“The price of eternal vigilance is indifference.”
- Marshall McLuhan, "Understanding Media" (1963)
“I am most myself in the place where I am not.” - Baudelaire
The phone line between the two women emptied after their greeting, for a moment, leaving a devouring silence.
“So you saw the paper this morning?”
“Sadly, yes. Where do these so-called experts get off, exactly?
“It seems a concern related to basic due process
“A question of process
? Really? What planet do these bleeding heart
proles occupy? At a global level, on a mass scale, we are confronting a threat of viral intensity. Illiterate fanatics from the most blighted corners of the earth. Persons unlikely to be able to spell constitutional
, let alone enunciate a claim to rights flowing from such a model. What they can do, however, is blow cars into shrapnel amid crowded markets, slit the throats of our servicemen and women, broadcast torture and decapitation in gloating terms, bring our aircraft tumbling from the morning sky. New York
“The editorial raises our commitment to the UDHR
“Stop. I will come through the fucking phone in a moment. How in hell are we supposed to observe every quaint legal nicety
as these psychopaths hop back and forth across borders, switch mobile phones every five minutes, spell their accursed names twenty different ways. The endless waves of slick nonsense the Americans provide us in terms of assessments makes our own piss poor work look like Shakespeare
. The Brits' reporting and analysis is full of circular caveats and Oxford
equivocation so as to be useless. The only decent summaries we get any more are from the Australians, the bastards. Sure it's booze-fuelled and obliquely racist – but its at least actionable
“Is that why this Libyan was detained, bin Khaldun? Why he now appears to be widely red-listed and is with authorities for -”
“Never you mind why. Or how or who, for that matter. Let us be plain as day here – you have one, I repeat one sole goddamn task. You report back directly after, by this line. Do not write or type a single word, in fact do not take anything to the interview. This is off the books. If I see some rambling missive later this week about the state of exhaustion in which this ass-hole finds himself, or that he's been denied a bloody pillow or he finds his home country's crumbling prison not to his standards, I will personally see you drawn and quartered back here. One question Julie: does this guy know anything about Samaroo?”
“Say it with conviction
please. I have had more middling-level spooks, spy-master wannabes, political grunts and media handlers in my office this week than I care to count. I'll need to pull up the carpet to get the stench out. I want the jackboots off my floor and you're the only remotely credible observer we can get to that bleak bit of nowhere in such short order, given how often you've been there this past few years. I don't like parades, but that's what its been like here. And don't get me started on the barrel-chested, beady-eyed linebackers from the US Embassy
. For the love of God, get us something if its there to find, before the goon squad arrives.”
“Sure Ruth. If there's a pointer there, I'll pick it up.”
“Good. And be careful. Get what you can and get out. We'll sort out what insanity needs coverage after you're safely away.”
“Fair enough. I'll be in touch.”
I hung up, thinking 'who is she calling a bleeding heart
'? Is that what I am, all clearances aside? Ruth knew full well - given she was one as well. It had been why she'd hired me, most likely. So her bile wasn't likely meant for her. It was for the benefit of whomever else might be listening in. Except for the bit about the jackboots and parade. Ruth was a fine director
of foreign assets, but her talent was in performance, not performing.
SECRET -- OTTAWA CR-0095-4512 ORCON / NOFORN
STATE FOR EB/ESC/ESP (WHALEN), S/CT (HOLLIS), IO/PHO (NOLAN), AND WHA/CAN
GRPO FOR GENERAL COUNSEL (CORGAN), NGC DIRECTOR (ROGERS)
SECURTIY TASK FORCE ON NEXT-GEN COMPUTING (COLLINS)
NSC FOR FERRIS
E.O. 13112: DECL: 06/16/2053
TAGS: ETTC EFIN PTER PREL CVIS KSTC CA PGOV
SUBJECT: SECURE CLASSIFIED PROCESSING – OTTAWA: FOREIGN AFFAIRS ENQUIRES AFTER DR. R. SAMAROO
REF: STATE 564-4422
Classified By: Classified by Breach and Containment Counsellor Susan Todd. Reason 1.5 (b and d).
¶1. (SBU/Noforn) Delivered personal message and note to GOC on August 21 to flag concerns re: possible exposure of Samaroo to foreign elements. On August 22 the Department of Foreign Affairs (DFAIT) confirmed file had been circulated for inter-agency consideration, but GOC will not be able to respond until fully consideration of matter at Standing Intelligence Committee (SIC) next week.
¶2. (S) DFAIT officials opined that incident had not met the "reasonable grounds" threshold necessary for specialized targeting and intrusive techniques in Canada; at present discussions with family, professional contacts are main channels. Contacts will let us know if further information on our sources would be helpful.
¶3. (S/Noforn) Given lack of response, recommend other channels at GRPO follow developments.
I don't want to believe.
Flying into Tripoli on the last flight from Rome, looking at the documentation and overview of our funded projects in Libya, I winced turning each page at the memory of wandering pointlessly around ditches, dams and domes for irrigation projects that were already bound, bribed and paid for.
I didn't want to believe a follow-up audit of our latest local ground-breaking was the best cover that Ruth has been able to concoct for my midnight flight. So we use a clear water NGO and its funding as an envelope. For our own side missions. Who ever would have thought, she whispered to herself, beginning to parcel up her in-flight gear.
The things I don't want to believe must now run to the thousands. Like schools of silvery fish racing away from a hull, skimming under the water's surface. More than a decade out of school though now, that would be a long stretch to stay shocked and angered. Tough to maintain umbrage.
I can't believe that our business concerns and corporate officials grease the wheels? That our industrialists and noble private innovators might steal ideas, then develop them? That our police forces might blacklist and burn their perceived political opponents?
