When I knew I had no place left to hide
October 18, 2014 1 Comment
( this was originally written the day after the one-year anniversary of the Snowden revelations. Only published now, as Laura Poitras’ documentary CITIZENFOUR has premiered.)
The anniversary of the first story published thanks to the documents provided by Edward Snowden to Glenn Greenwald came and passed. It has been an intense and nerve-wracking twelve months for journalists, lawyers, activists of all kinds, let alone concerned citizens suddenly bombarded with complex and terrifying information that sometimes felt too overwhelming to process. The young man’s face has become ubiquitous; terms such as “Snowden effect” became commonplace; his revelations have profoundly modified the nature of political relations, within the United States and abroad. It has, most importantly, deeply impacted our own relationship, as citizens, to our governments.
It is a bit unusual for me to dwell on personal effects, but it would be oblivious to the crux of the issue of privacy to omit details of how it also impacts one’s relationships and means of socializing. Being under surveillance modifies a thought process; provokes self-censorship; alters body language; second-guesses previously organic decisions. It has been well-documented in the past, under regimes which mass surveillance aspirations were hardly concealed, but the dire consequences on the collective psyche lasted for generations. To me, reading No Place To Hide is contemplating an outside perspective of my own story of loading the Verizon revelation on an iPhone at JFK, to sitting at this desk with a laptop burdened with encryption software and a masked webcam. It forces a self-reflection I am still not sure I am comfortable with.
“You should rethink your relationships to US citizens.”
I flew from Paris to New York City with a layover in Philadelphia, as my first port of entry within the United States. It was a hot June day, and I lined at customs at PHL with my passport in my hand, and a bag containing my laptop, a few books on what I was working on at the time – ironically, in hindsight, one of which being a civil liberties and public interest law book – and walked toward the blue line signalling I was next in line to be processed before entry on US territory. A sign alerts visitors: CBPs are “the face of the United States”, and they promise courtesy, respect – a respect which includes your privacy, to the extent that the Department of Homeland Security would allow. As the CBPs call “next” in a booming voice over the ten or so booths present to welcome visitors during the height of tourist season, I walk over the blue line, present myself to the agent, hand over my passport and my customs form, and wait. I wait for the inevitable questions – “what are you here for?”, “how long are you staying?”, “what is your profession?” – and the ritualistic fingerprint recording, the photo-taking. All in all, it can take five to ten minutes. Sometimes, it gets longer. And sometimes, the process is stress-inducing.
I had no idea that, at the very time I was waiting for a CBP in PHL, Glenn Greenwald and Janine Gibson were awaiting a legal green-light on the publication of the Verizon story, one close to me in New York, the other on the other side of the world. I had spent eight hours on a plane without access to the internet or recently published newspapers; phone use is prohibited during customs processing.
The line of questioning was fast, repetitive, inquisitive, and prying. I was somewhat accustomed to this behavior, considering my profession and travel patterns. My frequent presence on US territory was also of great interest to CBPs. This time, it got a little deeper. “Who are your friends?”, the agent asked. “How did you meet them? How do you keep in touch? What’s your relation to them?” I started being weirded out. I was also tired, jetlagged, and smelled of plane. “What do you do? Where did you go to school? What did you study?” At this point, I was starting to get angsty, and pictured my lonely suitcase touring the carousel in an endless loop, with no one to retrieve it. I thought I was going to miss my connecting flight to New York. “Why are you coming to the US so often?” And again: “Who are your friends?
My friends are journalists, lawyers, writers, activists, musicians, bartenders. Most of them have a lot in common, including their political leanings, their vocal attitude towards local and international affairs, but what they all have in common is me. One hop away from me.
He waited, and stared at me. He then blurted out: “You should rethink your relationships to US citizens.”
He hovered the stamp over my passport, then finally let me in. I staggered towards the baggage pick-up, realising it had automatically been transferred to my connecting flight. I have no memory of crossing terminals to find the small jetplane that would carry me for 40 minutes or so into JFK. I remember the violent nausea as I took place on a blue plastic seat. A young girl next to me wearing a Columbia hoodie asked me if I was afraid of flying. “No, I’m fine”, I said, trying not to dry-heave, as the plane took off, and safely took me back to Brooklyn.
It was Jeremy Scahill who broke the news of the PRISM story, on the anniversary of D-Day, at a NYC screening of Dirty Wars. He came on the stage at the end, announcing: “by the time you leave the theater and turn your phones back on, they will burst with a new story that just came out, from Glenn Greenwald, about the intelligence activities of the United States.” A low whisper could be heard from the crowd. I sat all the way to the back, having taken notes on my phone for the duration of the entire movie. I left the room, and didn’t turn my phone immediately back on. I went upstairs, where Scahill was signing copies of his book. As I approached the table, after two pleasantries, I mention I had just been questioned at immigration. He didn’t look up. “It’s probably your travel pattern”, he assumed. Probably. Reasonable. High odds of factual assertion. I slowly walk out, and I hear him ask: “Who do you work for again?” Is it who I am, or is it what I do? I left the theater, and turned my phone back on.
