The Ecuadorian Library or, The Blast Shack After Three Years

By Bruce Sterling (Geek Empire)

Richard Stallman (left), Julian Assange and photo of Edward Snowden (Credit Wikileaks)
Richard Stallman (left), Julian Assange and photo of Edward Snowden (Credit Wikileaks)

Back in distant, halcyon 2010, I was asked to write something about Wikileaks and its Cablegate scandal. So, I wrote a rather melancholy essay about how things seemed to me to be going — dreadfully, painfully, like some leaden and ancient Greek tragedy.

In that 2010 essay, I surmised that things were going to get worse before they got any better. Sure enough, things now are lots, lots worse. Much worse than Cablegate ever was.

Cablegate merely kicked the kneecap of the archaic and semi-useless US State Department. But Edward Snowden just strolled out of the Moscow airport, with his Wikileaks personal escort, one month after ripping the pants off the National Security Agency.

You see, as it happens, a good half of my essay “The Blast Shack” was about the basic problem of the NSA. Here was the takeaway from that essay back in 2010:

One minute’s thought would reveal that a vast, opaque electronic spy outfit like the National Security Agency is exceedingly dangerous to democracy. Really, it is. The NSA clearly violates all kinds of elementary principles of constitutional design. The NSA is the very antithesis of transparency, and accountability, and free elections, and free expression, and separation of powers ― in other words, the NSA is a kind of giant, grown-up, anti-Wikileaks. And it always has been. And we’re used to that. We pay no mind.

Well, dear readers, nowadays we do pay that some mind. Yes, that was then, while this is now.

So, I no longer feel that leaden discontent and those grave misgivings that I felt in 2010. The situation now is frankly exhilarating. It no longer has that look-and-feel of the Edgar Allen Poe House of Usher. This scene is straight outta Nikolai Gogol.

This is the kind of comedic situation that Russians find hilarious. I mean, sure it’s plenty bad and all that, PRISM, XKeyScore, show trials, surveillance, threats to what’s left of journalism, sure, I get all that, I’m properly concerned. None of that stops it from being hilarious.

Few geopolitical situations can ever give the Russians a full, free, rib-busting belly laugh. This one sure does.

If Snowden had gotten things his own way, he’d be writing earnest op-ed editorials in Hong Kong now, in English, while dining on Kung Pao Chicken. It’s some darkly modern act of crooked fate that has directed Edward Snowden to Moscow, arriving there as the NSA’s Solzhenitsyn, the up-tempo, digital version of a conscience-driven dissident defector.

But Snowden sure is a dissident defector, and boy is he ever. Americans don’t even know how to think about characters like Snowden — the American Great and the Good are blundering around on the public stage like blacked-out drunks, blithering self-contradictory rubbish. It’s all “gosh he’s such a liar” and “give us back our sinister felon,” all while trying to swat down the jets of South American presidents.

These thumb-fingered acts of totalitarian comedy are entirely familiar to anybody who has read Russian literature. The pigs in Orwell’s “Animal Farm” have more suavity than the US government is demonstrating now. Their credibility is below zero.

The Russians, by contrast, know all about dissidents like Snowden. The Russians have always had lots of Snowdens, heaps. They know that Snowden is one of these high-minded, conscience-stricken, act-on-principle characters who is a total pain in the ass.

Modern Russia is run entirely by spies. It’s class rule by the “siloviki,” it’s Putin’s “managed democracy.” That’s the end game for civil society when elections mean little or nothing, and intelligence services own the media, and also the oil. And that’s groovy, sure, it’s working out for them.

When you’re a professional spy hierarch, there are few things more annoying than these conscience-stricken Winston Smith characters, moodily scribbling in their notebooks, all about how there might be hope found in the proles somehow. They’re a drag.

See, dissidence is like Andrei Sakharov. Such a useful guy, modest, soft-spoken, brainy, built you a hydrogen bomb. This eerie device straight from hell even works, so it’s all good. Then all of a sudden he’s like: you know what? The noble science of physics shouldn’t harm mankind!

What kind of self-indulgent, fatuous gesture is that? Look here, Dr Labcoat: why was the public’s money given to you, if not to “harm mankind”? If physics was harmless, you wouldn’t have a damn salary!

That’s what life feels like for the NSA right now. That is the shoe Snowden laced on their foot. If you’re NSA, as so many thousands are, you’ve known from the get-go that the planet’s wires and cables are a weapon of mass surveillance. Because that is their inherent purpose! You can’t get all conflicted, and start whining that Internet users are citizens of some place or other! That is not the point at all!

