Secrets of Snowden's Memoirs: Part
2: Verax versus Mendax
John Kendall Hawkins
In our last installment of "Secrets of Snowden's Memoirs," we drew amazement from and pondered the fact that young Ed Snowden was a high school drop-out (he obtained a GED instead ), and that he went around calling himself a "systems engineer" after obtaining his Microsoft Certified Systems Engineer (MCSE) accreditation, which through some life-finessing and general fucking around, he eventually landed a spy position with the CIA (then, later, the NSA, by way of Dell, and Booz Allen Hamilton). This is amazing stuff. More amazing to me, I explained at the time, because I, too, escaped formal schooling with a GED, and procured an MCSE (and CCNA/DA), was in the military, worked for the gov, travelled worldly widely, and spent a lot of time looking into "military" secrets -- but as a journalist.
In this installment, we discuss the relationship between the two premiere ballbusters of our time -- Edward Snowden and Julian Assange, who, today, speak the same languish -- Ed's doin' time in Russia, with his former pole dancing girlfriend (now wife) and child named Emoji, while Julian's bacon's fried in Britain's Belmarsh prison, wife and children growing old without him. Some of us suspect now that had Julian been released from Belmarsh, as his well-wishers want, he'd have been droned out of existence with Hellfires by now, like George Clooney in Syriana. (A highly-placed agent for George said he was all-too-willing to agree to die this way, on-screen, to make up for those cheesy Nescafe pod commercials he made us suffer through, in order to revamp his career).
As for Ed Snowden, "we" the people tried real hard to ice him for his own goodness, with Obama at the helm, to take out Ed. Remember, how Obomber or O Bumma (as Afghan cricket-playing kids would say as they saw a Predator overhead -- maybe looking for the Jonas brothers, said to have been sexting O's daughters, and now on the lam in Tora Bora) forced down the jet of Bolivia's President Evo Morales, with merely a rumor that Snowden was aboard. Had O forced down Putin's plane, we might all be on another astral plane by now. What a hoot imperialism can be, hey?
And as with the eerie similarities to Ed's life, I also share some strange links (psychic?) to Julian. Turns out, Julian's birth surname was originally Hawkins*. Yeah! mind f*ck, right? I have Australian citizenship ( maintain a dual in case I need to take a powder in a hurry, if I'm allowed to leave). I push, like Assange, for more transparency in US government tax-paid doings, bemoan the degradation of our sacred Bill of Rights, and analyze the machinations of US hegemony overseas, while avoiding said same activities here for fear I might become a Desaparecido -- Aussies have no stinkin' Bill of Rights (or guns to defend themselves against tyranny: mateship is all that stands between them and slavery) and they're proud of this condition. (I'm not sure if what I just typed isn't what they call a "made" here. Gulp.)
It's like Assange and I are blood brothers almost, but I don't utter it aloud because the spooks might piñata me as some kind of loose accessory after the fact they'll 'make up' later. This is paranoiac, I know. But that, too, I have in common with Julian. And also, as with Snowden and me, there's some doubt as to whether Assange finished high school. He was home-schooled and it's understood that he moved around 30-something times as a child, but I may have him beat on that count.
For me, the great irony about Julian's accomplishments is that his work has been to liberate American thinking, to draw attention to American foreign policy, to reveal, as Snowden did in his memoir,
The worst-kept secret in modern diplomacy is that the primary function of an embassy nowadays is to serve as a platform for espionage. [see page 109 of the memoir]
This, of course, is the kind of revelation that got Snowden's book soft-seized by the US government (they swallowed the book's profits, making it pointless to market it). But one thing that must -- at least subliminally -- irritate or concern even Assange's supporters is that he's not American. Even I, a huge supporter of Assange (although I'm miffed that he can't seem to find time to answer the humble letter, with translated Heine poem, I sent him), wonder where he gets the moxie sometimes to wedgie the Yanks, but not sufficiently his own birth nation, which needs a whole lot of revealing.
But this fact doesn't bother his supporters as much as it does the American military. The fact is that the American government, for all its vaunted democracy, is a military machine, that has not stopped being at war - somewhere - since Hiroshima. The president is the commander in chief of the American military. If you were paying attention, you noticed that US presidents willy-nilly cruise-missile nations without UN approval, or, take out democratically elected presidents elsewhere, or, force down planes of other presidents - a virtual act of war - with impunity. Even the Internet is a military invention. So, revealing their sh*t, as noble as it may seem, may easily draw a military response or the desire for one. But Assange rightly sees IMHO that such revelations are worth the risk, given the stakes of world conquest by deep-state psychos who can't see that the sky is falling. So, nuts or not, he's also courageous.
