Michael Gurnow is a former literature and pre-law professor whose linguistic training was overseen by an active NSA language analyst. A noted environmentalist and film critic whose work Pulitzer-recipient Roger Ebert called “very admirable,” Gurnow’s award-winning writing—which spans such topics as national security, veterinary legislation, and overpopulation—has been translated, selected as Editor’s Choice, served as cover stories, included in college curriculum, and cited in newspapers and literary and law journals. His first book, THE EDWARD SNOWDEN AFFAIR, was an international bestseller, while his sophomore effort, NATURE’S HOUSEKEEPER, was dubbed “intellectually profound yet outrageously funny” by Chris Townsend, author of THE BACKPACKER’S HANDBOOK.
Michael Gurnow: It was due to a single article which, for me, was the journalistic straw that broke the camel’s back because it was unapologetically whitewashing that Snowden had gotten away.
Hours after news agencies across the globe started reporting Snowden had been granted asylum in Russia, CNN announced the U.S. would be—in an “unprecedented” move—closing 22 embassies and consulates on August 4. Two days later, the motive for the security precaution was unveiled. U.S. intelligence had intercepted a message by senior-level al Qaeda operatives which suggested a planned attack. CNN obliged the Obama administration’s request not to broadcast any further details concerning the matter due to “the sensitivity of the information.”
National Security Analyst Peter Bergen and Bailey Cahall, a research associate at the New America Foundation—where Bergen is a director—offered a reason for the heightened security alert in their op-ed CNN piece, “What’s behind the timing of the terror threat.” They stated it was the date, August 4, which—in the authors’ determination—is “seen by al Qaeda’s would-be martyrs as a particularly auspicious day to die.” This is because August 4 is when the holiest of holy days, Laylat al-Qadr or the “Night of Destiny” during Islam’s hallowed month, Ramadan, would take place in 2013. A photographic history of attacks by Islamic extremists accompanies the report. It includes attacks which took place on February 1, 2013; September 11, 2012; September 13, 2011; April 5, 2010; September 17, 2008; July 9, 2008; January 12, 2007; September 12, 2006; March 2, 2006; December 7, 2004; February 28, 2003; October 13, 2002; June 14, 2002; March 20, 2002; January 22, 2002; and August 6, 1998. Within the article, Bergen and Cahall add in 2000, during that year’s Night of Destiny, al Qaeda factions tried to bomb the USS The Sullivans on January 3 and failed. However, on October 12 of the same year, al Qaeda succeeded in destroying the USS Cole. The co-authors list the Riyadh U.S Embassy attack on May 12, 2003 as well as the violence that erupted at the Jeddah Consulate on December 6, 2004, which ended in what the CNN reporters catalog as five—which was actually nine—deaths. Their editorial also includes the first attempt to destroy the embassy in Yemen on March 18, 2008.
But there is a problem with the headline. Just one—one—of Bergen and Cahall’s 21 cited examples took place within the corresponding dates of Ramadan for the representative year: the September 17, 2008 attack upon the U.S. Embassy in Yemen. September 11, 2001 didn’t even occur within the confines of the Islamic holy month.
The answer as to why two noted experts on the Middle East, specifically al Qaeda, representing one of the world’s leading news sources produced such a highly suggestive, erroneous, and misleading report is found in CNN’s agreement not to provide further details about the alert: The U.S. government was wagging the dog. Instead of a media blackout, which prohibits specific topics from being broadcast or discussed in the news, the White House instigated a whiteout. The Obama administration hoped to suffocate Snowden-related headlines to distract from its failure to capture and try the American exile. Not only had three countries—Venezuela, Nicaragua, and Bolivia—implied the whistleblower’s actions were justifiable by granting him asylum, but Russia had taken a definitive stand by providing him a home.
Hedging on subjective, arguable details is one thing, deliberately maligning historic fact to distract audiences is a whole other matter. I felt morally obligated to throw my hat in the Snowden ring to help set the record straight.
