“…what does classified information do? I think the metaphor that we’re intended to bring to it is war, spying, national secrets, and the vulnerabilities of huge things like infrastructure. I imagine that the individual instances of it are far more idiosyncratic and personal.”
—Michael J. DeLuca
Steph: This is an excerpt from Permanent Record by Edward Snowden, beginning on page 175.
It was only later, long after I’d forgotten about the missing Inspector General report, that the classified version came skimming across my desktop, as if in proof of that old maxim that the best way to find something is to stop looking for it. Once the classified version turned up, I realized why I hadn’t had any luck finding it previously: it couldn’t be seen, not even by the heads of agencies. It was filed in an Exceptionally Controlled Information (ECI) compartment, an extremely rare classification used only to make sure that something would remain hidden even from those holding top security clearance. Because of my position, I was familiar with most of the ECIs at the NSA, but not this one. The report’s full classification designation was TOP SECRET//STLW//HCS/COMINT//ORCON/NOFORN, which translates to: pretty much only a few dozen people in the world are allowed to read this.
I was most definitely not one of them. The report came to my attention by mistake: someone in the NSA IG’s office had left a draft copy on a system that I, as a sysadmin, had access to. Its caveat of STLW, which I didn’t recognize, turned out to be what’s called a “dirty word” on my system: a label signifying a document that wasn’t supposed to be stored on lower-security drives. These drives were being constantly checked for any newly appearing dirty words, and the moment one was found I was alerted so that I could decide how best to scrub the document from the system, but before I did, I’d have to examine the offending file myself, just to confirm that the dirty word search hadn’t flagged anything accidentally. Usually I’d take just the briefest glance at the thing. But this time, as soon as I opened the document and read the title, I knew I’d be reading it all the way through.
Here was everything that was missing from the unclassified version. Here was everything that the journalism I’d read had lacked, and that the court proceedings I’d followed had been denied: a complete accounting of the NSA’s most secret surveillance programs, and the agency directives and Department of Justice policies that had been used to subvert American law and contravene the US Constitution. After reading the thing, I could understand why no IC employee had ever leaked it to journalists, and no judge would be able to force the government to produce it in open court. The document was so deeply classified that anybody who had access to it who wasn’t a sysadmin would be immediately identifiable. And the activities it outlined were so deeply criminal that no government would ever allow it to be released unredacted.
One issue jumped out at me immediately: it was clear that the unclassified version I was already familiar with wasn’t a redaction of the classified version, as would usually be the practice. Rather, it was a wholly different document, which the classified version immediately exposed as an outright and carefully concocted lie. The duplicity was stupefying, especially given that I just dedicated months of my time to deduplicating files. Most of the time, when you’re dealing with two versions of the same document, the differences between them are trivial—a few commas here, a few words there. But the only thing these two particular reports had in common was their title.
Whereas the unclassified version merely made reference to the NSA being ordered to intensify its intelligence-gathering practices following 9/11, the classified version laid out the nature, and scale, of that intensification. The NSA’s historic brief had been fundamentally altered from target collection of communications to “bulk collection,” which is the agency’s euphemism for mass surveillance. And whereas the unclassified version obfuscated this shift, advocating for expanded surveillance by scaring the public with the specter of terror, the classified version made this shift explicit, justifying it as the legitimate corollary of expanded technological capacity.
The NSA IG’s portion of the classified report outlined what it called “a collection gap,” noting that existing surveillance legislation (particularly the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act) dated from 1978, a time when most communications signals traveled via radio or telephone lines, rather than fiber-optic cables and satellites. In essence, the agency was arguing that the speed and volume of contemporary communication had outpaced, and outgrown, American law—no court, not even a secret court, could issue enough individually targeted warrants fast enough to keep up—and that a truly global world required a truly global intelligence agency. All of this pointed, in the NSA’s logic, to the necessity of the bulk collection of Internet communications. The code name for this bulk collection initiative was indicated in the very dirty word that got it flagged on my system: STLW, an abbreviation of STELLARWIND. This turned out to be the single major component of the PSP that had continued, and even grown, in secret after the rest of the program had been made public in the press.
