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Drone Realism

Not all surveillance is the same
A Predator drone fires a missile.

Bottoms Up and the Devil Laughs: A Journey through the Deep State by Kerry Howley. Knopf, 256 pages. 2023.

On November 3, 2002, an NSA linguist on at the military base Camp Doha in Kuwait was eavesdropping on a phone call in Yemen. The call was from a number associated with Qaed Salim Sinan al-Harethi, a Yemeni citizen alleged to be behind the USS Cole attack two years earlier. The warship was anchored in Aden on its way to the Persian Gulf when it was struck by members of al-Qaeda in a suicide bombing. As American intelligence determined their suspects, Yemen became a priority for American national security agencies. Elsewhere, probably Djibouti, a CIA team waited for a positive identification. They controlled a drone trailing the phone signal from a vehicle in the Yemeni desert northeast of the capital Sanaa, close to the border with Saudi Arabia, about one hundred miles outside the city of Marib.

The NSA linguist was finding it difficult to make out al-Harethi’s voice. It was loud in the car and the person speaking didn’t sound like him. But the linguist had been eavesdropping on al-Harethi’s calls and soon recognized a voice in the background as his. With this confirmation, the drone’s pilot released a Hellfire missile, killing al-Harethi and the six others in the car. An American citizen named Kamal Derwish was among them. This was the first time the CIA used a drone to target a particular person. It was also the first time the CIA used a drone to kill an American citizen.

On its website, the NSA cites Executive Order 12333 as its “foundational authority.” Signed by Ronald Reagan, EO 12333 reiterates two points of law already established by Gerald Ford in EO 11905 and Jimmy Carter in EO 12036: it is illegal for an employee or representative of the United States to assassinate someone, and it is illegal for organizations other than the FBI to surveil Americans. The NSA probably did know Derwish was in the car because he was a suspected associate of the Lackawanna Six, the group of Yemeni-American alleged al-Qaeda affiliates who trained at the same camp as American Taliban member John Walker Lindh. Edward Snowden’s leaks showed this was a case to which the NSA contributed intelligence. The NSA can legally wiretap American citizens by getting a warrant through the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court (FISC), but there are tens of thousands of FISC cases a year and nearly all of them are classified. It is very difficult for anyone without a security clearance to know if the attack that killed an American citizen that November was legal under American law—setting aside the legality of killing Yemenis in their own country. We can’t know what the assassination of those men means unless someone breaks the law to tell us.

You can’t tell a drone story without additionally telling a surveillance story, which, of course, is also a deep state story. 

What happened outside of Sanaa shows you can’t tell a drone story without additionally telling a surveillance story, which, of course, is also a deep state story. The subject of Kerry Howley’s Bottoms Up and the Devil Laughs: A Journey through the Deep State is Reality Winner, a former Air Force linguist in the drone program and NSA contractor, who in 2017 leaked a five-page document about Russian election interference. She’s a plausible subject for a book like this, but not an inevitable one: the United States classifies three documents like the one Winner leaked every second, and a number of whistleblowers have made more significant leaks, in sheer volume or political consequence, than Winner did. Why choose her?

Howley’s project isn’t about sifting through those available documents, in the way journalists have tried to understand the millions of pages of Wikileaks material, or otherwise to historicize them as evidence of a process of domestic and foreign policy objectives. Instead, she takes one part of the surveillance state’s development: how it works on a person like Winner, but more importantly, on someone like Howley. Bottoms Up is not concerned principally with extraordinary renditions, the drone war, or the American imperial project. “Selves are mercifully fluid and multiple,” Howley writes, or people thought they were, back in the “naive 1990s.” For Howley, what has changed since is that we’ve lost our right to them: Our “bad takes” and “abandoned personae” are on the internet forever, where they can resurface or be leveraged against us. Howley believes that we’ve been robbed of them by a state that insists on a “permanent single self,” and Bottoms Up is her effort to make Winner the victim that argument demands.

Before Winner was a whistleblower, she was a linguist in the Air Force. Her job was to listen in on phone calls and identify targets for drone operators, like the NSA operative monitoring al-Harethi. This is not something Howley makes much of: we learn that Winner was highly decorated for her wartime performance but little else about her day-to-day, although Howley mentions Winner would later jolt her boyfriend awake by repeating the Pashto words for “mass grave” in her sleep. Frustrated that NGOs expect “a degree to hand out blankets,” even for veterans who can speak Farsi, Pashto, and Dari, she ends up at an NSA contractor called Pluribus International. She’s there because she has a security clearance, an increasingly ordinary yet valuable commodity: Howley refers to the existence of security clearances as a “caste system,” with vocational predestination implied. (In Top Secret America, journalists William Arkin and Dana Priest write that Arkin was able to find fifteen thousand job openings for people with top-secret clearances at any moment between 2006 and 2010, giving a sense of the scale of the economy in which more than four million people in America with security clearances work.) Winner’s training in the Air Force was the only skill she had to live on, so she became a contractor.