Citizens and rights have nothing to do with elite, covert technologies! The targets of surveillance are oblivious dorks, they’re not even newbies! Even US Senators are decorative objects for the NSA. An American Senator knows as much about PRISM and XKeyScore as a troll-doll on the dashboard knows about internal combustion.

So, yes, the wry and mordant humor here has not escaped me. But let’s change perspective a bit. Yes, some time has passed, and the smoke of 2010 has lifted from the scene. The cypherpunk blast shack was blown to smithereens for good and all.

It’s now clear that the NSA has created its own dissidents. The closer they get to the actual living fully functional NSA, the bigger, and hairier, and more consequential these dissidents are.

First let’s consider Bradley Manning, who is not at all close to the NSA. Bradley was a bored and upset minor military technician who burned a zillion US documents onto a DVD, and labeled that “Lady Gaga.”

The authorities finally got around to convicting Bradley this week, of some randomized set of largely irrelevant charges. But the damage there is already done; some to Bradley himself, but mostly grave, lasting damage to the authorities. By maltreating Bradley as their Guantanamo voodoo creature, their mystic hacker terror beast from AlQaedaville, Oklahoma, they made Bradley Manning fifty feet high.

At least they didn’t manage to kill him. Bradley’s visibly still on his feet, and was not so maddened by the torment of his solitary confinement that he’s reduced to paste. So he’s going to jail as an anti-war martyr, but time will pass. Someday, some new entity, someone in power who’s not directly embarrassed by Cablegate, can pardon him.

Some future Administration can amnesty him, once they get around to admitting that Bradley’s War on Terror is history. The War on Terror has failed as conclusively as Woodrow Wilson’s League of Nations failed. There’s terror all over the sands now, terror from Mali to Xinjiang, and a billion tender-hearted Bradleys couldn’t stop that bleeding, no matter how much they leak.

Thanks to the modern miracle of fracking, though, the mayhem in the oil patch means a lot less to K Street. Someday, Bradley Manning will be as forgotten to them as Monica Lewinsky is. Then they’ll yield to the hornet-like, persistent buzz of the leftie peaceniks, and let Bradley go. He’s not dangerous. Bradley Manning will never do anything of similar consequence again. He’s not a power player. He’s a prisoner of conscience.

However, unlike poor Monica Lewinsky, Bradley Manning will never lack for passionate adherents who admire him and love him. Before Bradley went into his ugly maelstrom, he didn’t have that. Nowadays, he does. Maybe it’s worth it.

Then there’s Julian Assange. Yeah, him, the silver-haired devil, the Mycroft Holmes of the Ecuadorian Embassy. Bradley Manning’s not at all NSA material, he’s just a leaky clerk with a thumb-drive. But Julian’s quite a lot closer to the NSA — because he’s a career cypherpunk.

If you’re a typical NSA geek, and you stare in all due horror at Julian, it’s impossible not to recognize him as one of your own breed. He’s got the math fixation, the stilted speech, the thousand-yard-stare, and even the private idiolect that somehow allows NSA guys to make up their own vocabulary whenever addressing Congress (who don’t matter) and haranguing black-hat hacker security conventions (who obviously do).

Julian has turned out to be a Tim Leary at the NSA’s psychiatric convention. He’s a lasting embarrassment who also spiked their Kool-Aid. Crushing Julian, cutting his funding, that stuff didn’t help one bit. He’s still got a roof and a keyboard. That’s all he ever seems to need.

There’s nothing quite like a besieged embassy from which to mock the empty machinations of the vengeful yet hapless State Department. House arrest has also helped Julian with this obscure struggle he has, not to fling himself headlong onto Swedish feminists. The ruthless confinement has calmed him; it’s helped him to focus. He’s grown and matured through ardent political struggle.

Julian Assange is still a cranky extremist with a wacky digital ideology, but he doesn’t have to talk raw craziness any more, because the authorities are busy doing that for him. They can’t begin to discuss PRISM and XKeyScore without admitting that their alleged democratic process is a neon façade from LaLaLand. Instead, they’re forced to wander into a dizzying area of discourse where Julian staked out all the high points ten years ago.

More astonishing yet: this guy Assange, and his tiny corps of hacker myrmidons, actually managed to keep Edward Snowden out of US custody. Not only did Assange find an effective bolthole for himself, he also faked one up on the fly for this younger guy.