And wasn't it something that US spy wonks figured out that using Sweden's top whistleblowing laws (through two women he slept with) was a knee-slapping, chuckle festival way of dealing with the Revealer. The wicked leaky condom gambit was had me in stitches for weeks. His wikileaks are dangerous and sociopathic, the condom leak seemed to say. Nearly bust a gut.
And he's been at it for a long time; his hacking pals in the wayback called him John Connor (yeah, after the Terminator kid) and he started out hacking into Pentagon computers as a teenager in Melbourne, it is understood. He specifically was looking at the emails of generals there, a TV movie tells us. So, from that moment on, the Pentagon would have started a dossier on him, as potential national security threat. A January 2011 Guardian article. "Julian Assange: the teen hacker who became insurgent in information war," suggests that as an early Underground hacker, Julian was well-disposed to an Oscar Wilde quote as a working desiderata: "Man is least himself when he talks in his own person. Give him a mask, and he will tell you the truth." See Persona, an approximation of the two women Assange slept with. (I dunno, forgive me, but I can only picture waterboarding when I picture truth's wearing masks.)
One speculates, but this appears to be the point in his life at which the young lad began using the moniker "Mendax." Which means, in some quarters, Noble Liar. A Robin Hoody, Machiavelli-breaks-good, "ethical hacker" kind of thing. You know, greater cause, necessity defense kind of thing. Supposedly, Assange had an actual EH certification. I looked into it, but I don't have a hacker's requisite mindset or programming Dexter-ity. Nor were brain dumps available. But that doesn't mean you, dear reader, can't do your bit.
Well, this is where Edward Snowden comes back into the picture. In his memoir, Permanent Record, Ed mentions Assange only 9 times, all in the same chapter. These are fraught mentions. Mucho mistrust, as ear-girlfriend Blondie used to sing. Soon turned out, it was a pain in the ass, was the lyric that followed. Snowden tells us that he was partially motivated to nickname himself Verax (teller of truth) in contradistinction to Julian's more ironic or beau geste digit raised to the Man, implied, I understand, by Mendax. Snowden's description of Assange keeps me up at night (that and my prostate). Check it out:
Unable to reveal my true name, I contacted the journalists under a variety of identities, disposable masks worn for a time and then discarded" The final name I chose for my correspondence was "Verax," Latin for "speaker of truth," in the hopes of proposing an alternative to the model of a hacker called "Mendax" ("speaker of lies")-the pseudonym of the young man who'd grow up to become WikiLeaks' Julian Assange. [p. 192-3]
It gets worse.
On the surface of things, where most of us skate as if consciousness were the Rockefeller Center at Xmas, the two have had minor differences, move on. But Snowden really didn't (and may still not) like Assange. His characterizations are profoundly upsetting to a punch-God-in-his-smug-face activist keen to Do the Right Thing. He writes of Assange:
It's true that Assange can be self-interested and vain, moody, and even bullying-after a sharp disagreement just a month after our first, text-based conversation, I never communicated with him again-but he also sincerely conceives of himself as a fighter in a historic battle for the public's right to know, a battle he will do anything to win. Some balance toward the end in that statement, but he continues elsewhere in this section, It's for this reason that I regard it as too reductive to interpret his assistance as merely an instance of scheming or self-promotion. [p. 228]
The assistance Assange offered refers to Sarah Harrison, a journalist and an editor for Wikileaks, who had personal contacts in Hong Kong, and flew to Snowden when he was holed up in a hotel there, afraid he might be taken at any moment by spooks.
Still, he wasn't confident of assistance from Wikileaks personnel - almost as if he were dealing with a cult figure. However, he had to:
I was initially wary of Sarah's involvement. But Laura told me that she was serious, competent, and, most important, independent: one of the few at WikiLeaks who dared to openly disagree with Assange. Despite my caution, I was in a difficult position, and as Hemingway once wrote, the way to make people trustworthy is to trust them. [p.228]
Wow, that's some implied animus. He rolled the die. What else could he do? He seems to say. For all his understood faults, Julian is no Charles Manson, and Sarah is not Squeaky Fromme (who you definitely do not want to meet by the prom punch bowl).