That our troops can kill outside orders then connive to cover it up? Our spies extort and torture – or at least turn the other way while someone else does it for us? That our best legal minds can twist the sense and spirit of a law until anything is – or at least defensibly seems – permissible for government?
That our elected officials can feign outrage and indignation one moment before the camera, then architect a side deal with their opponent, then neatly sweep the issue from the public eye? That journalists can run smears, leaks and lies knowing full well their complicity in control? That judges treat the words and oaths of government as gospel if some lowly suspect needs her lift duly turned inside out in the state's defence?
The things I don't want to believe might now outnumber the things I do.
TS (III) / CEO - OTTAWA X-UIDL: 87EDF623-5448-11E3-BD82-00237DE3FB38
From - Fri Jun 23 09:09:58 2017
From: Joanne Burion
To: Daniel Beauregard
Subject: 19(2)(c) disclosure approval
Date: Fri, 23 Jun 2017 14:06:18 +0000
Approbation du bureau du ministre est venu à travers. Procéder immédiatement à consulter là-bas SVP. Selon les données de sortie Samaroo a atterri à De Gaulle en fin de soirée le 7 Juin. DCRI peut confirmer les détails de la conférence (ICCMAS). Fichier CRS indique non-retour sur un vol CDG-YUL réservé le 10. Détails nécessaires pour INTERPOL préavis jaune AVP.
Un grand merci,
Mr. Khaldun looked very tired. Dark brown smudges under bloodshot eyes, deep crevices across the surface of his forehead. His hands trembled. I thought he might need water just to get him through the talk. The chance of such a courtesy seemed remote; the officers at the police station
seemed disinclined to even acknowledge me. The cell was windowless, dirty and grey. The stale air smelled of smoke and sweat.
“How did you get to see me? Even my lawyer has not shown up yet?”
requested the authorities allow a quick meeting, sir. I am not here in any formal capacity. Their allowing us to talk is a diplomatic favour.”
“So you are not here to assess my condition? Help secure my release?” He smiled wanly now, his breathing slower.
“No, Mr. Khaldun. I am afraid I cannot be of assistance to you in any of these matters.” Julie sat down at the small steel table across from the man. “In fact, it is likely advisable that you not to go into the specifics of your case with me. My access to you is very time-sensitive.”
“Others will be coming no doubt.” I gave this wholly non-fanatical response a half-smile.
“I think we can say that with some certainty, yes.” I think that having been detained for a week now, bruised and unclean, that he looks in no way defeated. That he is used to being bound up in his own thoughts. That in spite of the confinement, isolation seems familiar garb for Mr. Khaldun.
“Miss Mackinnon, why are you here specifically? I am aware that you Canadians continue to have some nominal clout in Libya. Throughout the Maghreb
in point of fact. You have a considerable corporate stake I gather. But I am no industrialist. I am an academic and human rights
critic. I cannot plainly see what interest you should have in my situation.” He twisted a plain gold band around again and again on his finger while he spoke.
“I am trying to establish the whereabouts of another academic, a Canadian. Doctor Jatinder Samaroo. He was in Paris for a conference some weeks ago, and I understand you do a fair bit of travelling for scholarly events as well. You were just in Greece. We have reason to believe the two of you may have been introduced at some point. Besides his research, he also had a side interest in global rights issues.
His hands were no longer shaking, but folded before his chest on the table top. He kept twisting his ring. He had likely been unable to contact either his lawyer or family. I glanced at the mirror set into the wall of the room beside us. He took a deep breath.
“What was this gentleman's field, Ms. Mackinnon?
. Very abstract computational work, as I vaguely understand it.”
“Ah. Well that explains my ignorance of the man as well. We historians do not mingle much outside our caste
“But you did co-sign several petitions with him in the past few years. On the military responses to the uprisings in Egypt and Libya. The placement of US drone bases in Central Africa. The widening use of surveillance
on civil society
“Please young lady. I write articles and books about the transfer of knowledge and culture in the economy of the medieval Mediterranean. I write about petty religious controversies in the late Abbasid Caliphate
. I pen tepid editorials about the needs for current day reform and less corruption in our economic dealings here in Tripoli. I have three daughters and a wife who never listen, along with a university post that provides me a broom closet for an office. Why would your missing Doctor take the slightest interest in me? Am I to understand this perceived connection is why I am here? Because I think someone must have been telling lies about me.”
“Again, Mr. Khaldun, I have no knowledge whatsoever regarding the terms of your detainment. I have no access to your domestic file or background. I can only proceed by what little I have been told or read online – that you may know Samaroo and that you might have some notion of where he may be based upon that. But I have only your word to go on.”
I sat forward and like the professor folded my hands passively. He wore a grim smile.
“I understand now why your country makes very little progress in diplomatic circles, Ms. Mackinnon. You seem so uncomfortable with dishonesty you can't even attempt it. This plain-speaking puts you at an awful disadvantage I'd have to think. How on earth do you manage with the Americans?”
“We just give them whatever they want, short of our own blood. We get by. But I assure we have whole arms of our own government that are quite practised in noble lies
and necessary evils
“But not you?”
“I see no possible gain in misrepresenting myself to you, sir.”
“Ah. This is in itself unusual in our part of the world you realize. We paper lie on top of lie. We lie that there is choice
. That there is faith
. We lie that there is progress
. We lie that one group is our enemy, or lie about another being our brothers in arms. We lie because we think we are being watched, we lie as we flatter ourselves in thinking we're important enough to watch.”
“But now I need just a moment of truth, Mr. Khaldun. Just one. Can you think of anything in connection with Dr. Samaroo that might explain his disappearance?”