Jennifer Williams: How do you think the U.S. Media covered this story versus the World Media?
Michael Gurnow: It is no secret that the American press and Washington are bedfellows. The most poignant example in recent memory is the Pulitzer-winning New York Times piece on wiretapping by James Risen and Eric Lichtblau:
Risen and Lichtblau wrote a story about the NSA’s warrantless wiretapping program for the Times in November 2004, but it did not appear until 13 months later on December 2005. This is because the White House had caught wind of it. The Bush administration requested it not be published for fear it might “jeopardize ongoing investigations.” Truth of the matter is, the administration asked for it to be held back because it was an election year. When the article finally premiered, the Times obliged the government’s request to omit various portions of the original report. The writers and newspaper were graciously rewarded for playing along: Risen and Lichblau won the Pulitzer Prize for National Reporting the following year. The day after the article made headlines, the Times Executive Editor, Bill Keller, admitted this was not the first time the newspaper had withheld a story due to federal pressure.
This is the reason Snowden first approached the British-based The Guardian, not the seemingly obvious choice, the Times, when deciding who would break the NSA scandal. It was only after Glenn Greenwald [his Guardian contact] balked at the invitation that the whistleblower approached Bart Gellman at the Washington Post, the paper that gave us Watergate. Still, history preceded itself: On July 1, even though the Post broke the first soon-to-be Pulitzer-winning pieces alongside The Guardian, the periodical’s editorial board—not Gellman—apologized for having printed the initial Snowden reports.
The world media, with the exception of The Independent—which was likewise being puppeteered by the British government, if not GCHQ [the British equivalent to the NSA]—had a free-for-all with the Snowden affair. Hong Kong presented regular, exclusive reports, as did Germany’s Der Spiegel, despite the latter being part of the UN.
Jennifer Williams: Coming on the heels of Wikileaks, is Snowden’s exposure of the NSA just the second leg in an overall bigger story to come?
Michael Gurnow: If such material was predictable, it wouldn’t be so alarming, so revelatory. Until now, the NSA had largely remained in the shadows since its inception in 1952, so it was reasonable to believe, especially since even its lower-level techs are being paid more than surgeons to keep their mouths shut, that no one would say anything.
Whistleblowing is the microcosmic equivalent to social protests: As Snowden himself outlined, the determining factor in whether to sound the alarm is the depth of one’s moral convictions. A person will tolerate X number of ethical indiscretions, moreso if large sums of money and personal security are at stake. However, in theory, everyone has an ethical breaking point, it is merely that some people’s thresholds are shallower than others, such as Snowden, Thomas Drake, and Bradley Manning. These individuals are less willing to put up with administrative corruption and more willing to place group safety before their own livelihood. In essence, they are moral pressure valves, a societal litmus as it were.
Whether there is a Phase 3 of government intelligence revelations depends on how much ethical compression is permitted to be built up as a result of legislators feigning interpretive ignorance of the Founding Fathers’ intent in respect to the Fourth Amendment, adhering to strict readings of the Constitution, and writing laws around it. Only time will tell.
Jennifer Williams: Your book fleshes out Edward Snowden in many ways that haven’t been presented to people here in the United States. For example, his involvement in the Swiss bank collapse. Was that intentional?
Michael Gurnow: Completely. When I started writing the book, there were many, many holes in the Snowden affair, and—at the time—the press was shooting from the hip because Gellman, Greenwald, and [documentarian Laura] Poitras were presenting groundbreaking work on a near-daily basis. It was because of the breakneck-pace that the general press wasn’t bothering to go back and put the pieces together. It simply didn’t have the time. I realized I could wait for the overall picture to emerge months, if not years, later, or I could try to do so myself.
The United States’ covert mission that ultimately brought down the Swiss bank Wegelin & Co. was a piece of the puzzle as well as part of the character profile of the central figure, so I included it in order for my readers to better understand the person and his motives for action, as well as how the U.S. government’s intelligence apparatus functions.
