A Letter to an Unknown Whistleblower in the Age of Blowback

Tom Engelhardt's latest book, Shadow Government, does more than look back at the road we have so destructively traveled since 2001, but also looks forward at how the world we continue to build for ourselves, including the fortress that is the national security state, will shape those who grow up within it. (Cover detail: Haymarket Books)

A Letter to an Unknown Whistleblower in the Age of Blowback

Note: The following is excerpted from Tom Engelhardt's just-published book, Shadow Government: Surveillance, Secret Wars, and a Global Security State in a Single-Superpower World, with a foreword by Glenn Greenwald. It appears here on Common Dreams with kind permision from the publisher, Haymarket Books. Copyright 2014 Tom Engelhardt. All rights reserved.

Dear Whistleblower,

Note: The following is excerpted from Tom Engelhardt's just-published book, Shadow Government: Surveillance, Secret Wars, and a Global Security State in a Single-Superpower World, with a foreword by Glenn Greenwald. It appears here on Common Dreams with kind permision from the publisher, Haymarket Books. Copyright 2014 Tom Engelhardt. All rights reserved.

Dear Whistleblower,

I don't know who you are or what you do or how old you maybe.I just know that you exist somewhere in our future as surely as does tomorrow or next year. You may be young and computer-savvy or a career federal employee well along in years. You might be someone who entered government service filled with idealism or who signed on to "the bureaucracy" just to make a living. You may be a libertarian, a closet left-winger, or as mainstream and down-the-center as it's possible to be.

I don't know much, but I know one thing that you may not yet know yourself. I know that you're there. I know that, just as Edward Snowden and Chelsea Manning did, you will, for reasons of your own, feel compelled to take radical action, to put yourself in danger. When the time comes, you will know that this is what you must do, that this is why you find yourself where you are, and then you're going to tell us plenty that has been kept from us about how our government really operates. You are going to shock us to the core.

And how exactly do I know this? Because despite our striking inability to predict the future, it's a no-brainer that the national security state is already building you into its labyrinthine systems. In the urge of its officials to control all of us and every situation, in their mania for all-encompassing secrecy, in their classification not just of the millions of documents they generate, but essentially all of their operations as "secret" or "top secret," in their all-encompassing urge to shut off the most essential workings of the government from the eyes of its citizenry, in their escalating urge to punish anyone who would bring their secret activities to light, in their urge to see or read or listen in on or peer into the lives of you (every "you" on the planet), in their urge to build a global surveillance state and a military that will dominate everything in or out of its path, in their urge to drop bombs on Pakistan and fire missiles at Syria, in their urge to be able to assassinate just about anyone just about anywhere robotically, they are birthing you.

For every action, a reaction. So they say, no?

Give our national security managers credit, though: they may prove to be the master builders of the early twenty-first century. Their ambitions have been breathtaking and their ability to commandeer staggering amounts of our taxpayer dollars to pay for those projects hardly less so. Their monuments to themselves, their version of pyramids and ziggurats--like the vast data storage center the NSA is building in Bluffdale, Utah, to keep a yottabyte of private information about all of us, or the new post-9/11 headquarters of the National Geospatial-Intelligence Agency--are in their own way unique. In their urge to control everything, to see everything from your Facebook chatter to the emails of the Brazilian president, they are creating a system built to blowback, and not just from the outside or distant lands. Chalmers Johnson, who took "blowback," an obscure term of CIA tradecraft, and embedded it in our everyday language, would have instantly recognized what they're doing: creating a blowback machine whose "unintended consequences" (another term of his) are guaranteed, like the effects of the Snowden revelations, to stun us all in a myriad of ways.

They have built their system so elaborately, so expansively, and their ambitions have been so grandiose that they have had no choice but to embed you in their developing global security state, deep in the entrails of their secret world--tens of thousands of possible yous, in fact. Yous galore, all of whom see some part, some corner, of the world that is curtained off from the rest of us. And because they have built using the power of tomorrow, they have created a situation in which the prospective whistleblower, the leaker of tomorrow, has access not just to a few pieces of paper but to files beyond imagination. They, not you, have prepared the way for future mass document dumps, for staggering releases, of a sort that once upon time in a far more modest system based largely on paper would have been inconceivable.