A long silence settled like dust.
“Why not go to Greece? I have just returned from there and it is very beautiful in June. Milos
was the island. Miss Koutros was my host. I am being quite genuine when I say I have never met the man but as a fellow activist and critic of conscience the event just this past week involved many such questions at an international level. She was a key coordinator.”
“I cannot thank you enough, Mr Khaldun for your patience in seeing me.”
“Do not mistake resignation
for patience, Ms. Mackinnon. Good luck.”
The door opened behind me as I rose from my chair. He stood as I departed. I walked down the hall with the echo of the door slamming shut again.
UK/CAN ONLY /// TASKING FORM – CHELTENHAM / CYPRUS / Ayios Nikolaos Station
From: Smith, Alan
To: Porter, Roger
Subject: CSEC request
Date: Sat, 24 Jun 2017 09:16:18 +0000
Canadians in a tizzy as usual; warrants secure at domestic end. Individual selectors as follows:
Jatinder Samaroo (CAN)
Julie Mackinnon (CAN)
Helena Koutros (GRE)
Mahamood Khaldun (LIB)
Request for cable traffic, mw, inland, GPS. Full take.
I remember being cornered at a party once, not long ago. The drunk guy had heard I worked for the Feds – and this was not an Ottawa party. He thought it must be totally weird to be in government, ever since the politicians had declared war on it. He also seemed quite impressed with that observation. Out of breathing room, at one end of a patio with no exit, there was nowhere to go but down. I said no, actually. Government work
's the opposite of weird. The antithesis
If I'm honest with myself, as I wasn't with drunk guy, the weirdest part of the job are the parts I'm expected to play without any official sanction
. It's not a terribly taxing aspect. But it can be strange. To act abroad without authorization or communication. Because that is the way it must be, that's the way things are made to move. That which falls outside normal channels. The invisible actions left off the record. Moves made in the gaps.
All while bearing in mind that I have a set job and position description (FO-03), an established clearance
), a distinct chain of command (org chart down to sub-sub-activity level). In the field though these are bureaucratic abstractions. In dealing with the local, they are irrelevant. Here we taste blood and dust. The preoccupations of optics and message control, the hallmarks of the Centre, are rather like clear drinking water or well-run sewers. Nice ideas that in many parts of the world have little bearing on reality.
Little wonder the political staff hate us so much. It is no ideological
rift, more like envy. Here we deal in meaningful politics, converse with real people, seek to solve real problems.
Contrast that against moving semi-colons around on press releases for eight hours a day and you tap into the real root of animosity
between our diplomatic corps and the political gnomes back at home base. Want simple truths or noble lies? As a rule we provide neither.
Now from our tiny post-colonial foothold in North Africa, on the advice of a waylaid detainee, I hasten to their ramshackle airport and hasten in double-fucking time (as dear Ruth imparted) to the historical seat of democracy, still smoulder in the dimming coals of its own apocalypse
My favourite Greek word, that, not to knock hubris
; meaning not ending but unveiling. After two hours out of Tripoli
, the rickety Airbus brought us all-too-knowing passengers into the economic shadow of the Great Gyre – as all the clever financial writers out of London
called the continuing spiral of deflation, devaluation, default and demise.
What lesson had the capitals of the North drawn from the financial mess? What political truths had drifted out of the Hellenic ashes? Probably none that Thucydides
would have missed: history as a chorus from which our demos
learns little; a corrupt, expansive polity
makes plebes of us all; liberty
is subverted by those least inclined to trust our system, yet somehow these are the same who've gained their station from it; both rich and poor flee the realities of statecraft
for theatrics, illusion and song; the heart of our freedoms dissolve as we abandon greater communal goods for private libations; a petulant patriotism spread like oil over water, coating the thoughts and speech of whole peoples.
– they'd all totally get what had happened to us. And the system of the world about to replace our own. Once more, Athens had devolved into a state approaching anarchy
. Once more, the barbarians seemed already to be within the gates. Government had been forced to abandon many of its previous posts. The state began to dismantle itself. Talk of reversion
to city states, peoples' forum, citizens' watch. The place had drifted back three millennium in as many months.
Failed Mediterranean states like Greece
, and Italy
were hardly alone in this dynamic. Look at us back home. A Canada slipping back very near to a frontier
landscape, if not feudal
. Peace and security for commerce and industry, with little mention of people. Economics as a kind of state religion
, severed from the social ends it ought to serve. The endless ticker of the market become prayer, ceremony and augury all at once.
It went like this. First the political class
isolated and insulated the cites. For they all belong to the same continental circuit now, serve the same logic. Smart borders became prosperity zones and security perimeters, as public space was sliced and severed before our eyes. There were accords and visions proclaimed, declarations and partnerships hailed from on high to add gravitas
and sacred pomp
to all their plans. But each simply proceeded some novel form of clampdown or screw tightening, profiling or filtering.
Of course the nomenclature could be amusing. The Seamless Safety Initiative (which sounded a bit more like an adult undergarment than an industrial security protocol) or the Quiet Layered Approach (could be a culinary technique as opposed to a aviation screening algorithm). There was Global Awareness, Harmonic Warning, Advance Manifest (all sounded like death-metal bands). But all riffing aside, it reeks of lock down and iron heel.
We had a chant at the IMF
rallies – money speaks for money. I wrote a fairly drippy email from the Tripoli lounge to a former friend and fellow advocate. From way back when, she's with Amnesty International
back home. I briefly outlined Mr. K's plight, his lack of representation, his family in the dark. No formal charges and no questions seemed a bad sign. Worse to come. I paused thirty seconds and re-read the details. Then off the message went, an encrypted string of packets converted to radio, light, radio again. If there was anyone on my contact list who could see to it K's existence was at least registered to the local media as mysteriously missing, it would be dear sweet Milan. She'd have the poor man on the radar inside an hour, which might surely be his best, last hope.