Jennifer Williams: How did writing The Edward Snowden Affair change or influence your perspective on government surveillance?
Michael Gurnow: I have a background in IT [information technology] and law and my linguistic training in graduate school was, ironically, overseen by an active NSA language analyst, but I was fortunate enough to have a team of experts looking over my shoulder throughout the writing process. One crackerjack techie quipped, “We all knew it was technically possible for this to be taking place, and most of us suspected it was, we merely needed proof.”
As a theorist—my undergraduate training was in philosophy—all I had were my suspicions but, having written on politics in the past, I had seen, and firmly believed in the adage, that power corrupts absolutely. Admittedly, the depth to which our government goes to gerrymander the semantics on law—case in point the creation of the term “metadata” and wrapping lose legislation around it because it was illegal to surveil “communications”—disappointed me immensely as an American. This was the legislative slight-of-hand other nations such as China and North Korea did, not the United States government. As for the revelation that Big Business is paid off by Big Government . . . that was old news, but its pervasive nature and scope in the matter was equally disheartening.
Jennifer Williams: Where does your book take the reader where other books haven’t previously?
Michael Gurnow: After providing a fuller biography and profile of Snowden, especially the formative period of his teenage years, The Edward Snowden Affair takes the first 62 disclosures and breaks down the legalese so anyone without a background in IT or law can understand what has and is taking place. In other words, my book gives the particulars in plain language that the others tend to skim or gloss over for the sake of brevity. I joke in the book that The Edward Snowden Affair is half the length of Crime and Punishment, which Snowden read while awaiting the asylum verdict in Sheremetyevo airport in Russia. I also take the piecemeal information scattered throughout the disclosures and pull the reader back so the individual can get a better, more comprehensive view of how the surveillance mechanism functions as a whole, something which we hadn’t been afforded as readers, at least to any satisfactory degree, previously.
Jennifer Williams: Do you think that the Snowden affair will go away anytime soon? Will he ever make it back to America?
Michael Gurnow: No. And it is due to one simple fact: The NSA assured us this wasn’t taking place yet was going to great lengths to watch us, and the world, behind closed doors. I’m specifically referring to use of the FISA [United States Foreign Intelligence Surveillance] court as a legal defense-cum-accomplice: “We [the NSA] got FISA clearance” which, in laymen’s terms, means the clandestine court was rubberstamping every surveillance investigation, rubberstamps which, as a Top Secret governing body, the people weren’t allowed to know about. This means it was doing so with impunity because there was no accountability whatsoever. None. But even with this, the NSA hid programs from the Court and Senate Intelligence Committee, in particular knowledge of the Boundless Informant program, so to assume the NSA has ceased its privacy violations or isn’t continuing to do business as usual is naïve.
And, no, Snowden won’t be back unless somewhere down the line he is given impunity, which I find unlikely—there is too much egg on the U.S. government’s face for it to forget this any time soon. The Snowden affair is the NSA’s Watergate scandal. But the most important factor why he won’t be welcomed back with open arms is that too much money is being doled out by the defense industry for ethics to trump the steady, ever-present cash flow. Mass surveillance is a constant revenue stream for the government because it is a billion-dollar private industry in-and-of itself. We have to remember, Snowden didn’t work for the NSA when he fled the U.S., he was employed by an NSA contractor.
Jennifer Williams: After having done so much research and writing on this subject, what do you think American citizens should keep an eye out for in the future?
Michael Gurnow: Biometrics. Accepting that encryption is now obsolete because Internet firms’ encryption keys are legally coerced, bought, or outright stolen through hacks or social engineering, say nothing of the new NSA supercomputer Titan peeling back code like a candy wrapper, we can still attempt to retain our privacy using Live CDs, VPNs [virtual private networks], anonymous browsers, etc., but we can’t change our fingerprints, walking gaits, iris patterns, and facial physiologies nearly as easily.