Two days later, at a bar in Bushwick, I am sipping on a bloody mary and John Knefel is drinking a beer, slowly. We both stare right ahead. I don’t remember our exact conversation. I know that we were both making pretty big decisions regarding our professional lives, and realised that they were impacted, or at the very least influenced, by Edward Snowden. “I can’t believe he’s taking it upon himself”, I tell John, or maybe myself. “He’s a kid, and he uncovered an international mass surveillance program authorized by a secret court under counter-terrorism pretenses.” I order a second drink. John turns to look at me. “He’s not a kid, Sarah.” He pauses. “He’s your age.”
The anger really took hold of me when David Miranda, Greenwald’s husband, was detained in Heathrow. Many friends remember that day that I “lost it”; I was recently told that my “feed sounded way more outraged and angry than usual”. The second I found out about his detention at the terminal, while he was in transit from Berlin to Rio de Janeiro, I screamed that it was a violation of Article 10 – the article in the European Convention of Human Rights protecting freedom of opinion, expression, and information. Detained under Schedule 7, an abusive counter-terrorism provision allowing detention without representation and seizure without reasonable suspicion for a prolonged amount of time, Miranda was suspected to travel with files, with information on Snowden, but most importantly, to travel back to Greenwald, who until then could not be deterred from continuous reporting. I was fuming. I posted, “this time, it’s personal”. I was called the next day and told to come down. The NSA leaks were unauthorized intelligence disclosures that could be harmful to national security. I demanded proof of this considerable damage Snowden had allegedly done; a few weeks into the first stories, it seemed it had potential to impact international relations, and had already created tension at the European Union. But I had yet to see a thorough, rational and factual assessment of the “Snowden effect” on politics, domestic and international, from nations members of Five Eyes. As of today, there is still none available; a FOIA lawsuit filed by investigative reporter Jason Leopold returned files that were entirely redacted in their assessment. If the argument of the government is that Snowden made the house of cards crumble, and if we are supposed to buy this argument to alienate and eventually prosecute the young man, we are supposed to turn a blind eye to the complete absence of any substantiated claim. As of today, there is no assessment available of the damage Snowden has made.
Beyond James Clapper’s and Keith Alexander’s careers, of course.
Se mueve, and we all moved through the motions of doing our work, mourning our fallen friends in car crashes, publishing stories, researching, petitioning, asking. But there is a palpable change in the attitude of everyone around me; arrangements are carried out at the last minute; emails are automatically encrypted; phones are shut off and stored away from the conversation; webcams are no longer used; no one logs onto Skype anymore. It is making our lives much more difficult. It is making sleep much more difficult. Traveling, a necessity, becomes a hassle. Then arrives the natural effect of realising one is under surveillance: is it paranoia, or is it awareness? Had we known all along, and had we been oblivious? Greenwald explains it himself: after reporting on NSA surveillance for a number of years, there is a possibility one had become jaded or accustomed to certain methods becoming red-flags for the abuse of counter-terrorism protocols post 9/11. But the Snowden leaks, unprecedented in history, launched a new idea among the population, even the educated and prescient one: a threshold had been crossed, a limit had been met then violated. It was much more than we could handle and anticipate. “Collect it all”, Keith Alexander’s motto, meant indiscriminate collecting; it meant constant collecting; and it meant the total and unquestioned collaboration of internet companies that we had come to trust, perhaps a little too easily, but were a program minent feature in our daily lives, precisely endangering ourselves and everyone we know: our iPhone, our Facebook profiles, our Twitter accounts, our Google chats, our emails regardless of the platforms. The extent to which the NSA was capable of interfering into our daily lives – and not just the lives of those who had understood they had made targets out of themselves in a state of hypervigilance, lawyers, activists – was criminalizing those who were, in everyone’s eyes, protected persons: journalists. Moreover, everyone was now a potential target. Four hops away from a national security journalist, a foreign correspondent, or simply a foreign relation, and you would fall into the NSA dragnet.