As for Doctor Samaroo, that was always going to be a long shot. And as Ruth had made punch-clock clear, this wasn't for lack of interest back home. The spooks were all perked out, the Americans had no doubt got involved, the Brits maybe had loosed hounds – it was anyone's guess how far they'd go. The problem here though was the absence of a trail to follow. For two solid weeks, no traceable transaction
, posting, email or travel notice. For a prominent academic
in a technical field working in this era, that was unusual bordering on suspicious. No phone calls, cellular pings, credit card use? His wife was certainly concerned, enough to contact Samaroo's department at the university, then us. Very sensitive, the Canadian citizen's disappearance overseas. We'd had a couple of Commissions of Inquiry
about that last decade. So the suspicious wheels of officialdom began to turn? Had the Chinese come courting? Was he a political target? Some kind of play from an ally? It had taken Ruth two days to brief up, another two to get a green light for me to move at all.
The break with Khaldun seemed on the face of it purest dumb luck. For once, the first time in her career, a bit of open-source analysis on some civil society campaigning had merged up with some active traveller monitoring to provide us a useful angle
to work. Not an answer, but at least a credible question and a person in place to put it to. This was a first time for me. Far more common was the experience of a report too late, or too vague, or second-hand from some other agency who'd already begun to move. For once, we seemed to be ahead of the whole security works, if still slow off the mark from the family's perspective.
And now I'm wedged into a Fiat, penned in by Athens' mid-day traffic, velocity gearing down again, lanes of battered cars crawling through a roundabout, every one honking and yelling. Thank god for noise-cancelling headphones. And for client-to-client encrypted
Any recommendations in Athens? Anyone?
They still have roads?
The power's still on there?
Looking out the cab window, scanning the side streets and alleyways, I got the sense of a city overrun. It just smelled of unravelling, coming apart. Between most of the buildings, shadow communities and soft markets had settled in. Tents have overtaken the parks, medians and empty lots. Fires burn for cooking, ropes and tarps lashed in great nets to give shelter, half a family selling while the other half is sleeping. In the particular quarter approaching to the main docks and marinas, the authorities seemed to have no visible presence at all. No buses or ambulances either. Just masses of people jammed alongside buildings and traffic.
Look back to my tablet, the advice and sarcasm still pored in from far afield. Murray chimed in from a contractor's bunker in Islamabad, Carrie from a Canadian gas facility in Turkmenistan, John from some Home Office cubicle in London – the advantage of a distributed, secure network once could carry in the pocket and lock with a thumbprint. All agree – do not stay in the city core and push on unless business needs to be conducted on the ground. A line of thanks to all and I pulled off the headphones.
“Take me to the port please. I need to hire a boat.”
The hotel was on a private island eighty kilometres south. While I'd learned to sail when I was a teenager, it wasn't my favourite activity. More just something the well-to-do kids did from out east. With euros in hand, it seemed smarter to go with motorboat and driver. The sun was riveting, the sea breeze a great relief after the airport and drive through Athens. As we cast off and headed out from shore, what stuck out was the size of the other ships. The yachts and other ships were gigantic. Pleasure craft with two helipads. Container ships half-a-mile long. Who could afford to keep these things afloat? Who can buy all the goods from a ship that size? This became clearer as the water taxi sped south, drawing closer to the string of vessels. Over the next hour, all the ships had Cyrillic, Cantonese, Arabic names. The Mediterranean no longer a European lake but restored as a Eastern thoroughfare.
All our old assumptions and preoccupations refocused now to this part of the world. Even back home, under the dome of US protection, all eyes were fastened along these ancient routes. Russia had seen two decades of oil and gas wealth bring it from pauper to princely status once more. China's technological and industrial expansion continued with abandon. All the while, region after region, city after city in the West fell into decline. New Orleans and Detroit, Las Vegas and Sacramento, Montreal and Hamilton – all bankrupt. The Eastern provinces forced to amalgamate and still emptying. All across Europe much the same: demographic decline, financial capitulation, capital flight, then a shudder and halt.
After two hours, the islands shore now crested into slight from the darkening blue horizon, as the sun began to set. The sky drained of blue and bled to an orange, gauzy pink. We came now into view of the hotel and private villas around it. In the middle of an international shipping corridor, someone could make their way anywhere from such a place, given the funds. Samaroo could be anywhere. Anyone could have him. For any number of motives. Gulls wheeled and squawked overhead as we came into dock. One of the hotel staff came down to help with bags while I paid the fare. Then I climbed the ladder onto the pier.
SECRET – FT. MEAD TR-98992-7623 - ORCON / NOFORN
NSA / NRO JOINT TASKING – EUROPE
GRPO FOR GENERAL COUNSEL (CORGAN), NGC DIRECTOR (ROGERS)
SECURTIY TASK FORCE ON NEXT-GEN COMPUTING (COLLINS)
NSC FOR FERRIS
E.O. 13112: DECL: 06/16/2053
TAGS: ETTC EFIN PTER PREL CVIS KSTC CA PGOV
SUBJECT: Support for target location (Samaroo, R, CDN, REF: STATE 564-4422)
¶1. (SBU/Noforn) Request for direction of asset / passive collection] at coordinates
¶2. (S) Geo-location data on any encrypted traffic and airborne imagery main requirement.
¶3. (S/Noforn) Secondary requirement, if in scope, to risk all approaching water vessels or aircraft for next 48hrs.