STELLARWIND was the classified report’s deepest secret. It was, in fact, the NSA’s deepest secret, and the one that the report’s sensitive status had been designed to protect. The program’s very existence was an indication that the agency’s mission had been transformed, from using technology to defend America to using technology to control it by redefining citizens’ private internet communications as potential signals intelligence.
Such fraudulent redefinitions ran throughout the report, but perhaps the most fundamental and transparently desperate involved the government’s vocabulary: STELLARWIND had been collecting communications since the PSP’s inception in 2001, but in 2004—when Justice Department officials balked at the continuation of the initiative—the Bush administration attempted to legitimize it ex post facto by changing the meanings of basic English words, such as “acquire” and “obtain.” According to the report, it was the government’s position that the NSA could collect whatever communications records it wanted to, without having to get a warrant, because it could only be said to have acquired or obtained them, in the legal sense, if and when the agency “searched for and retrieved” them from its database.
This lexical sophistry was particularly galling to me, as I was well aware that the agency’s goal was to be able to retain as much data as it could for as long as it could—for perpetuity. If communications records would only be considered definitively “obtained” once they were used, they could remain “unobtained” but collected in storage forever, raw data awaiting its future manipulation. By redefining the terms “acquire” and “obtain”—from describing the act of data being entered into a database, to describing the act of a person (or, more likely, an algorithm) querying that database and getting a “hit” or “return” at any conceivable point in the future—the US government was developing the capacity of an eternal law-enforcement agency. At any time, the government could dig through the past communications of anyone it wanted to victimize in search of a crime (and everybody’s communications contain evidence of something). At any point, for all perpetuity, any new administration—any future rogue head of the NSA—could just show up to work and, as easily as flicking a switch, instantly track everybody with a phone or a computer, know who they were, where they were, what they were doing with whom, and what they had ever done in the past.
Permanent Record by Edward Snowden (2019)
Published by Metropolitan Books, Henry Holt and Company New York
Steph: Today’s guest is Michael J. DeLuca, a longtime friend and webmaster of my digital domains. Mike is an author and the publisher of Reckoning: Creative Writing on Environmental Justice. Welcome back, Mike.
Mike: Thank you, Steph. I’m excited.
Steph: Right. Today we’re talking about this excerpt from Edward Snowden’s book, Permanent Record. How did it land with you, this section, this reading?
Mike: I have some context for this. I mean, I bring some context. I have a computer science degree. I briefly held a government security clearance of “secret”. For one year, I was allowed to look at minor secure documents, and boy, was I bad at it, that job was not for me. And then also, what this makes me think of in this moment is ChatGPT, the AI that generates text, which didn’t exist when Snowden wrote this book.
But the wealth of data he talks about in this excerpt is just such a wealth of data as what is fed into a machine learning “AI” like ChatGPT or one of those art-generating AIs. It makes me wonder what horrific machine intent is gazing on all of our data even now and what it makes of it.
Steph: By machine intent, you literally mean by an intelligent conscious computer?
Mike: Absolutely not. The reason I put AI in quotes, “artificial intelligence”–I’ve got a whole ax to grind about this if you’d like to hear me grind that ax. Artificial intelligence is a concept that was created in science fiction. Asimov and all, you’ve read those books, we’ve talked about them. The thing that is referred to as AI now is referred to in direct reference to the concept from science fiction.
It is an attempt to get us excited about something that is in no way like Lieutenant Commander Data, for example, or R. Daneel Olivaw, it is just a machine, which is why I call it machine learning. But that machine is fed a purpose. The ChatGPT machine, I presume, is told to try and absorb and grasp structures of grammar, sentence structure, and somehow it manages to distill that into the blandest prose I’ve ever seen.
But if the NSA has one of these machine learning devices, what is its directive? What is it looking for? I’m flummoxed if part of the shakeout of whatever they told it isn’t prejudice. “Run together all the Black people that you hear talking in your surveillance recordings and make assumptions based on that, and advise us to create policy in bad faith as a result of those assumptions.” That seems to be how all technology works, and so the specter of this kind of thing being done to all of our private conversations is pretty horrific.
