Death State's goals and direct its actions. I will add that many of the members of the ruling class are professional killers, in that they direct the murders, including the murders of innocent human beings, that occur every single goddamned day because of the actions of the United States.

This second level of journalist filtering comes up again in connection with a Greenwald tweet that I find startling and bizarre:
Clapper: leaks "literally gut-wrenching" - "huge, grave damage" - save some melodrama and rhetoric for coming stories. You'll need it.
The style and tone of this formulation is disturbingly reminiscent of a schoolyard taunt. "You're upset now, big boy? Just wait. You ain't seen nothin' yet!" In one sense, I understand the temptation to address pompous, lying bastards in this manner. In light of the stakes involved, I also think it is a temptation that must be resisted. If Greenwald has no measurable concern for his own well-being, what about that of Snowden, his source? It almost certainly does not overstate the case to say that Snowden is running for his life at this point. Greenwald knows that far better, and undoubtedly in much more detail, than I do. Is it wise to deliberately provoke the Director of National Intelligence in this way? This administration murders innocent people with a regularity that suggests they do it simply as a way to pass the time. We know -- and Greenwald certainly knows, as his writing attests -- what this government is capable of. Clearly, the Obama administration is parsing every word that Greenwald utters. Is poking the administration in the eye the "responsible" thing to do? I think not, for Edward Snowden's sake, if for no one else's.

Another Greenwald tweet in that same series deserves mention:
I honestly don't think these programs are "sensitive". & I think claim that our stories cause "huge, grave damage" deserves scorn
That would seem to argue for full disclosure, and fairly strongly, not for helping to "conceal" aspects of this story. Again, since we haven't been provided an explanation as to what has been kept secret and why, we have no way of evaluating these questions. In the end, we are left with the notion that there are things "we're better off not knowing," and that some information is being withheld, even by the journalists, "for our own good." But this is exactly what the government tells us.

Greenwald's reference to "coming stories" indicates another kind of filtering: the order and timing of the stories. Greenwald has stated: "There are dozens of stories generated by the documents he provided, and we intend to pursue every last one of them." Recall Jay Rosen's comments about WikiLeaks' approach:
Notice how effective this combination is. The information is released in two forms: vetted and narrated to gain old media cred, and released online in full text, Internet-style, which corrects for any timidity or blind spot the editors at Der Spiegel, The Times or the Guardian may show.
With regard to the Prism story, and it appears in connection with the upcoming stories the Guardian may offer, we are being provided the first element -- "vetted and narrated to gain old media cred" -- but not the second -- "released online in full text, Internet-stye, which corrects for any timidity or blind spot the editors .. may show." Given their approach to date, we will have no way of knowing what the Guardian decides should be kept "secret" or why.

We might summarize the problem this way: once the filtering begins, it's gatekeepers all the way down.

And in connection with the promised upcoming stories from the Guardian, I have a number of similar questions. How are they deciding which stories to publish and when? Is "newsworthiness" the sole consideration? What constitutes "newsworthiness"? Certainly, they also need time to ask for comments from interested parties and the like, that is, to perform all the "vetting and narrating" to which Rosen refers. Are there other, more mundane but all too human considerations -- for instance, marketing factors? I do not suggest that Greenwald himself has such concerns; I am almost certain he does not. But let's be adults about this: you can be certain that someone at the Guardian is figuring out how to maximize this treasure trove of documents, with an eye fixed firmly on the bottom line. But in the absence of a fuller explanation of how they're going about this, we can only make educated guesses.

I have gone through this exercise to explain the differences in methodology and why they matter. What I find extraordinary is the fact that, to my knowledge, no one has commented on these particular aspects of the Prism story and the stories yet to come. I would like to think that at least a few people are aware of these issues, but I have yet to come across any commentary that addresses these concerns. This confirms, still another time, how comfortable most people are in obeying authority, especially when it is an authority they view favorably. I've read many comments from Greenwald admirers in recent days. I am inescapably led to the conclusion that, because they view Greenwald as being on "their side," the kinds of questions and concerns I've raised here simply never occur to them.

There are many aspects of Greenwald's work that deserve admiration and gratitude, not least these latest stories. (And I repeat that I have not even begun to consider the content of the stories. I view these questions of method as properly preceding that discussion.) But relying on anyone to vet and filter stories and news for you is asking for trouble. At some point, you're very likely to get it. And again, keep in mind that the adversary here is the Death State: not a figurative or metaphorical Death State, but an actual Death State.

I want mess. I want chaos. I want to see the ruling class in unrelenting, hysterical panic. My fantasy is that a dozen, or a hundred, Edward Snowdens appear, each laden with huge piles of documents. And all those documents are dumped on the internet -- but in a fully mindful and discriminating manner, and with a specific purpose in mind. The Death State's ruling class is intent on destruction, brutality, oppression and murder and, as they tell us repeatedly, their work is far from done. The purpose of unmasking all the secrets that the ruling class is so desperate to keep, of shoveling all of it directly into the blazing, unforgiving sunlight in a fully unfiltered way, is to stop them.

At this moment in history, I submit there is no more important purpose in the world. Some might even describe it as a noble purpose.

Stop them. Your life -- and the lives of many others -- depend on it.