Sitting on the edge of the bed in my room, looking out the patio door, the moon rising over the water. It seems to me this bed, this floor, this island might just as easily be sinking into the sea. Even with the full status and import afforded a diplomatic official, in such a world I feel ghostly.
The essence of government work is this: to conceal from citizens the basic powerlessness of the state. That sounds, on its face, insane at a time of mass surveillance, migration control, intelligence-led policing and creeping criminalization. But the core truth remains – while government's shadow looms large, it is cast by a puppet. We quit the stage on serious social issues in the era of Thatcher. We absconded from economic policy at the global level in the era of Clinton. Then we slipped from the room whenever heath, education, housing, labour or climate was concerned.
Replaced by management of risks, relations with media, communication to stakeholders. Consultation and opinion-shaping.
Message-crafting and couching terms.
Triage and facilitation.
A black box, wrapped in glass.
We call ourselves Government, though we govern nothing. We sweep up after the parade, try to tidy up the messes. We only pray no one mocks us as we do so.
I was still shaking off sleep, sitting on the balcony, wondering why all hotel coffee had to taste of dry dust, scrolling down from an Amnesty alert I'd set up, when the phone rang. I felt the chill before looking at the display, took a deep breath, clicked the call through. It would be the middle of the night back home.
“Ruth, is everything okay?”
“Mr. Khaldun was released four hours ago.”
“I've just arrived in Greece. Milos I should say, a private island. Was going to start in on his leads immediately.”
“The Libyans are quite embarrassed. Keeping citing our history of confusion around UN 1267. Shamed really, that they've been unable to say who put them up to the detention or why. But they've made general allusions to Canadian involvement.”
“Which has people there twisting in knots I expect. Can we not disavow?”
Silence at the other end now. Seabirds ride the breeze overhead. The early morning sun glimmers off the waves.
“Of course we can. We're already firming up the language – we in no way sought to influence Libya's internal affairs and here have no record of the individual in question ever being in Canada or having correspondence with our government on any matter. All very generic.”
“And my visit with him?”
“Deniable if necessary. Which it should never be.”
“Then I should get to work then?”
“No Julie, what you should do under the circumstances is get yourself back here so I can remove your major organs. You were supposed to report offline and not draw attention to this sideshow and now its become a three-ring circus with our useless Minister at the centre.”
“But I have a lead on Samaroo.”
“What from Khaldun? An individual who seems to have played you like a proverbial harp. He's already opined that it was Russian involvement that pried Samaroo away. Or did he not mention that to you? And that he now seems to doubt our errant Doctor is anywhere in Greece. Which would seem to contradict his previous advice, no?”
“So we're watching him?”
“Of course we are Julie. Since you've made him a potential subject in Question Period, yes, we've taken an interest. Since its a pending lawsuit waiting to be filed on your non-visit? Since the Americans are crawling all over us to explain a very curious and unplanned release? We're all ears.”
“He didn't do anything, Ruth. He couldn't speak freely then, he's likely not even now, but he's innocent.”
“I won't even dignify that with profanity. Get back here, first flight.”
The line went dead. I set the phone and cold coffee aside. A chime sounded from my tablet a moment later - “Chase down lead. Quickly.”
Collateral damage. Quantitative easing. Surgical strikes. Behavioural nudging. Too big to fail. Astroturfing. Hearts and minds. Shoulder to shoulder. Now more than ever. Extraordinary rendition. Acceptable losses. Crisis consensus. Communities of interest. Contact chaining. Connecting the dots. Collecting the haystack. A bias towards action. Disposition matrices. Mixed-traffic corridors. Customs-controlled areas. Upstream intelligence. Active defence. One-issue advocates. Gotcha journalism. Grudge politics. Preventative arrest. Investigative hearings. Nothing to hide. Getting the balance right.
One of my favourite games from university was to spot the planted catch phrase or sound bite – which had seemed easy even then – the 1990s seem not so much another century as an entirely parallel universe. Yes, we'd had the internet, such that it was. Yes, we had mobile phones and text messages. But the tools had not then fully been embraced in their full potential to mediate, contain and direct public debate. Whereas now the key messages and talking points and message discipline seeped into the media flow like a steady intravenous drip. Echoing and reverberating around the digital ether.
I scrolled through my secure mail while rolling my clothes, scanning for any developments about Khaldun. Back in my days as a student journalist it had been a lark to pull the phraseology apart, a Chomsky-inspired drinking game or McLuhan-like crossword puzzle. Twenty years on, it is more like sensing the prevailing winds, the language of the machine you had to read and speak to even stand a chance of being heard. If you couldn't relay your protest or moral or critique in 140 characters, what good was it?
Dressed now and showered, I packed. All this chaff was really just an intellectual psyche-up, self-hardening before taking on my one tenuous lead. Ruth had not been hedging. The Centre knows where I am, what I've done, and most gravely in this case, what I have failed to do. Working on a tangent of approval was one thing, moving into a position of risk without clearance still another, going outside the network something else entirely. The first might get me cautioned, the second demoted, the third quite possibly fired. The fourth zone of taboo now awaits. I picked up my purse and tablet, double-checked I had my card key. Just about to pick up the phone for the front desk, to make an enquiry about my contact, there was a knock at the door. I opened it with the safety latch engaged. A short rumpled man in thick glasses, looking down the corridor.
“Doctor Samaroo. Sir.”
I unbolted the door and followed his gaze down the empty hallway.
“I've been send to check up on you. Your family's been very worried.”
“I appreciate the concern Ms. Mackinnon. Would you mind if we had a word inside?”