Steph: I agree. Leaving the AI argument aside, just so that we can understand what Snowden is doing with his voice in this book, which is about his decision to become a whistleblower at this level of top secret national security criminal behavior. Like, there’s an intersection of things that are happening that he, as someone who was able to do that, and screening for the dirty words that are the clues that some document is floating around in cyberspace in some way that it’s not supposed to be, which makes it vulnerable to being accessed by people that we don’t want to access it, or whoever has created the document doesn’t want to access it, finding himself as a single individual in a position of knowledge and even leverage, right?
He leveraged his position and his knowledge to reveal this larger macrosocial governmental policy that was being done in secret. I want to focus on that, in terms of him telling us his story, and where’s his voice in this as an agent, what is it that motivates him to — I don’t want to reintroduce the whole debate, but to understand what it is he found, what is he teaching us about that discourse around secrecy in the government, and what is supposed to be legal or not legal, and the recourse that an individual has in the face of a huge structure like the National Security Agency?
Mike: It’s interesting to view this in the light of the ongoing rolling scandal about documents being at Mar-a-Lago, or in Pence’s underwear drawer, or in Biden’s underwear drawer. Yeah, what does classified information do? I think the metaphor that we’re intended to bring to it is war, spying, national secrets, and the vulnerabilities of huge things like infrastructure. I imagine that the individual instances of it are far more idiosyncratic and personal. Like, here, the personal is brought by Snowden.
Snowden is a guy who, I assume, I’m going to guess he’s got an Ivy League education. He’s got a computer science degree such as I have. He’s clean shaven, he’s got short, dark hair. He’s White, he’s affluent. They let him look at these documents because he had those features, I have to think, and now that makes him rare from a demographic perspective. It makes it more surprising that he made this choice because the government entity invested him with this trust and he chose to violate it, so that’s fascinating. Then by doing so, he achieved immediately this international status on par with Julian Assange or someone like that. Did he know he was doing that?
Steph: I think he was very conscious of the way that this revelation would alter his life trajectory. I mean, I don’t know that he knew he could predict the exact ins and outs, right? Nobody can, but he was a knowing actor. He understood that the consequences were going to be deeply personal and enduring. I think that’s part of what he talks about in other parts of this book, is the awareness that he brought to it.
I really appreciate you naming his demographic, because the betrayal that he made is more to Whiteness or even White supremacy, which is using the government of the United States, which designed the government of the United States to keep itself in power originally, and that is the tension that’s playing out in our democracy today.
Are we really going to be for all the people, or are we just going to be for a certain historically elevated subgroup of the population? I think that is important, and I agree, it does make him rare. Although there are historical examples of allies or race traitors throughout history too, they’re fewer and farther between because it is bucking, it’s going against the discourse and the social practices of the people who have said, “You’re part of us.”
Mike: It’s fascinating to speculate, what if Edward Snowden had been a Black woman, would that person have gained the fame that Edward Snowden now has, the notoriety? Would we have even seen this? Because Snowden, I presume, brought it to the New York Times and all these places. Had he not been an extremely well-educated White man, would all those places have dismissed it as traitorous act?
Steph: There’s a film, I don’t know if you’ve seen this, Laura, what’s her last name, with a P? She was with Snowden when this hit the news, they documented. He covered every base, he had reporters from The Guardian in the hotel room with him when the news broke on the US media, and she was filming. It’s the most incredible documentary work I’ve ever seen. It’s Laura Poitras, and it’s called Citizenfour. Have you ever seen? Mike, you should.
It’s the most brilliant work of using contemporary media and the collapse of time and space that today’s media allows that I’ve ever seen. So that’s why I attest to the intentionality of him knowing what he did. Now, would a different person who was an outsider to the in-group have known and had the resources and the connections to bring in all of that support so that the message would be amplified? Part of what he understood is that it had to be a splash that couldn’t be denied.
Mike: Surely also he’s able to rely on his Whiteness to shield him in doing this.
Steph: Yeah. I mean, the irony of all ironies is that he’s ended up in Russia. I don’t even know what to make about all that except that clearly it serves Putin in some ridiculous way. What do you think about the language stuff that he talks about? Like the part where he talks about how the NSA said, “Well, there’s a collection gap and we just need to fill in this hole that we have in our collection practices of,” they call it “signals intelligence”, which is anything that’s communicated over anything; radio, telephone, digital — and then this play on whether they’ve obtained something or acquired something or not.