Assange liberated Snowden, who really is NSA, or rather a civilian outsourced contractor for the NSA, like there’s any practical difference.

It’s incredible to me that, among the eight zillion civil society groups on the planet that hate and fear spooks and police spies, not one of them could offer Snowden one shred of practical help, except for Wikileaks. This valiant service came from Julian Assange, a dude who can’t even pack his own suitcase without having a fit.

I wouldn’t ever have picked Assange as a travel agent, but then just look at the fellow-travellers — the solemn signatories of the recent “International Principles on the Application of Human Rights to Communications Surveillance.” I’ll toss a few in as an ideological bloc here, just to memorialize their high-minded indignation.


7iber (Amman, Jordan), Access (International), Africa Platform for Social Protection – APSP (Africa), AGEIA Densi (Argentina), (Russia), Aktion Freiheit statt Angst (Germany), All India Peoples Science Network (India), Alternatif Bilişim Derneği (Alternatif Bilişim) – Turkey (Turkey), Alternative Law Forum (India), Article 19 (International), ASL19 (Canada/Iran), Asociación Civil por la Igualdad y la Justicia – ACIJ (Argentina), Asociación de Internautas Spain (Spain), Asociación Paraguaya De Derecho Informático Y Tecnológico – APADIT (Paraguay), Asociación por los Derechos Civiles – ADC (Argentina), Aspiration (United States), Associação Brasileira de Centros de inclusão Digital – ABCID (Brasil), Associació Pangea Coordinadora Comunicació per a la Cooperació (Spain), Association for Progressive Communications – APC (International), Association for Technology and Internet – APTI (Romania), Association of Community Internet Center – APWKomitel (Indonesia), Australia Privacy Foundation – APF (Australia), Bahrain Center for Human Rights (Bahrain), Bangladesh NGOs Network for Radio and Communication – BNNRC (Bangladesh), Big Brother Watch (United Kingdom), Bits of Freedom (Netherlands), Bolo Bhi (Pakistan), Brasilian Institute for Consumer Defense – IDEC, (Brasil), British Columbia Civil Liberties Association – BCCLA (Canada) Bytes for All (Pakistan)…

Just look at them all, and that’s just the A’s and B’s… Obviously, a planetary host of actively concerned and politically connected people. Among this buzzing horde of eager online activists from a swarm of nations, what did any of them actually do for Snowden? Nothing.

Before Snowden showed up from a red-eye flight from Hawaii, did they have the least idea what was actually going on with the hardware of their beloved Internet? Not a clue. They’ve been living in a pitiful dream world where their imaginary rule of law applies to an electronic frontier — a frontier being, by definition, a place that never had any laws.

The civil lib contingent here looks, if anything, even stupider than the US Senate Intelligence Oversight contingent — who have at least been paying lavishly to fund the NSA, and to invent a pet surveillance court for it, with secret laws. That silly Potemkin mechanism — it’s like a cardboard steering wheel in the cockpit of a Predator drone.

While Julian Assange, to do him credit, has the street smarts to behave as if he’s in a situation of feral realpolitik. Because he is. And how.

However, Assange now knows that. He’s a hardened veteran of it. And he’s gonna stay imperiled for the immediate future, because the upshot of this is pretty easy to see.

The inconvenient truth about the NSA is lying there on a table in the Ecuadorian Embassy, as stark as a poisoned crow. But it’ll join our planet’s many other inconvenient truths.

Snowden told the truth to the public — but then again, so did Solzhenitsyn, and even Al Gore lets on sometimes. The truth doesn’t do the trick for anybody, the truth is just a complicating factor. The present geopolitical situation is absolutely cluttered with amazing lies that didn’t work out for their owners.

The Iraqi weapons of mass destruction never existed. Climate change does exist, and could drown Wall Street any day now. The abject state of global finance is obvious, yet it makes no difference to the ongoing depredations. Drones are stark assassination machines, and they don’t stay classified. Anyone could go on.

And, yeah, by the way, Microsoft, Apple, Cisco, Google et al, they are all the blood brothers of Huawei in China — because they are intelligence assets posing as commercial operations. They are surveillance marketers. They give you free stuff in order to spy on you and pass that info along the value chain. Personal computers can have users, but social media has livestock.

Even the NSA is humiliated by the billowing clouds of ongoing pretense. Why pick on the NSA, anyway? They’re quiet professionals, well-trained, well-educated, they’re discreet. NSA guys don’t even know what the guy in the next NSA office is doing.