They have, that is, paved the way for everything that you are one day guaranteed to do. Worse yet (for them), they have created a world populated with tens of thousands of people, often young, often nomadic in job terms, and often with remarkable computer skills who have access to parts of their vast system, to unknown numbers of secret programs and documents, and the many things from phone calls to emails to credit card transactions to social media interactions to biometric data that they so helpfully store away.

And it doesn't matter what they, in their post-Snowden panic, may do to try to prevent you from accessing their system. None of the new rules and programs they are installing to prevent the next Edward Snowden or Chelsea Manning from collecting anything right down to the na- tional security equivalent of the kitchen sink will stop you. After all, you may even be one of the ones they have chosen to install those safeguards, to put those measures in place. You may be one of the ones they have specially trained in the intricacies and failsafe mechanisms of their system.

And here's the uncanny thing about you: just doing what comes naturally, you will overcome any measures they try to install and make a mockery of any measures or training programs they put in place to help your coworkers spot you. Almost by definition, they won't be able to find you until it's too late. You'll display none of the traits that someone about to betray their world should exhibit. And no wonder, since you'll be one of the many recognizable cogs in their machinery until almost the moment--already too late in the game for them--when you aren't.

You are, in that sense, the perfect double agent. Until you, in essence, become a spy for the American people, for the old democratic system in which government was the people's property and those we elect were supposed to let us know what they were doing in our name, you aren't just masquerading as one of them, you are one of them.

I have no way of knowing what will first strike you as wrong. I just know that something will. It might be very specific and close at hand--something amiss you see in the program you're working on, some outrageous expenditure of money or set of lies about what an agency or outfit is doing, or some act or set of acts that you, while growing up, had been taught were un-American. The possibilities are legion. After all, the national security state that they've built and engorged with taxpayer dollars, using fear and the excuse of American "safety," has dispatched armies and special operations forces and drones all over the world to commit mayhem and increase global instability, to kill civilians, wipe out wedding parties, kidnap and torture the innocent, assassinate by robot, and so on.

Or maybe it all just sneaks up on you, the wrongness of it. Maybe, even if you're too young to remember the totalitarian states of the previous century, something about the urge of our national security managers to create total systems of control, trump the law, and do as they please in the name of their need for knowledge will simply get under your skin. You'll know that this isn't the way it was supposed to be.

At some point, it will just creep you out, and even though until that moment you didn't know it, you'll be ready. They won't be able to avoid you. They won't be able to eliminate you. They won't even be able to find you.You are , after all, part of their landscape, like the grass on the hillside or the steps to a house.

Manning and Snowden were the first harbingers of the new world of whistleblowing. Snowden learned from Manning and other whistleblowers who preceded him and were persecuted by the state. You will learn from all of them. Each was a small tornado-like version of the blowback machine they are still in the process of creating. Each changed how the world looks at America and how many of us look at ourselves. Each put in place some small part of the foundation for a world in which such a blowback machine would not be the creation of choice for those with the money and power to build monuments to themselves. Each was a raging embarrassment, a dent in the amour propre of the national security state. Each was an insult to its ability to control much of anything, including itself.

Those running the government and many who write about you in the mainstream will revile you. You will be denounced as a traitor, a defector, a criminal, and your acts called treasonous, even if you're one of the last hopes of the American republic. Right now, those like you are sure to be prosecuted, jailed, or chased implacably across the planet. But this won't last forever. Someday, your country will recognize what you did--first of all for yourself, for your own sense of what's decent and right in this world, and then for us--as the acts of an upright and even heroic American. In the meantime, just remember: the national security state is a giant blowback machine and you, whoever you are, will be part of the remedy to it.

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