Keith Alexander had showed up at Defcon in 2012 wearing an EFF tshirt, claiming to a room full of hackers and privacy activists that everything was fine. Nothing was fine. Anyone visiting a website that the US government had a potential issue with – say, WikiLeaks – was a target. Anyone wishing to expose wrongdoing of any sort and of any scale could face a disproportionate sentence and be detained in conditions widely denounced as non human rights compliant. Mass surveillance doesn’t elicit safety, it provokes fear. It demands retreat into lonely, muted corners. Its goal is not to protect, but to silence. Blowing the whistle on a busy city street – say, leaking information to an established newspaper or an entity which purpose is to preserve threatened documentation – means the brittle sound will be heard and echoed. There is a chance that the response and its justification will quiet the uproar, but at best, it’s a 50/50 shot. Isolating, criminalizing, deriding, discrediting, manipulating an individual who had expressed concern about certain activities, and making sure that any eloquent display of their political conscience could be easily passed off as freakish, mentally unstable, or simply ignorant is much easier. It allows the information to fall into the memory hole of the collective attention span, and leaves the individual vulnerable to all sorts of harassment that would eventually lead them to jail, or worse. The pain we are capable of inflicting on ourselves when we start doubting our own decision and sanity barely needs interference from intelligence forces. Fighting depression and paranoia is part of the world us lawyers and journalists have accepted as a collateral to the activity. It had now been extended to the entire population. Worldwide.
The importance of Greenwald’s book, besides the story already revealed in a gripping volume by Luke Harding, is his own thought process upon arrival in Hong Kong, keeping in mind the deceptive experiences of previous whistleblowers having taken on intelligence leaks: John Kiriakou, who denounced torture at the hands of the CIA, was in prison. Chelsea Manning, who had denounced war crimes at the hands of the US Army, was in prison and about to face a court martial. Both had exposed mass, widespread human rights and international criminal law violations. Both had acted in the public interest; both claimed humanist and existentialist (even if not so directly acknowledged) aspirations. Most importantly, both, like Daniel Ellsberg before them, articulated their actions were motivated not by a misplaced desire for fame or a willingness to destroy the United States; to the contrary, it was their commitment to the rule of law and specifically constitutional principles that had directed their actions. They were no strangers to courage, and definitely not ignorant. On that last point, it is precisely what made Ed Snowden so insufferable to his detractors: he was extremely articulate, well-read, politically sound, and had turned to a fearless journalist, a former civil rights litigator, who had made a career out of alienating anyone who had failed to abide by principles of virtue and justice. There could not be a pairing more of a thorn in the side of a culture of political deference than a Greenwald/Snowden summit. I, for one, was delighted.
“Do you get paranoid, sometimes?”
One thing all whistle-blowers, especially the ones in recent history, have in common is their loathing of political apathy. It’s the ignorance of basic and fundamental rights, the acquiescence to the violation of the law, but simply, the lack of reaction, the indifference. Again, incorrectly misplaced as a need to become famous as a anti-government radical, this is simply a balance between taking incredible risks in the face of a forceful state apparatus to protect rights no one seems to believe they deserve anymore. At a hearing on an Iraq case in December, I heard the president of the Court tell the lawyer representing the United Kingdom, “human rights law is not rhetorical”. Civil liberties aren’t either. They’re not for US citizens, and they sure aren’t either for the citizens of countries, especially friendly / allied countries, who woke up one day to realising they had been made pawns by the US government, that had vowed to help their own forces destroy terrorism and keep their houses and cars safe. It wasn’t so. In the hands of the NSA, emails, phone calls, data, conversations, appointments, travels, but also reflections, letters, documents, thoughts, feelings, debates, were considered a hypothetical threat. And if it wasn’t a threat in itself, it could be considered one pre-emptively, a concept very crucial to the conduct of the war on terror. Crushing under the weight of an unchecked executive power that Congress didn’t even know had slipped from its grasp, it felt like there was no way to stop the NSA, but to expose it in bright light. Edward Snowden said it himself: he had seen the dark corners of the intelligence world, and what it fears most is the light. What it fears most is our own enlightenment.
I admire Greenwald for his relentless fight to do Snowden justice. But this is a character trait he has always upheld, his entire career. Fighting terrorism became fighting counter terrorism; fighting terrorism became fighting surveillance; fighting terrorism became fighting apathy at home. If the Hong Kong episode reads like a cloak and dagger novel, it is nonetheless real, and one can’t afford to underestimate how taxing it can be – emotionally, physically, psychologically. I have personally been doing this long enough to know that I cyclically “crash” – disappear, sort of, every four years on average, to resurface six to eight weeks later, a little more regenerated. But we have no place to hide. We have no place to store what belongs to the intimate realm; we have no way to conceal the conversations we wish to keep private; and we can no longer trust a casual drink at a bar with a friend, who might be compromised without knowing – and place you at risk by simply being one hop away from you. It is impossible to maintain a constant operational security, like Snowden taught us to have. Mass surveillance is unavoidable, and is robbing us of what makes us individuals, what makes us capable of functioning as self-sufficient individuals. A friend once asked me, “do you get paranoid, sometimes?” I didn’t know what to say. I replied: “I don’t know, should I be?” There is no room left for us to think for ourselves. Any internet connection can be middlemanned. Any non-air gapped computer might be tampered with. Google searches might turn up on someone else’s desk. Deprived of all space to breathe and listen to the sound of your own heartbeat, you turn inwards. And you’re alone.
