06.13.2013 1

What’s Orwell Got to do with the NSA Leak?

By Geoff Watkinson

According to NPR, on the morning of June 11, “Amazon sales of George Orwell’s dystopian novel 1984 had jumped 6,021 percent in just 24 hours, to No. 213 on Amazon’s bestseller list.”

Some may think that this is American paranoia. Some may think that “Big Brother” isn’t applicable here.  Some may think that what the NSA has been doing since 2007, and continues to do—in apparent conjunction with all three branches of the American government—is necessary because we’re fighting a “War on Terror.”

Is it?

We’ve been fighting this War on Terror—this war on a perpetually changing idea—for over a decade, and we will continue to fight.  But just because the War on Terror continues to be redefined, does this mean that the Constitution should also continue to be redefined?

How much does each American have to sacrifice to fight such a war, if such a war must be fought?  How much privacy must each American be willing to relinquish?  How much power?

At the end of Nineteen-Eighty-Four, Winston Smith’s torturer, O’Brien, tells Winston, “But always—do not forget this, Winston—always there will be the intoxication of power, constantly increasing and constantly growing subtler.  Always, at every moment, there will be the thrill of victory, the sensation of trampling on an enemy who is helpless.  If you want a picture of the future, imagine a boot stamping on a human face—forever.”

As we’ve come to realize in the past few days, subtlety is what we must fear.  Fifteen years ago, the type of surveillance we’re now aware is taking place would have been enough to cause widespread protests.  Marches on the Capitol.  Rallies.

But then 9/11 happened.  And many Americans watched, relatively passively from the sidelines, as domestic and international security policy transformed into a more extreme form.

We haven’t reached the future that O’Brien warns Winston and all of us about.  Not yet.  Not in America.  But we know it can be reached.

As the late Christopher Hitchens acknowledged in “Worse Than Nineteen Eighty-Four,” a 2005 essay for Slate, “Actually, North Korea is rather worse than Orwell’s dystopia.  There would be no way, in the capital city of Pyongyang, to wander off and get lost in the slums, let alone to rent an off-the-record love nest in a room over a shot.  Everybody has to be at home and in bed by curfew time, when all the lights go off (if they haven’t already failed).”

Since Hitchens wrote the essay, we’ve become only more aware of North Korea’s policies.  Nineteen Eighty-Four may be a useful comparison to that country.  Both serve as useful warnings to us.

But could we get there?

By now, many Americans are aware that construction of a 1.5 million square foot top secret facility in Utah is being completed (the cost of which is $1.2 billion).  The facility will open in September of this year.

Wired Magazine reported on May 12 that the purpose of the Utah facility is as follows: “to intercept, decipher, analyze, and store vast swaths of the world’s communications as they zap down from satellites and zip through the underground and undersea cables of international, foreign, and domestic networks.”

NPR, on June 11, reported that the purpose of the Utah facility is to create a “data farm that will begin harvesting emails, phone records, text messages and other electronic data.”

And yet, last summer, when a reporter asked NSA Director Gen. Keith Alexander whether the Utah center will hold the data of American citizens, he said the following: “No. While I can’t go into all the details of the Utah Data Center, we don’t hold data on U.S. citizens.”

Clearly, this is not true.  Mr. Alexander is in hot water.

Director of National Intelligence James Clapper, who, when asked in March whether the NSA collects any type of data at all on millions or hundreds of millions of Americans, stated, “Not wittingly. There are cases where they could, inadvertently perhaps, collect—but not wittingly.”

Mr. Clapper can join Mr. Alexander in the Jacuzzi.

Let us all consider O’Brien’s torturous words at the end of Orwell’s novel: “The more the Party is powerful, the less it will be tolerant; the weaker the opposition, the tighter the despotism.”

Geoff Watkinson is the managing editor of two literary magazines.  Find him at geoffwatkinson.com.

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