I stood aside as he moved past and into the room, holding a finger now to his lips then pointing to the balcony door. He slid aside the curtains, the pulled the door open and we stepped out into the seaside air.”
“No electronics on your person?”
“No they're in my purse. Are you quite alright Doctor?”
“Yes. I am, given the circumstances. You should sit down though, as I certainly intent to. You may please call me Jatinder. No sirs or doctors.”
“What's going on? Why are you here? Your wife has been very worried. She contacted the government a week ago to report you as missing. All sorts of alarm bells went off given your work. How did you even know I was here?”
“Your device sent that signal out quite plainly. And it's why I may have very little time. If you've been here twelve hours, its fair to say others are on approach. If only to follow up on what you've uncovered or missed.”
“That sounds very ominous.”
“I am not a fan of intrigue. I won't drag this out. You're going to have to tell the Centre I'm sorry, but I am on the other side now.”
“What other side?”
“For a decade now, I have been loyal and dutiful within a system I no longer think is in the right.”
“The university you mean? Your research? What system?”
“I am sorry, my indictment was vague. All our research now derives from government, almost exclusively funding from military and intelligence budgets, albeit carefully concealed in its guidance and sources. My staff and I submitted to reliability screening, industrial security policies in our lab work. Then two years ago, intelligence officers approached me directly to ask about ancillary activism, I believe was their term, that I'd engaged in.”
“They wanted to check your connections, Jatinder. It's what we have intelligence services for.”
“No. They were vetting my politics. Worse, they wanted me to inform on my fellows. Report regularly on plans and events, keep an eye out for anything suspicious, high profile or controversial.”
“And you played along, I'm guessing.”
“You must have encountered these types in your work. They can be very subtle and persuasive. The appealed to all the right urges: love of country, respect for peace and civil liberties, wishes for global stability.”
“Jatinder, whatever issue you have with the methods of our security services, you surely are not contemplating anything drastic here are you?”
“As a matter of fact, yes. Which is why I needed to communicate with you. If only to have my objections conveyed.”
“Very melodramatic. We're simply having a conversation.”
“No. You've not worked on the technologies I've seen tested and deployed this past decade, had to read about their destructive aftermath. The computational capabilities we developed have now eclipsed any that the private market can equal. Remember all the talk a few years ago about Big Data? Child's play. The same old systems tethered to the same old interfaces with larger sets enabled by cheaper storage. The machines we produced were exponentially more powerful.”
“Yes, well, I have to say the quality of the intelligence has generally improved. That's in part why I am here.”
“No doubt. But don't you grasp the imbalance this creates? We have in the West now systems that literally sift everything that is transacted, moment to moment. Everything searched for, every contact made. And with this new algorithmic power we apply predictive analysis and risking filters and all manner of event monitoring. It's simply not ethical, Julie, never mind legal. We can disrupt the future, curtail any number of events or potential actions before they ever occur. We're doing it now, with technology I helped to build.”
“Doctor, it sounds like you're conflicted for being the one academic whose work has actually made a qualitative impact on the world. Harsh as that may sound.”
“But that's the problem. Look at the world we've shaped. The systems I've build haven't altered the dynamic of power at all. They've reinforced them. Drone strikes are more successful, surveillance data more comprehensive, military interventions more efficient. But are there any other demonstrable benefits? Any fewer people hungry? Our limited resources better managed? Less pollution? Slower climate change?”
“A great many scientists would feel the same frustration but I can't see why this despair should destroy your career, your life.”
“Julie, listen. I was a graduate student in Poland in the 1980s. What feels like aeons ago. We spoke of solidarity and glasnost then, that thought and conscience ought to hold fast to people. Be free of state control. At the same time, we campaigned against apartheid, the idea the state should systematically discriminate for the purposes of its security and survival. Think about those two notions today, in the West. Surveillance is the predominant mode of state security, profiling its primary means. What kind of regression is this? Quantum computation – my life's work for three decades – is now the great enabler of these measures. How can I sleep at night? A whole generation of activists fled Poland to escape precisely these systems of oppression.”
I stood up from the deck chair, feeling my legs beginning to tingle. Samaroo looked pale, abject. He perspired despite the cool morning breeze. He looked not to have slept or eaten properly for some time. At his age, this agitated, that was clearly unhealthy.
“Look Jatinder. I am obviously not her to coerce you into returning to work nor to appeal to your patriotism. That is not how this works. I was sent to enquire and to ensure your safety, if possible. You seem very conflicted but not under duress, so that will have to satisfy back home. But I am interested in hearing you out and what your plans are if you care to share them. Can I suggest we get something to eat? Coffee at a minimum?”
“Do you believe that wise?”
“I'm not a spy, Doctor. I'm just hungry. I'd have to believe that we'll be relatively safe getting some breakfast by the pool. We'll keep a low profile.”
TOP SECRET (III) / CSEC – ATHENS STATION - X-UIDL: 87EDF623-5448-11E3-BD82-00237DE3FB38
From - Sunday Jun 25 09:09:58 2017
From: Roger Benson
To: Joanne Burion
Date: Sun, 25 Jun 2017 14:06:18 +0000
Greek intelligence liason has confirmed Ms. Mackinnon checked into the Hotel Milos, Room 231, with contact to at least one individual in person. Also confirm encrpyted communications between Khaldun and staff member of facility at 08:12 this morning. Awaiting additional instructions.
The resort was an all-inclusive affair so that even at 10am the poolside and verandas were heavily populated by vacationing Germans, Russians, Brits and Scots recommencing their previous night's frivolities. I shuddered leading Samaroo to the table, the furthest I could find from the sound of aquatic aerobics and twenty-year old techno. We opted instead for the white noise of the breaking surf very near to the edge of the beach but still withing the radius of table service.