But there's more. Assange's personality and management style aside, for the moment, the suppressed difference between the two had, writes Snowden, serious consequences for how the tranche of documents Snowden stole got released to the public. Ed conjures up two Assanges - a Before Collateral Murder Julian and an Aftermath Assange. He feared that Assange had become reckless upon the release of the gunship war crime (with laugh track). In PR he writes, "[W]hen I first considered coming forward, the whistleblower's forum of choice was WikiLeaks. Back then, it operated in many respects like a traditional publisher." Snowden points out that during 2010 and 2011 Wikileak's partnership with MSM outlets, like the NYT and the Guardian, "suggested to me that WikiLeaks was most valuable as a go-between that connected sources with journalists, and as a firewall that preserved sources' anonymity." It was a dump site for leaks that Assange then vetted before releasing to the public.
But, writes Snowden, this all changed, after Assange was excoriated following the "Collateral Murder" tape and other documents. According to Snowden,
For Snowden, and the explosive material he had in his possession regarding the infrastructure of the national (global) security apparatus, such a change could prove disastrous. He writes,
Due to the governmental backlash and media controversy surrounding the site's redaction of the Manning materials, WikiLeaks decided to change course and publish future leaks as they received them: pristine and unredacted. [p. 187]
I knew that the story the NSA documents told about a global system of mass surveillance deployed in the deepest secrecy was a difficult one to understand-a story so tangled and technical that I was increasingly convinced it could not be presented all at once in a "document dump," but only by the patient and careful work of journalists, undertaken, in the best scenario I could conceive of, with the support of multiple independent press institutions. [p.187]
This change from redactions to open dumps, given the likelihood of revealing names of operatives in the field, would, by so doing, ruin any chance that Snowden had of negotiating a return to the US eventually for what he has called "a fair trial."
It must have been tough for Snowden's thinking. His professed inspiration for becoming a whistleblower was his outrage and disappointment at the NYT's failure to publish a blockbuster story on STELLARWIND, the illegal dragnet collection of US citizens' phone records, that got quashed in October 2004, just before the presidential election, and after an editor had buddied up with Michael Hayden, head of the NSA. (This is all explained in great detail by the authors James Risen in an Intercept piece, "My Life as a New York Times Reporter in the Shadow of the War on Terror".)
So what we have here, aside from a failure to communicate, is the difference between a journalist and a whistleblower, along with the unique responsibilities of the public interest information each possesses. Here, Snowden clearly is taking the side of the critics of Wikileaks' dumps. There is a damned-if-you-do, damned-if-you-don't situation here. First, Assange had to deal with critics, especially government officials and their friends, who wondered in public who Assange thought he was to determine what to publish and what to redact - it seemed so politically motivated. Probably the most vocal well-known version of this charge came from Google's Eric Schmidt and Jared Cohen in their tome, The New Digital Age, where he writes,
Why is it Julian Assange, specifically, who gets to decide what information is relevant to the public interest? [And] what happens if the person who makes such decisions is willing to accept indisputable harm to innocents as a consequence of his disclosures? [p.42]
So Assange went knee-jerk, it seems, and maybe overreacted by going into the future with an open dump policy.
But the world must have seemed to be at war with him, after his Afghan Log leaks resulted in Hillary Clinton's State Department to arrange for a squeeze on donations to Wikileaks, including by Pierre Omidyar in December 2010, owner, ironically, of First Media, the investigative journalism venture he set up with Glenn Greenwald and Laura Poitrast to be a beacon for whistleblowers, and a solid alternative to the editorial controls of the MSM. As Greenwald and others have pointed out repeatedly since 2013, the MSM, which used Assange's leaks to generate countless stories, have seemingly turned their backs on him. Like Snowden, many journalists have fallen in behind the national security state propaganda machine - they tepidly back him as he faces extradition to the US for a show trial on Espionage Act charges, whose convictions could quash governmental whistleblowing in the future and criminalize their own reporting.