So, who made the NSA the scaly Godzilla, besides one loose civilian contractor who ran off to Hong Kong? What about the National Reconnaissance Office? The NRO never gets outed for their gorgon-stare cameras that can pick out the font on any license plate, anywhere from pole to pole.

What about all the other national cyberwar players, like the Chinese units, methodically spearphishing every Microsoft vuln on the planet? What about those truly ferocious coders who wrote Stuxnet, burned up Iranian atomic factories with raw malware, and who have never been glimpsed since? They’re a hundred times scarier than the kindly and gentlemanly NSA.

But can the NSA speak up for themselves, by leveling with the stakeholders about what really goes on, in the NSA’s actual, lived experience? Nope. Not even. Before Snowden, their mouths were duct-taped; after Snowden, it’ll be duct-tape, plus handcuffs and electronic ankle bracelets.

So, the truth is out there, but nobody’s gonna clean up all that falsehood. There is no visible way to make a clean break with the gigantic, ongoing institutional deceits. There’s no mechanism by which any such honesty could be imposed. It’s like reforming polygamy in the Ottoman Empire.

Even if the proles rise up in a wave, busily Twittering away, you’re gonna get an Arab Spring, followed by a regretful military coup once people figure out that networks just aren’t governments.

Even the electronic civil lib contingent is lying to themselves. They’re sore and indignant now, mostly because they weren’t consulted — but if the NSA released PRISM as a 99-cent Google Android app, they’d be all over it. Because they are electronic first, and civil as a very distant second.

They’d be utterly thrilled to have the NSA’s vast technical power at their own command. They’d never piously set that technical capacity aside, just because of some elderly declaration of universal human rights from 1947. If the NSA released their heaps of prying spycode as open-source code, Silicon Valley would be all over that, instantly. They’d put a kid-friendly graphic front-end on it. They’d port it right into the cloud.

Computers were invented as crypto-ware and spy-ware and control-ware. That’s what Alan Turing was all about. That’s where computing came from, that’s the scene’s original sin, and also its poisoned apple.

There’s not a coherent force on Earth that wants to cork up that bottle. They all just want another slug out of that bottle — and they’d rather like to paste their own personal, prestige label onto the bottle’s glass. You know, like your own attractive face, pasted on the humming planetary big iron of Facebook.

Digital, globalized societies — where capital and information moves, and where labor and human flesh doesn’t move — they behave like this. That is what we are witnessing and experiencing. It’s weird because we are weird. We’re half actual and half digital now. We’re like the squirming brood of a tiger mated to a shark.

You can tell that Manning, Assange and Snowden are all the same kind of irritant, because, somehow, amazingly, the planet’s response is to physically squish them. They’re all online big-time, and their digital shadow is huge, so the response is just to squeeze their mortal human bodies, literally, legally, extra-legally, by whatever means becomes available.

It’s a wrestling match of virtuality and actuality, an irruption of the physical into the digital. It’s all about Bradley shivering naked in his solitary cage, and Julian diligently typing in his book-lined closet at the embassy, and Ed bagging out behind the plastic seating of some airport, in a jetlag fit of black globalization that went on for a solid month.

And, those tiny, confined, somehow united spaces are the moral high ground. That’s where it is right now, that’s what it looks like these days.

You can see that in the recent epic photo of Richard Stallman — the Saint Francis of Free Software, the kind of raw crank who preaches to birds and wanders the planet shoeless – shoulder-to-shoulder with an unshaven Assange, sporting his manly work shirt. The two of them, jointly holding up a little propaganda pic of Edward Snowden.

They have the beatific look of righteousness rewarded. Che Guevara in his starred beret had more self-doubt than these guys. They are thrilled with themselves.

People, you couldn’t trust any of these three guys to go down to the corner grocery for a pack of cigarettes. Stallman would bring you tiny peat-pots of baby tobacco plants, then tell you to grow your own. Assange would buy the cigarettes, but smoke them all himself while coding up something unworkable. And Ed would set fire to himself, to prove to an innocent mankind that tobacco is a monstrous and cancerous evil that must be exposed at all costs.

And yet the three of them together, they look just amazing. They are fantastic figures, like the promise of otherworldly aid from a superhero comic. They are visibly stronger than they’ve ever been before. They have the initiative in a world afflicted with comprehensive helplessness.

And there’s more coming. Lots, lots more.

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