Two horrifying finds from the jail library: a volume by Glenn Beck entitled Being George Washington, plus Stories I Only Tell My Friends, which, I swear to God, appears to be the autobiography of Rob Lowe.
Someone sent me a copy of No Place to Hide, Glenn Greenwald’s new book on Snowden and the NSA/Five Eyes revelations. I’ve already said my piece on this matter in an op-ed for The Guardian, the gist of which was basically “I told you so,” except somehow stretched out to 800 words and interspersed with gratuitous attacks on my various personal enemies. But I hadn’t yet seen the actual leaked PowerPoint briefing slides for each particular program, many of which are reproduced in the book. Taken as a whole, they paint a disturbing picture of an extra-legal international surveillance regime drawing upon the near-unlimited financial resources and coercive prerogatives of five major Western governments but which is nonetheless apparently incapable of producing a PowerPoint presentation that doesn’t look like a piece of shit.
Consider first the tutorial slide produced by the U.K.’s GCHQ spy agency in which agents are instructed as to how they might obtain private photographs from the Facebook accounts of potential subversives. The diagram starts with a poorly rendered smiley face labeled “Target,” from which we are then directed by way of a little arrow to the next step, labeled with a dash of technojargon and visually signified in this case by what seems to be the result of an emotionally disturbed person’s attempt to draw a cloud. Next we are guided to the GCHQ’s own rather low-concept logo — from which one gathers that the agency originally intended to disguise itself as a mid-20th-century Brooklyn pawn shop — and then on to another icon, this one being for the relevant in-house privacy violation program and which is so ugly that I choose not to even attempt to describe it. From there we are led arrow-wise to yet another image labeled “Profile image of target,” which signifies the individual whose privacy is to be imposed upon by unaccountable Britishers in the name of their German-blooded queen (and which is represented, inexplicably, by the promotional logo for the original Godfather film), and then finally to the last icon, a duplicate of the original smiley face, which is this time labeled “Analyst,” the “Analyst” being, one supposes, the ultimate end-user for whom all online content is now truly intended.
Perhaps it isn’t terribly surprising that today’s British spies lack an aesthetic sense; it was just a few years ago that the world made the mistake of allowing Londoners to design their very own Olympic logo, the release of which proved that the Anglo-Saxon race suffers from hereditary colorblindness, among other things. But one expects better from America, where the design and sale of logos replaced manufacturing as the nation’s chief economic driver long ago. Back in 2003, for instance, when the Pentagon unveiled its new Total Information Awareness division, you could tell that a great deal of care had gone into the logo, which depicted the Eye of the Pyramid from the Great Seal shooting forth a sort of Kabalistic omniscience ray that consumed the whole planet, all adorned with a Latin tag translating to “Knowledge is Power.” It was sleek. It was sinister. And, coupled with the announcement that the agency would be headed by Admiral Poindexter, a man best known for his involvement in a Reagan-era criminal scheme to subvert the Constitution, it was a refreshingly honest expression of the military-industrial complex’s profound contempt for the American citizenry. One also has to admire the restraint and good taste they showed in not simply making the logo an extended middle finger.
Things seem to have gone downhill since then. One NSA slide details a program called BLARNEY by which the agency pressures such U.S. corporate vassals as AT&T into assisting with the illicit surveillance of their customers. Seeing this for the first time, I had a flash of inspiration. The reader may recall how the ACLU kept trying to sue the NSA for the bulk warrantless wiretapping of American citizens, including presumably those American citizens who work for the ACLU, but the courts wouldn’t grant them standing to launch the suit since all of that was classified and thus couldn’t be revealed in court. What the ACLU needs to do now is track down whoever it is whose homemade St. Patrick’s Day block party invitations the NSA ripped off to get this BLARNEY logo and have them sue for copyright infringement.
Meanwhile, some sick son of a bitch is apparently running around the NSA offices telling people that project slide headlines treated with both italics and the underline function take on a particular air of gravitas.
It’s a fine thing that I spent much of 2011 and 2012 researching the cyber-industrial complex and its various government-affiliated intelligence contractors; otherwise I would have been unprepared for the extraordinary violence against accepted English grammar and usage on display in these slides, each of which constitutes its own self-contained nightmare realm of surreal capitalization choices and wildly inconsistent punctuation. If, as they say, the U.S. and U.K. are two countries divided by a common language, then the NSA and the GCHQ are two agencies united by a common inability to figure out where the fuck it is that an apostrophe goes. Here, see how far you can make it into the following “sentence” from a report on the British program Thieving Magpie before you rip out your eyes and swallow them whole:
“If they use data, we can also recover email address’s, Facebook Ids, Skype addresses etc”
Set aside for a moment the fumbling with “etc” and “Facebook Ids” (but what of LinkedIn Superegos? Was this a — wait for it — Freudian slip?). I’ve always wondered what goes on inside the head of someone like this when he finds himself confronted with the no doubt alarming task of writing English prose and suddenly realizes that it will soon become necessary to deploy a plural noun. What is it that makes such a person panic and start reaching for the punctuation marks? What’s truly remarkable in this instance is how, not five words after rendering the plural of “address” as “address’s,” this particular fellow suddenly changes his mind and decides, correctly, that the word he’s looking for is actually “addresses.” This is rather ominous; it’s almost as if these “Analysts” are capable of learning, like those intelligent sharks from the film Deep Blue Sea. In all seriousness, though, it’s more likely that this person sincerely believes both forms to be correct, and that “e-mail address’s” actually follows different rules than does “Skype addresses,” all in accordance with whatever quantum grammar it is that we’re dealing with here. Here’s one more gem from the same presentation: “At least British Airways are restricting the service to data and SMS only.”
If this sort of thing is going on behind closed doors in the Land of Chaucer and Disraeli, simply imagine what top-secret textual tragedies must be occurring each and every day here in the Land of Koontz and Palin. Will anyone be amazed to learn at this point that the NSA/SIGINT National Intelligence Officer for Science and Technology operates under the novel theory that a contraction requires a gap to be inserted after the apostrophe, and that we are thus treated in the space of a mere two slides to such incredible specimens as “you’ re,” “doesn’ t,” “let’ s,” and “what’ s”? Nor does this “well trained scientist and hacker,” as he describes himself in the introduction to his presentation, seem to suspect the existence of any such thing as a hyphen. It’s a shame he can’t hack his way into the Chicago Manual of Style, but I suppose the FBI can snag him a copy next time they raid a journalist.
Of course, it’s been obvious for nearly a century now that the English-speaking world was on course to fall under the sway of some sort of amoral and quasi-literate technician caste, but it’s still jarring to actually see such a thing in action.
Bible Verse of the Day: Song of Solomon 4:5
“Your two breasts are like two fawns
twins of a gazelle
that graze among the lilies”
[Editor's note: Barrett Brown has been incarcerated for more than a year. He is being held in a federal detention facility in Seagoville, Texas. This is the eighth installment of The Barrett Brown Review of Arts and Letters and Jail. Go here to read earlier installments. Go here if you'd like to send him a book or put some money in his commissary account. He is inmate 45047-177. Go here to contribute to his legal defense fund and learn more about the charges against him.]