ART IMITATES LIFE DEPT.
When author Nicholas Mennuti sat down to write his new thriller book, he could not have known that his subject matter — spying on citizens by the National Security Agency (NSA) — would become the latest national scandal. As it turns out, according to various whistleblowers, including Edward Snowden, intrusive government surveillance is even worse than what was imagined by fiction writers.
The Thriller And The Mirror
By Nicholas Mennuti
June 18, 2013
I’ve always been attracted to thrillers because they allow you to discuss current affairs without the risk of sliding into didacticism. Simply put, the genre requires you to keep the story moving at all costs. This formal rigidity can cause an author to seek out ways around the limits, to rebel, fight the walls, and get surreal or visionary with the content.
And sometimes those “surreal” events you described to entertain yourself end up being mirrored in reality.
The recent case involving Edward Snowden — the Booz Allen employee turned NSA leaker currently hiding in China — has some eerie parallels with my upcoming novel “Weaponized” (co-written with David Guggenheim).
In Weaponized we look at the NSA wire-tapping situation from the other side of the coin. Our man on the run, Kyle West, isn’t a leaker, but someone fingered in a series of leaked documents. Without divulging too much of the plot, he’s a private contractor accused of playing the crucial rote in engineering the exact kind of security-state Snowden has described as operational within the United States. Like Snowden, Kyle flees the United States — only he ends up in Cambodia — to evade testimony and potential incarceration. So basically we invented Snowden’s doppelganger, got the leaked facts correct, and in my opinion gave him a more secure location.
Although I’d love to claim some sort of Cassandra like quality in terms of seeing these events coming, that’d be disingenuous. The reason I picked — wire-tapping, snooping, surveillance — as the crux of the story, is that I knew even if the issue went quiet for a few years, it was bound to come back again, simply because new technology allows both “us” and “the watchers” a new set of tools.
Ten years or thirty years from now, we’re still going to be having this discussion. And it’s worth having it every time. The problem is we always seem to start the new discussion without remembering the last one.
We need to start by admitting that the government has been snooping on us long before Google and Verizon came onto the scene. The telecom and the search engine behemoth just made the job easier. The government was steam opening your mail post-WWI looking for Fascists and Communists. They were manually wire-tapping before WWII even got underway. And we’re all only too aware of the anti-Constitutional activities of Hoover’s F.B.I, which really hit their stride in the 60’s around widespread Vietnam protests and Student Activism.
We can only start to have a discussion about the government and our privacy if we admit that it’s never been sacrosanct to them and there’s no golden age to return to.
That said, what I find most disturbing is the mingled response of hypocrisy and pragmatism coming from the current administration. In response to Snowden’s leaks, they’re trying to almost pass the security state off as a kind of necessary evil.
We may have differing ideas about what the words “necessary” and “evil” mean — but I think everyone can agree that whatever we’re trying to prevent shouldn’t require the NSA literally sucking up the equivalent of the Library of Congress every twenty-four hours.
Point of fact, this entire discussion on privacy and security circles back to a philosophical debate David and I both keep planting front and center in almost all our work — idealism versus pragmatism.
The American system of government is purportedly pragmatic, in fact if one were to rely solely on historians and intellectuals — pragmatism would be the cardinal virtue of American leadership. We’ve always heard how “pragmatic” Reagan was, Lincoln was, Clinton’s second-term was — and how this was the key to their success.
However, the current state of our government is neither idealism nor pragmatism – it’s bureaucracy, the obscene underside of pragmatism. It simultaneously keeps growing and yet nothing ever changes. And yet people seem to keep calling it pragmatism.
Into this particular bureaucratic climate Weaponized makes – to use a potentially loaded word – a plea. And it’s one I’d like to reiterate now:
I don’t think something as critical to the American way of life as privacy should be left to bureaucrats, pragmatists, and scientists to decide. Maybe this should be the debate where we allow the ideologues — a particularly distasteful world to most Americans — to have it out. Let the gung-ho eavesdroppers and the civil libertarians wrestle with this issue, and leave the pragmatists and bureaucrats off to the side to referee. At least there’s finally the potential of an honest discussion. At least these people have feelings beyond bureaucracy about the issue.
In fact, my greatest fear is that we’re sucking up all this information purely as an extensive and expensive government “C.Y.A.” (yes, cover your ass) operation. What’s worse – the government storing your secrets to keep you safe — or merely to protect themselves in case something happens? At least they can say they tried.
That’s a form of pragmatism too. The ugly side historians like to ignore.
Of course that debate between impassioned ideologues would require the government to give up their “secrets”. Not to sound naïve or to introduce a paradox — but aren’t we entitled, as citizens, to our “secrets.” And second, if this monolithic security is as successful or necessary as they claim — then how did the attempted Times Square bomber and the unfortunately successful Boston bombers slip through the cracks? The answer to the Boston bombing is the truly sad one – someone spelled one of the brother’s names wrong in the internal system. That’s bureaucracy at it’s best.
The root problem is that there’s always a crack in the panopticon; there’s always the angle you can’t see no matter how much information you collect.
That’s what Kyle learns in Weaponized and maybe that’s something Americans would like the right to decide for themselves. No one has asked us yet.
Just how much security do we want and need?