That winter, I met The Guardian’s Spencer Ackerman for dinner in Chelsea. It was as casual as two people living and breathing their work could make it. I didn’t even pay attention to the cab ride taking me to our meeting place – driver not speaking english, taking incredible detours all the way up to 34th, refusing to be paid – I just wanted some relative peace and quiet and intelligent conversation. Later, as we waited for a train on a subway platform, I noticed the hair on his temples had gone grey. I teased him about it, gently, but firmly telling him he was way too young. I asked if wisdom had finally caught up with this unrepentant punk. He just looked at me. As the national security editor of the Guardian, coming to the paper from Wired right on the cusp of the first NSA story to be published, Ackerman had had the files in his hand. I sometimes forget what it feels like to be exposed to drastic and harrowing proof of grave misconduct. I had been working on MI-6/CIA torture and covert counter-terrorism operations for so long – over ten years -, never discussing the details with anyone, that I had internalized the material I was reading. Ackerman didn’t. His work, and his writing style, however, illustrated not only a disciplined, detail-oriented man, but also a severe frustration with the lack of reform following the NSA leaks. On the anniversary of the Verizon story, Ackerman recapped all the legislative occurrences, testimonies, debates on the Freedom Act bill, in a manner that displayed little had been done. If our individual and collective behavior had changed, if scales had indeed tipped perhaps, this had not reached the steps of Congress, let alone the White House, reluctant to relinquish the extreme powers granted to the executive by the powers of the NSA and its British counterpart, GCHQ. All over the world, has intelligence-sharing protocols were submitted to judicial review, whether in drone strikes or rendition, courts deferred to the executive, saying that “vital foreign interests” were at stake when it came to the NSA. France remained painfully quiet, and continued to consult with Chuck Hagel on counter-terrorism deployment in Africa; the UK government became more defiant and aggressive by the minute; Germany wrestled with its own history, caught between a Stasi revival and the willingness to become a potent foreign partner in international relations besides the EU. Globally, although it reached the UN and culminated in a resolution condemning mass surveillance, governments failed to sever their ties with the NSA and be left with only their own intelligence to gather and store, this time under more legislative scrutiny.
We have been living in a state of hyper-vigilance and of permanent derogation since 9/11. This is not new; the fearsome climate fostered by the IRA in the UK gave birth to abusive counter-terrorism laws that have nothing to envy the Patriot Act. Internment (indefinite detention), use of torture, discriminating targeting, surveillance, covert armed force – all of this is only now in the process of being reviewed, after much allegations took decades to turn into facts, myths into case files, and bodies to wash up on shores. The damage actually created by abusive counter-terrorism laws lasts generations, and permeates the public discourse in a way that a government can no longer be trusted. It would take a long process of reconciliation and truth-telling to regain political normalcy. Sadly, truth-telling means a free press, independent journalists, and no harassment of their lawyers. The only tools we have come to understand were ours to take was counter-surveillance: encryption. Instead of awaiting a hypothetical (as opposed to eventual) table-turning of an administration that is incapable of admitting wrongdoing, action has to be taken with maximum safety. This means the aforementioned covered webcam, regularly changed PGP keys, offline laptops, and the development of open-source software for anonymity. Luckily, Edward Snowden gathered around himself – or the image we have of him, projected from Moscow – a community of software developers and IT technicians willing to collaborate with somewhat technically challenged journalists, lawyers, writers, researchers, activists and academics. It is a burgeoning community that expands everyday. The safe path, the road most travelled, was to trust the government, to trust the FISA court, and to continue the normalcy of establishment reporting: asking for articles to be vetted, abandoning research told to be too close to the sun, listening in to fearmongering discourse about jihadists in Syria and all the plots that the NSA had defused thanks to its methods of intercepting cables in Pakistan.
But a man who trades his liberty for a safe and dreamless sleep, doesn’t deserve the both of them and neither shall he keep.
[Note: last June, I went with friend and lawyer Moira Meltzer-Cohen to an event at Carnegie Hall where Greenwald was speaking about the book. Said friend had been way more attuned to surveillance than I had been and emphasized how irresponsible it is of people in our field not to practice encryption. She is absolutely right. I would be flagged and interrogated two months later at Newark Liberty. Immense gratitude to Kevin M. Gallagher for his patience while encrypting my tech-challenged self.]