“In other news, the First Amendment was pronounced dead today during a routine surgery. The cause of death will remain classified until 2113 but sources close to Dr. Obama’s surgical team reveal that it happened during a botched lobotomy. Other portions of the Bill of Rights are scheduled for similar surgeries during the fall legislative session.” (117)
The first title to be published from The Mockingbird, an alternative media outlet based in Columbus, concerns the expansion of domestic and international surveillance intersecting with an increasingly paranoid and authoritarian approach to national security. The cover style could almost be mistaken for dystopian sci-fi, but the content makes it quite clear that we are in the realm of the real. Like a passionate well-read friend, it screams “you really need to know about this”, with Volume I already letting you know there’s more where that came from.
Front and center is a depiction of the Five Eyes, a supra-national intelligence alliance comprised of organizations within the United States, Canada, Australia, New Zealand and the United Kingdom, whilst the back provides details on the author along with his enigmatic image, recognizable to readers of the Mockingbird and the Leveller.
“For me Edward Snowden did not reveal. Edward Snowden confirmed”
The book is a collection of Bello’s reporting over the last three years with the content split into seven chapters, concerning whistleblowers, hacktivists and journalists; military generals; congressional oversight and its failures; secretive surveillance courts; state secrets; the imprisonment of journalists overseas; torture; data collection processes, social media and private companies.
The tone taken in the introduction is humble, privileging openness and approachability for a readership that may be more or less familiar with the subject, whilst providing necessary detail to sketch out the book’s direction.
From the outset, Bello is up front about the book’s origins, starting with his time at Columbus Free Press as a human rights reporter with the “basic problem of where to start.” The publication of what would later be termed the ‘Snowden revelations’ made already existing lines of inquiry more pressing, birthing the articles that would later form this book. In Bello’s words:
“Years of study, thought and quiet theoretical development with a few friends had placed me exactly where I need to be. For me Edward Snowden did not reveal. Edward Snowden confirmed.”
The overarching focus is on Bello’s conception of the netwar. At its core this concerns “information-related conflict at a grand level between nations or societies…” and involves “trying to disrupt or damage what a target population knows or thinks it knows about itself and the world around it.” It takes its focus beyond the specific programs used to collect data (for which readers should look to Glenn Greenwald’s ‘No Place to Hide’) and examines the broader apparatus used to influence public opinion around surveillance activity and silence those who struggle, often at great risk and cost to raise public awareness.
Bello never forgets to follow the money
Readers may already be familiar with two key aspects, one – the use of ‘anonymous government officials’ in reports surrounding surveillance and terrorism, which provides a means to smoothly pass government narratives into the public domain and two – the appeal to ‘national security’ that is used to justify the secrecy of activity not just within national borders but in broader coalitions such as the Five Eyes. Often, the actions taken to silence opposition comes in the form of naked displays of power, such as in the destruction of Guardian property said to contain files provided by Snowden:
“The mighty ax-wielding hard drive slayers were really in the Guardian’s basement smashing Macbook Pro’s because they could, and to show some journalists what big tough ax-wielding fascists they could be.” (35) This was despite it being clear “to the whole world that O Globo in Brazil, Der Spiegel in Germany, the Washington Post in the US and the Guardian’s US operation had at least some portions of the Snowden files.” (35)
Bello examines how CIA officials, military generals, members of Congress, secretive courts, the Obama administration and private sector companies including Google exist in a complex network of shifting relationships. It is this complex network and the misinformation tactics used that makes understanding the scale of the netwar so difficult. Bello’s detailed, haystack-sifting journalistic style has however made this understanding more readily available, and never forgets to follow the money.
Bringing together seemingly disparate aspects of information warfare will make the means to oppose it clearer
While dotted with humor that is sometimes critically sharp, sometimes soothing and at other times more outraged at particular individuals’ and institutions’ activities, the articles within My Netwar Diaries provide the detail needed to arrive at one’s own conclusions. Although Bello is thoroughly committed to the narrative of the netwar, it is not pushed onto the reader as the single interpretation but one that he has arrived at through careful consideration and reporting, and which he suggests as a sensible framework of understanding.
The introduction’s forceful indignation at the ruling class might draw criticism from liberals of simplification based on an ‘us-vs-them’ narrative, but Bello’s ability to combine his investigative style across a number of lines of inquiry with a sensitivity to their broader implications makes the framing of the Netwar compelling. By dissecting what at the surface seem separate events and issues, Bello shows how there are often intricate and tough-to expose linkages between them.
The timing of this book is vital given the risk of losing hope in light of the small changes that have come despite the bravery of Wikileaks, the American Civil Liberties Union, members of Anonymous, people like Chelsea Manning and Edward Snowden and many more who have made the choice to report critically on the issue of government surveillance and military expansion overseas.
This writer’s hope is that this book, in bringing together seemingly disparate aspects of information warfare, will make the means to oppose it clearer. Before this is possible, Bello rightly acknowledges the need for a populace that stays woke and is equipped to see through promises that certain measures are in the ‘national interest’ and for their protection, and to realize that the reality is often quite different. His hope is that My Netwar Diaries goes some way in providing the tools needed by the reader to understand which side they are on and what they can do to stop those who would rather the Constitution and basic human rights were a set of loose guiding principles rather than a fundamental building block for a just society.
Image: Akos Kokal
Gerry Bello is a regular contributor to The Leveller. His new book can be purchased here.