Thursday, December 17, 2015

Open to Inspection

Life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness in the age of surveillance.   

Even if the spy, Allen Dulles, should arrive in heaven through somebody’s absentmindedness, he would begin to blow up the clouds, mine the stars, and slaughter the angels.
—Ilya Ehrenburg

I cannot think that espionage can be recommended as a technique for building an impressive civilization. It’s a lout’s game.
—Rebecca West 

By now it goes without saying or objection in most quarters of a once freedom-loving and democratic society that our lives, liberties, and pursuits of happiness are closely monitored by a paranoid surveillance apparatus possessed of the fond hopes and great expectations embedded in the fifteenth-century Spanish Inquisition. Our local fire departments don’t grant permits for burnings at the stake, but our federal intelligence agencies (seventeen at last count, staffed by more than 100,000 inquisitors petty and grand) make no secret of their missionary zeal.

Four months after the fall of the World Trade Center and President George W. Bush’s preaching of holy crusade against all the world’s evil, the Pentagon established an Information Awareness Office, adopting as an emblem for its letterhead and baseball cap the all-seeing eye of God. Under orders to secure the American future against the blasphemy of terrorist attack, the IAO’s director, Rear Admiral John Poindexter, presented plans for programming its hydra-headed computer screens and databanks to spot incoming slings and arrows of outrageous fortune well in advance of their ETA overhead the Washington Monument or Plymouth Rock—to conduct “truth maintenance” and deploy “market-based techniques for avoiding surprises”; to defeat and classify every once and future hound from hell on a near or far horizon; no envelope or email left unopened, no phone untapped, no suspicious beard or suitcase descending unnoticed from cruise ship or Toyota.

Thirteen years further along the roads to perdition, the dream of a risk-free future under the digital umbrellas of protective fantasy is the stuff of which our wars and movies now are made, the thousand natural shocks to which the flesh is heir, projected day and night on the hundred million screens that text and shred our collective consciousness, herd our public and private lives—the latter no longer distinguishable from the former—into the shelters of heavy law enforcement and harmless speech.

This issue of Lapham’s Quarterly looks for the when and why did the lout’s game of espionage become the saving grace that makes cowards of us all. I’m familiar with at least some of the story because I’m old enough to remember the provincial and easygoing American republic of the 1940s—wisecracking, open-hearted, not so scared of the undiscovered country from whose bourn no traveler returns. I also can remember the days when people weren’t afraid of cigarette smoke and saturated fats, when it was possible to apply for a job without submitting a blood or urine test, when civil liberty was a constitutional right and not a political favor, the White House unprotected by concrete revetments, and it was possible to walk the streets of New York without making a series of cameo appearances on surveillance camera. (...)

Reports of the CIA’s blunders tend to show up on the record well after the fact. I’ve been reading them with interest over the past fifty years, but they don’t come as a surprise. Long ago and in another country, America in 1957, I sought enlistment in the CIA and sat for an interview with a credentials committee ordained by God and country and Allen Dulles. From that day forward I’ve never doubted the agency’s talent for making a mess of almost any operation, overt or covert, beyond its capacity to perform.

In 1957 I was recently returned from a year at Cambridge University in England, where I had come to know several students who in October 1956 went to Budapest to join the uprising against the regime holding Hungary hostage to communist domination. Two of the young men died in the street fighting, and I didn’t need to be told by General Eisenhower that the communist hordes were at the gate of Western civilization. In my last year at Yale I had been tipped to the agency by an English professor (Shakespeare scholar, Tyrolean hat, former OSS), who passed on a phone number to call if I was prepared to take a shot at the dark. At the age of twenty-two I was willing to leave at once, preferably at night, with trench coat and code name, on the next train to Berlin.

In Washington the written, physical, and psychological examinations occupied the better part of a week before I was summoned to an interview with five operatives in their late twenties, all of them graduates of Yale and not unlike President George W. Bush in appearance and manner. The interview took place in a Quonset hut near the Lincoln Memorial. The design of the building imparted an air of urgent military purpose, as did the muted, offhand bravado of the young men asking the questions. Very pleased with themselves, they exchanged knowing nods to “that damned thing in Laos,” allowed me to understand that we were talking life and death, whether I had the right stuff to play for the varsity team in the big game against the Russians.

Prepared for nothing less, I had spent the days prior to the interview reading about Lenin’s train and Stalin’s prisons, the width of the Fulda Gap, the depth of the Black Sea. None of the study was called for. Instead of being asked about the treaties of Brest-Litovsk or the October Revolution, I was asked three questions bearing on my social qualifications for admission into what the young men at the far end of the table clearly regarded as the best fraternity on the campus of the free world:

1. When standing on the thirteenth tee at the National Golf Links in Southampton, which club does one take from the bag?

2. On final approach under sail into Hay Harbor on Fishers Island, what is the direction (at dusk in late August) of the prevailing wind?

3. Does Muffy Hamilton wear a slip?

The first and second questions I answered correctly, but Muffy Hamilton I knew only at a distance. In the middle 1950s she was a glamorous figure on the Ivy League weekend circuit, very beautiful and very rich, much admired for the indiscriminate fervor of her sexual enthusiasms. At the Fence Club in New Haven I had handed her a glass of brandy and milk (known to be her preferred drink by college football captains in five states) but about the mysteries of her underwear my sources were unreliable, my information limited to rumors of Belgian lace.

The three questions, however, put an end to my interest in the CIA. The smug complacence of my examiners was as smooth as their matching silk handkerchiefs and ties. When I excused myself from the interview (apologizing for having misread the job description and wasted everybody’s quality time) I remember being frightened by the presence of so much self-glorifying certainty and primogeniture crowded into so small a room. Here were people like Woodrow Wilson before them, after them Vice President Dick Cheney and Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld, who knew more about what was good for the world than the world—poor, lost, unhappy, un-American world—had managed to learn on its own. Even at the age of twenty-two I was old enough to recognize the attitude as not well positioned for intelligence gathering. It was better suited to the projection of monsters on the screens of deluded fantasy than to their destruction in a forest or a swamp.

by Lewis Lapham, Lapham's Quarterly |  Read more:
Image: Sir Frances Walsingham, attributed to John de Critz the Elder, c. 1585