“Will this do?”
The Doctor lowered himself into a wide wicker chair with a sigh. We wiped grime from his thick tortoiseshell glasses with a white kerchief.
“Yes Julie. I have to apologize, it is not every day that I can speak to someone about the trouble I find myself in, so I do have a tendency to go on.”
“Jatinder, again, there's no need. I am not here to browbeat you. You're a free man, entitled to your own beliefs and to make your own decisions. As yet, so far as I am aware, you haven't actually done anything wrong. I will have to report our discussion in broad terms of course, but that is an obligation that falls to me alone. So if you're uncomfortable with any of my questions please know that you're under no obligation to answer.”
The waiter came then, seemingly relieved to find clientele civilized enough to order croissants and coffee as opposed to Mai Thais or gin and tonics.
“I have to ask a person question, Doctor, if only to get it out of the way. If you are headed in the direction you seem to have implied – leaving our side as you said – what is to happen to your family?”
“Both my son and daughter are fully independent and well-established. They have careers and families of their own quite outside government or academics. My wife retired three years ago from the university, she was a chemistry professor. We have always led quiet but industrious lives, largely anonymous within our community. So I cannot really see how they would be greatly affected at this stage in their lives. Unless that is I do nothing. Recall what Augustine said of such situations. Men who do nothing, faced with what we know is right, lost the ability to know what is right. And those with the power to act rightly, but fail to use that power, end up unable to act at all.”
“Very eloquent. A more practical question then: how did you know that I was here? Who contacted you? Have they been instructions?”
“To your second question, I have no idea. I received an anonymous text that a Canadian foreign officer was asking after me two days ago, then another just this morning with your name. So I rang the front desk and explained you wished to speak to me on an urgent personal matter from back home.”
“No other communications at all?”
“Well, on the contrary, over the past couple of years I've received dozens of cryptic texts and snippets and emails. None have been instructive however. They were often just words of encouragement or open-ended questions related to my human rights interests. I detect no particular source or locus for these. That's just the nature of dissent and free thought now it would seem. Forty years ago it was samizdat posters and leaflets, graffiti and dimly-lit meetings. Now protest seems to float freely online, largely unattributable. I've worked with government and academic institutions my whole life Julie. I know an attempt at control or compromise or containment, no matter how subtle. Perhaps I misled before when I said I was going over to the other side, I don't mean any particular nation state or directed cause...”
The waiter returned with their coffee and a basket of croissants, so we fell silent. Samaroo poured and I brushed aside the irritation of being talked to like an undergraduate. Across the pool deck, all too close, a group of Australians appeared to be gearing up for karaoke. The debrief would have to be accelerated.
“Look at this from my perspective for a moment Jatinder. You are an internationally esteemed Canadian scientist and researcher, working in the sensitive field of cutting-edge computing. You're one of a dozen serious individuals funded outside of government in the West to work on these questions. For the past twenty years or so, you have been the recipient of millions in public funding to accelerate this work. You've been honoured with awards, grants, a prestigious rank, all in recognition of your contributions. Now, very suddenly, as you near the end of your career you are contemplating – what exactly? The vocal denouncement of the system upon which your success is predicated? To what end? How exactly does this about-face work to the benefit of your country, if I can put this in objective terms?”
“Good for you Julia, to bring up the national interest. This will sound stark no doubt, but what I intend to show to the general public is that on account of the technology we have deployed in the West, we have effectively ceded state control. Government as a representative, deliberative institution is now wholly redundant. The algorithms, analytic systems, pattern recognition and matching do all the meaningful work for us. The currency liquidity, the rate adjustments, the threat assessments, the media monitoring, the opinion tracking – all of it is now just a product of machines.”
“Sorry Doctor, that's all very Soros or Stiglitz, if you'll forgive me name-dropping.”
He smirked at this, raised his coffee cup to cede the point and bit into a croissant. I look out at the sea, two abstract plains of blue telescoping from the horizon, breathed the salt-rimmed air and exhaled in frustration. I could feel myself drifting out of the present then, reaching back in memory to see instead a white plain piled high with snow rearing up against a grey Maritime sky.
Something about the challenge to Jatinder, this conversation, triggered a cavernous melancholy. The world he was describing was one of clockwork, one where people played the role of tiny teeth on ever-turning cogs. It was bleak, mindless and dispiriting. Little wonder he was railing against it.
“Why don't we take our coffee down to the beach? I only have a few more questions and I'd sooner not have to compete with the revellers and their radios.”
“Lead on, Ms. Mackinnon.”
I signed the table's meal to the room and we walked down the patio stairwell to the white sand's edge, finding two reclining lounge chairs in the shade of a tree.
“So I believe you can appreciate our initial concern, Doctor. When you were reported missing our last intelligence seemed to indicate a Mr. Khaldun as one you'd had recent exchanges with. We did not know the nature of these relations but some other party – very likely the Americans given you've work for them – flagged this as a potentially sensitive matter. Having interviewed you both now, I am inclined to say this seems to have been an unwarranted directive and will report as much. But Mr. Khaldun did indicate I should look for you here. No sooner did I arrive than you presented yourself. You are not under any demonstrable foreign influence or coercion in my view, assuming you are being honest with me. Your decision to remain incommunicado is entirely a personal matter as I read it. I am inclined to conclude that, as you near retirement, you are rethinking the direction of your career. Is that all fair to say and accurate to report?”
“Yes, Julie. Sums it up nicely.”
“So what's next? What's the end game for you? Russia? China? The Middle East? Back to Malaysia?”
“That would be saying far too much at this point, my dear. I have some logistics left to work out, in seclusion, before putting things in motion.”