Mike: Right. That part sounds incredibly familiar. I mean, alas for the overuse of the works of George Orwell in this context, but this is a more apt situation for it. But it’s not like Orwell has a monopoly on propaganda and “doublespeak”, though I think he’s responsible for that term for it. What you were saying about this nation being founded on the principle of keeping the people who founded it in control: that’s how we see that done. From the 2nd Amendment on down, it’s what words mean and how they are made to mean.
Steph: But the 2nd Amendment was reinterpreted about 100 years ago to mean what it means in the discourse now, but it’s not what it meant when it was written.
Mike: Right. Yeah. “Lexical sophistry”, that is my favorite part of this passage.
Steph: That word, “sophistry”, can you define it or explain it?
Mike: I think so. It’s obfuscation using language. I think of it as a kin to solipsism; solipsism being where you imagine that you are the center of the universe. Sophistry involves convincing someone else that you’re the center of the universe. I’m taking liberties here, but it’s using a superior gift of gab to bring someone else around to your worldview and intentions, and that too is something we see everywhere.
Steph: When I was doing my research at the European Parliament back in the day, one of the members of parliament from the UK that I interviewed said something about why it’s good for the EU’s documents to be written in English, because you can always change what it means.
Mike: Wow, that’s brutal.
Steph: Yeah. I mean, that’s a paraphrase, that was the intent though. She said, “You can make it mean anything.”
Mike: Yeah. Now I’m thinking of Bill Clinton, “That depends on what you think the definition of ‘is’ is.”
Steph: Right. So playing with language — it’s just disrespectful in a certain way, right? It’s like I’m going to fool you. I’m going to make you think that you know what I’m talking about, but actually, I mean something else.
Mike: Yeah. I mean, it’s a way to wield one’s education as a weapon. Not even necessarily education, but just position of authority, because authority affords you the mic. You and I respect each other and interrupt each other and say, ‘”Oh no, you please go ahead,” but when you’re the President of the United States, people don’t do that.
Steph: Yeah. Of course, this is the argument, that the right is trying to tear down the structure of interaction so that we lose faith in any part of it working, which then just pits us against each other and leaves the people who already have entrenched privilege with more. I think, on the flip side, those of us who think there are more of us who want to cooperate than to compete have to figure out, what are the terms of our cooperation?
I was thinking of this earlier when you were talking about the purpose of the metaphor of the classified documents, right? Is that, well, we’re at war. We have national interests to protect, there are security concerns, but those are all invented terms for an invented practice of violence and competition. It’s got a long history, but it’s also been overly exaggerated, and recent scholarship shows that we’re much more cooperative than we are competitive.
Mike: Right. There’s all this theory piling up into producing that prevailing sense of competition, Social Darwinism. I was thinking about this just earlier today with the unidentified flying objects being shot down over various parts of North America, Turtle Island, and thought experiment: what if they’re actually aliens? What if the aliens don’t like having their stuff shot down with no attempt to communicate with them, or ask who they are, or what they’re doing? I literally went down this road this morning.
Suddenly, we have an extraterrestrial enemy, and all the divisions between humans are suddenly lifted away because we’re provided with this other thing to compete with. Then all of a sudden, people like you and me, Steph, who are struggling to make connections between humans are out of a job because now those connections are imperative for us to survive against the alien aggressor. It was not a fun thought experiment.
Steph: Yes. I’m not even sure if it holds actually. There’ve been some treatments of that in story, in science fiction, and some of them, I guess, are more or less satisfying as plausible or you could see how that could go that way.
Mike: And many of them are pure propaganda of the same kind that we’re discussing here.
Steph: Right. I guess that’s really the heart of what I hope to achieve in these podcasts and looking at these excerpts. There’s something important about situating ourselves in relation to things that we know about as well as things that we don’t know much about, and understanding that we’re influenced by them all.
Mike: Yeah. The wealth of that data is this great unknown. It’s interesting that part of the NSA’s argument for why they can have it is that it is so big they can’t grasp it all. This might be a nice metaphor for the points you’re trying to make about how humans interact. They have all the data, but they can’t take advantage of it without some algorithm.