I outline in the book that former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton signed executive orders in 2009 to move research in this arena forward. If, or rather, when biometrics become as commonplace as cell phones, there is no hope for privacy. We’ll go from being in Orwell’s Nineteen-Eighty Four to a Philip K. Dick novel. And, as we are currently witnessing, the government won’t have to sneak them in under the veil of night or convince us that biometrics are being implemented in our best interest: They will be presented as recreational as well as time- and energy-saving devices which we, as consumers, will willfully fund out of our own pockets.
Jennifer Williams: How do you feel our country’s political establishment reacted to the story versus the non-establishment?
Michael Gurnow: Poorly in regards to being a representative democracy; perfectly if we are willing to label it a corporatocracy. History equivocally shows how the political establishment responded: Our lawmakers asked to see the money or, rather, were reminded where the money had already been put in place in case of such a contingency—their pockets.
The Amash Amendment, which would have reined in the government’s blanket collection of telephone records, was defeated 205 – 217. Ninety-four Republicans and 111 Democrats voted in favor, 134 Republicans and 83 Democrats had been against the legislation. Ironically, the father of modern-day surveillance and author of the PATRIOT Act, James Sensenbrenner, voted for Amash’s law. He said he had done so because, “The time has come to stop it.” Since a majority of Democrats supported the amendment, it would have likely passed in the Democrat-led Senate at the time. A look behind the campaign contribution curtain reveals the puppet strings: The 217 “nay” voices received 122 percent more money from the intelligence and defense industries than the 205 “yea” voters.
The non-establishment’s reaction was clear: The people weren’t willing to humor the “why,” say nothing of playing along. There were global protests, rallies, and calls-to-action, yet with the Amash Amendment, we see how well the government respected and obliged the people’s will and, moreover, Capitol Hill couldn’t claim that it didn’t know what that will was: The White House promises to address any petition that obtains 100,000 signatures in 30 days or less. A month prior to the Amash vote, a formal online appeal for “a full, free, and absolute pardon for any crimes he [Snowden] has committed or may have committed related to blowing the whistle on secret NSA surveillance programs” had garnered the requisite number of autographs in half the required time. Although the petition dealt with Snowden and not the government’s surveillance practices per se, the people wanting the messenger to be given quarter instead of being shot made their stance on the issue more than crystal clear.
This is why I found the Senate recently turning Red somewhat surprising: When the NSA debacle started making headlines, conservative voters were frightened that Obama was watching them and, indeed, he had strengthened much of the surveillance apparatus upon entering office, but it was clear with Amash that the president’s party wasn’t supporting this, or him, in the matter—the Right was. This is somewhat understandable given liberals’ emphasis upon, and the Democratic platform built around, civil liberties, especially when it is placed alongside Republicans’ vested interest in a strong military and national defense, of which intelligence plays a large part. So what did the concerned voters do? They elected more individuals in favor of government surveillance. When we cast these votes, we brought Tomorrow one step closer to Today because we essentially wrote a blank check to fund biometric R & D [research and development].
Jennifer Williams: What was your process for writing The Edward Snowden Affair? How long did it take to write?
Michael Gurnow: The Edward Snowden Affair took 81 days to write. I started a few days after the Bergen/Cahall article debuted and finished shortly before Halloween. As an investigative journalist and for obvious reasons, I’d rather forgo discussion of my research methodology but, suffice it to say, I was in contact with people—such as Philip Dorling—who were in possession of the Snowden files. Without them, the book would have never been written.
Jennifer Williams: What are you working on now?
Michael Gurnow: I have finished a series of environmental comedies, the first of which, Nature’s Housekeeper, is due to hit shelves on May 15. I am midway through a book on evolutionary psychology, but had to stop recently because I’ve been asked to do a treatment for an upcoming television project.