“You mean about going public?”
“The world needs to grasp what's happened Julie. We cannot live by rules and laws and agreements fit for another age. Government for the public good without an informed public is a prelude to tragedy. I am unwilling to any longer concede our democracies need to be debased in the manner to which we have become accustomed.”
“Madison. He was writing about America's sedition laws there you do realize.”
“Very good, Ms Mackinnon. I don't believe I knew the context.”
“That's how you'll be viewed you know. As a dangerous leaker and quite possibly a traitor.”
“I am prepared to live with the displeasure and censure of the Centre. I have no intention to materially defect. I am stealing nothing, selling nothing. I will simply be describing in scientific detail a world that is wholly invisible to the vast majority of people but one that touches and effects every man, woman and child each moment of the day. It is past time someone explained to the wider world the puzzling dominance that we have been able to exert – despite our being more poorly educated, more wasteful, less financially responsible and to a large degree more isolated from the world than ever. It's certainly nothing to do with intellectual rigour, providence or even luck.”
“Right. It's that by and large we've turned the whole affair into an advanced mathematics experiment. I got that.”
“Yes. But again bear in mind the machines we have outstrip the best the rest of the world can possibly hope to obtain by decades, Julie. It's an appalling advantage and its grotesque to see us continue to masquerade as equals.”
I turned to face to face the Doctor, shielding my eyes from the glare off the water. He was fully reclined, head cradled in his hands, eyes closed and seemingly peaceful as a child ready for bed. It occurred to me in another era, not so long ago, this would have been the moment to garrote the man. Or slip some radioactive isotope into his coffee. Or plunge a sharp implement into his skull. People were under the pay of the state to do precisely these things even today. Instead, I listened to the waves lap the shoreline and wondered if he really believed what he proposed to do would make any whit of difference. That the nature of the world and its relations and powers would change one iota. I found no wellspring to draw from in contesting his motives and felt no authority to challenge his objections. Maybe that was fulfilling my role, a kind of procedural recorder of his reaction to his own belief that everything was being mechanically recorded and just as mechanistically acted upon. The futility of his rebellion, the futility of his observation of it, left me suddenly very tired. We sat in silence for a long time, overlooking the waves and passing ships.
“I think I'll say goodbye Jatinder. I have a long trip back.”
He was fast asleep in the mid-morning warmth of the Mediterranean air.
Twenty-six hours later, poorly slept, I made my way down the grim row of grey clothed cubicles on the sixth floor of Headquarters, wearing a sallow smile for the legion of administrative assistants, media monitors, policy interns and corporate secondments who happened to meet my gaze along the way. Ruth was standing outside her tiny office, inspecting expense reports and so mustering her best pretext of not seeming to be waiting. I went dropped my bag at my desk and went inside her office, sitting in silence, wishing I'd injected more coffee as she closed the door behind us and taking a seat beside me rather than at her own cluttered desk.
“I read the draft field report last night. Seem rather minimalist. It needs updating.”
“Not quite the counter-intelligence errand I embarked on.”
“Dr. Samaroo was intercepted and extracted by Agency contractors on his way to Cyprus about twelve hours ago.”
“That's a bit of a bind for us.”
“Julie, we have the rather important pretence to uphold of being a nominally sovereign country. As closely as I can read, the Americans were able to lock on to Samaroo by tracing you instead. I gather you spent some time with him.”
“A couple of hours. But face-to-face.”
“The radio silence may have actually been the give away.”
“Or someone on our end just reported it to the Americans. They have plenty of embeds and sources here. Where's Samaroo now?”
“Poland, funnily enough. Not that he'll be aware of it. It's a black site.”
“It fits. He was politicized there by the Soviets, now he'll be reformed by the States.”
“Really, Julie? I am supposed to be the caustic, jaded bitch here. What happened out there? Why did you burn us on Khaldun?”
“Credibility. We were not going to chase down Samaroo with our own assets. We have no capacity. I need to have a show of heart if we were going to get a chance at contact. The only way we ever find people is if they come to us. If that's made things ugly, well, news cycles run quickly nowadays don't they?”
“Fair point. Put that way, it's defensible enough as an end run. I should be able to sell it up the line. You did flush him out as ordered and it is contained.”
“You mean detained and postponed. That's something I don't think has seeped at the official level yet. Secrets just don't keep these days.”
“That's not for you or I to say Julie. The Service is already en route to dine with Mr. Samaroo to reiterate to him the critical points of loyalty, his vital work and the long stretch he can anticipate in prison owing to his SOIA obligations should this nonsense continue.”
“While the goon squad expound on the grief his family can look forward to, no doubt?”
Ruth looked like she was in some discomfort, an involuntary grimace arising.
“So that's it? No regrets, no questions?”
“I'll pull what I can from the reporting and update the brief as best I can. Then think I might like to take a little leave, Ruth. Need to get out of the fishbowl for a bit.”
The gap of air between the women went cold, bubbling with futility.
“Sure thing. I understand. These internal security cases are taxing. Not at all pleasant.”
“Unpleasant. Yes, that's one way to put it.”
Treatment generally inspired by the Guardian's US Embassy Cables and NSA Files coverage, J.G. Ballard's “The Concentration City,” Joseph Stiglitz's “Globalization and its discontents”, plus Arthur Koestler's “Darkness at Noon”, Rebecca West's “New Meaning of Treason” (especially the account of Doctor Raymond Boyer), and the very good "A Visit from The Goon Squad" by Jennifer Egan. The Greek art collective behind the Depression Project and the US Senate Committee Torture Report are also, in the worst possible way helpful, if only in confirmation.