Steph: Yeah. I mean, it does loop back to where you started with, now there’s this new machine learning capacity to parse huge amounts of data into sensible metrics that somebody can say are meaningful this way or that way, and how much bias is built-in, how much bias can be removed through different machine learning techniques. Are they asking it questions that are helpful? Should anybody be looking at that data in this way, is the first question.
Arguably, no, it was not collected with consent. It was collected against US law of protecting citizens. It’s got all kinds of reasons not to ever be formally acquired through the process of a search, but they have it. I think it’s naive to think that they aren’t already trying to do those kinds of things and reading for patterns that they want to use to mobilize in some kind of way.
Mike: The patterns that are occurring to me that they could be looking for now are pretty nightmarish. I’m almost afraid to bring them up for fear of speaking them into existence.
Steph: Yeah. I don’t think we need to do that, but I think it’s interesting to think, could the data be put to a different use? Could there be transparency around what algorithms are being applied to the data? Could there be more oversight of potential bias? Could there be intentional uses that are more about, we already have a global threat.
Mike: Excellent point.
Steph: We don’t need aliens to give us the global threat, it’s already here. What are the collective changes that we can make in concert with each other to give us all a better chance? I think that’s the different discourse that hopefully we can support and promote, that we could probably do much more together if we understood that we needed to work together than if we keep trying to pit ourselves against, whether we call them other identity groups, or other nationalities, or other countries. All of those are also fictions that have been made up more to promote difference than anything else, difference in competition.
Mike: I’m thinking of the metaphor or the model of the search engine, and the internet, I guess the trajectory of the internet, the ethical trajectory of the internet since its inception. When I was introduced to the concept of the search engine and the internet, all this information is at your fingertips, you can learn things. For a long time, I was delighted with that, and it fulfilled the expectations that were brought to my imagination when it was explained what it was.
Designers of search engines, for a while, competed to do better at that, at bringing you the actual information that you wanted. Then at a certain point, that ceased to be the goal, in my opinion. I don’t know when that was, it may have been a turning-the-Titanic type situation, that metaphor that is often brought up with respect to climate change, where it changed while people weren’t noticing.
But I don’t know if you’ve been aware of what seems to me to be a trend of people saying, “Google is not as useful as anymore. It’s harder to get that information, it’s harder to see what’s on the internet,” because everyone’s trying to monetize it or trying to manipulate. Those bad actors have been there since the beginning, and I don’t quite understand why they didn’t get purchase faster. Why did it take this long?
But to me, the internet is deteriorating as a useful tool as we watch. Then I think about the way the accumulated wealth of human knowledge is treated in an optimistic science fiction world like Star Trek, where you can ask the computer to teach you how to repair warp drive, or pull a bullet out of someone’s chest. Those things predate the internet, and we dreamed of them, and we can still dream of them. But man, is it hard for me to dream of a transition between this and a future more like that now? I don’t know what to do with that.
Steph: Joining me here on the Structures of Interaction Podcast is an absolutely excellent contribution to that effort.
Mike: That’s why I’m here.
Steph: Thank you, Mike.
This short Reading of an excerpt from Edward Snowden’s Permanent Record (starting on p. 175) was originally published on the Structures of Interaction podcast on November 16, 2019.
The Conversation about The Reading with Guest Michael J. Deluca was recorded on February 13, 2023, one month before reporting in the NY Times and Washington Post about the Discord Gamer’s leak of top secret national security documents. (See this Washington Post gift article for context and timeline: https://wapo.st/3n2lHUC).
Michael J. DeLuca is the publisher of Reckoning, a nonprofit journal of creative writing on environmental justice. He’s also involved with the indie ebookstore Weightless Books. His novella, Night Roll, was a finalist for the Crawford Award in 2020. A novel, The Jaguar Mask, is forthcoming from Stelliform Press in 2024. He lives in the rapidly suburbifying post-industrial woodlands north of Detroit with partner, kid, cats, plants and microbes.
Original music written and performed by Richard Guild Kent.
Transcript by Esther Wokabi.
Shownotes and Transcript are published at www.reflexivity.us.