Even those who pretend to support his work have revealed secret agendas in their reporting. Here in Australia, for instance, Andrew Fowler, a journalist with the ABC, put out a book last year. The Most Dangerous Man in the World: Julian Assange and WikiLeaks' Fight for Freedom. He argues, generally, along the lines of most supporters and advocates for Julian. But in his book he reveals a tendency to take the National Security position on Assange's effect on the so-called War on Terror. For instance, Fowler records the CIA's response to the Wikileaks release of the Agency's Vault 7 hacking tools:
The documents provided an insight into the CIA's operations, according to security analysts, but they did not give away the organisation's key capabilities. Even so, the leak clearly rattled the agency. Sean Roche, the deputy director of digital innovation at the CIA, remembers the reaction from those inside the CIA. He said he got a call from another CIA director who was out of breath: 'It was the equivalent of a digital Pearl Harbor.' [my emphasis]
Nuh-unh. Fowler doesn't challenge this hyperbolic rhetoric.
A more serious incident occurred when a hacktivist disrupted NASA's Galileo October 1989 launch. Fowler writes, that the rocket was "powered by a plutonium engine-not the first time that nuclear fuel had been used to give missions extra reach." On the NASA control panels:
The obvious danger was that a crash or explosion could cause a dangerous irradiation cloud. Fowler quotes a breathless Ron Tencati, head of NASA cyber security,
The computers were telling their users-who were, by now, nearly hysterical-that all their confidential and top-secret files were being deleted. Each time the operator pushed the command button to retake control of the computer, the message 'Delete, Delete, Delete' showed up instead.
We had a shuttle on the launch pad about to launch that had plutonium energy canisters for its power source. If this blew up like the Challenger did, all of this plutonium was going to kill everybody in Florida,' he pointed out. [my emphasis]
Geez. You'd have thought CNN would have picked this one up.
Though no proof is offered, Fowler seems to go with the theory that Assange was responsible for this "electronic Pearl Harbour," either directly or as part of the Melbourne hacker group he belonged to at the time. Fowler seemingly implicates Assange in two words:
he is coy about the involvement of The International Subversives. No one knows who wrote the program for the worm, he maintains. [My emphasis.]
This calls in to question the meaning of the book's title, which suggests, on first glance, that Fowler is comparing Assange to Daniel Ellsberg, who had a similar label, but actually Fowler seems to show how Assange is evil, from a US government point of view - twice pushing Pearl Harbor events on Americans. If Fowler believes this, and he's a coy about it, then it would place Assange in terrorist territory, exactly what the US military wants to frame him as, but thus explosive information has never been divulged by the American MSM, as far as I know.
Ed has called Julian "self-interested and vain" (see above), but these qualities have also been leveled at Snowden and his "traitorous" ways. This is bullshit, of course. But IMHO it's also bullshit what Ed says about Assange. Maybe Ed's views have now evolved since 2019, when his most excellent Permanent Record was published. Losing hundreds of thousands of dollars for the bestseller - and potentially Pulitzer Prize-winning - because the government was angry at his revelations, may have deepened his already-worried concerns for the future of journalism. He hasn't said.
Snowden's are crucial public interest revelations - stuff in the US government going on so evil that he felt it a duty equivalent to the one he felt after 9/11 (when he joined the service) to fight it, and it was wise for his future to hand the documents over to Laura Poitrast, Glenn Greenwald, Barton Gellman, and Ian McEwan, and other journalists and keyed-in writers and advocates for a more transparent government, and his reasoning is sound. We salute him for this.
To me, Snowden's strong suit is his Paul Revere warning about the impending suffocation of privacy for global citizens everywhere, the rise of techno demigods who think they know better than voters who elect representatives of their policy desires (Ed's fear of this is palpable in PR). Whereas, Julian's strength is radical transparency of government. Obviously, their interests cross over but it's important to differentiate their boundaries.
Verax, Mendax, like two Marvel Comic characters who aren't on speaking terms; the Questions becomes: Will their differences reduce the effectiveness of the eternal, ever-vigilant fight for Truth, Justice and the American Way? By way of whistleblowing and published leaks. Or are they like Robert Redford and Paul Newman in Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, always carping and seemingly at cross-purposes, but wow! what a handsome dynamo pair when it came to fighting authoritarianism, even in Bolivia (although *spoiler* it doesn't end well for Butch and the Kid). And it's fun to think of Assange and Snowden on the loose in Equador together (Snowden was Equador-bound before he got hung up in Moscow). We loved the movie.
Let's rally for a different ending.