Winner discovered there wasn’t much to do at Pluribus except browse the classified internal internet. Three months into the job, she printed out a five-page top-secret document appearing to validate speculation about attempts to influence the 2016 election, smuggled it out in her pantyhose, and sent it to a neglected mailbox rented by The Intercept. Credible allegations were circulating that Russian military intelligence had attempted to compromise the people and software behind American voting machines, but there wasn’t yet hard evidence to back this up. This document confirmed at least one cyberattack against a voting software supplier and more than one hundred spear-phishing attempts against local election officials.

The mishandling of Winner’s leak by The Intercept was catastrophic and avoidable. Howley explains how the safeguards and expertise available to the editors went unused: The Intercept published the document with the creases showing it was folded up and smuggled out, the printer’s serial number, and a timestamp. They even agreed to show the document to the NSA before publication. Winner would be arrested by the FBI two days before the story ran, and no one at The Intercept knew she was in jail. She was charged with “removing classified material from a government facility and mailing it to a news outlet” under the Espionage Act of 1917, a law originally used against alleged spies or domestic enemies like Eugene Debs and Emma Goldman. The Act has since become a way to discipline whistleblowers: Snowden, Chelsea Manning, and Julian Assange were all charged under it too.

Winner’s trial is nearly slapstick in its iniquity. If Winner’s lawyers want to discuss her case, they can’t pick up the phone: the five of them, living in four different states, have to meet it in what’s called a Sensitive Compartmented Information Facility: Pronounced “skiff,” these are structures in which one is allowed to store, access, or discuss classified information. The Situation Room in the White House is a SCIF, but they can also be a “specialized tent,” like Mike Pence reportedly had. The lawyers chosen to defend Winner were selected because they have security clearances, which means they aren’t supposed to read any of the leaked material, as national security clearances can be revoked for reading classified material you aren’t supposed to see. Winner’s leaks were a national story; one of her attorneys recollects learning more about the case from Yahoo News than any authorized channel.

During Winner’s trial, the prosecution deployed one of Winner’s texts to her sister in the obliviously severe mode of delivering a fait accompli: “‘Look I only say I hate America three times a day. I’m no radical.’” Winner’s silly, echt-millennial joke becomes in court a line from a suicide bomber’s martyrdom video, as the prosecutors abuse the false tautology that any evidence in a national security case represents a risk to national security. The prosecution is protected from defending any of their claims about Winner’s alleged risk because any evidence of it would be a criminal disclosure. Her lawyer Titus Nichols, who’d served as a JAG officer in the Army, explained in an interview that this meant the prosecution had “carte blanche to say whatever” in arguing against her pretrial release, which was denied. He offers a bleak analysis of what landed Winner in a courtroom in the first place: since there’s “no definition of national defense information,” anything can be classified, like the official military document listing his height and weight. What you leak doesn’t matter so much as that you leaked it. Winner’s conviction for sharing a five-page document, which no reasonable person could believe threatened national security, is the longest sentence ever given for an Espionage Act case: five years.

Howley describes the work of operating a drone as “an experience of deep, half-imagined, crazy-making intimacy,” and, drone-like, she circles and pans among personalities. Howley’s remit—surveillance, after 9/11, plus the internet—gives her generous latitude, and her subjects’ affiliations are loose: John Walker Lindh and Abu Zubaydah, both alleged Al Qaeda affiliates who were tortured; disgraced CIA officer and lifetime scumbag John Kiriakou, fired after he lied on ABC that torturing Abu Zubaydah got results; celebrity whistleblowers Chelsea Manning and Julian Assange; Donald Trump and lapsed InfoWars journalist/January 6 protester/Proud Boy Joseph Biggs, who has recently been found guilty of seditious conspiracy; Winner’s lawyer Titus Nichols and her mother Billie.

Howley’s thumbnail sketches of these subjects are skilled, often delightful. They begin with a sense of sighing inexorability that resolves into a joke. The most public of the hole-and-corner set, Assange, is eulogized: “It would turn out to be extremely unfortunate for enemies of state surveillance that one of their greatest allies did not, over ten days in Sweden, want to use a condom.” Joseph Biggs, “coarse and puppyish,” is introduced through his tattoos: one says “war,” and the other “kill.” By way of explaining his enlistment he says, “I just don’t give a shit. My dick is hard. I want to fucking fight,” and it’s no surprise he ends up working for Alex Jones and is present at the Capitol on January 6. Most of what we need to know about former CIA officer Kiriakou we learn from Howley’s report of their conversation about ABC journalist Matthew Cole (later of The Intercept), who he believes burned him to the Feds: “He called Cole ‘a fucking retard,’ though he also called him ‘very good-looking.’”

This is all precise and funny, but doesn’t ultimately compensate for the vagueness of their affinities. Their relationships to one another and, more often than one would expect, to Winner, have a flatness that may seem neat to an editor—many of these people used the internet!—but is bemusing for a reader trying to figure out what, exactly, Howley is trying to do. An MQ-1 Predator drone has two cameras, chillingly designated “day TV”: one can represent a wide area without much detail, and another can zoom to the total exclusion of whatever else is nearby. Howley manages about the same.

Aside from Winner, Howley gives the best of her attention to Lindh. We are introduced to him in his teenager’s bedroom in Marin County, listening to Public Enemy. He raps, and pretends to be Black on forums where he calls people “worthless dickriders.” Then he discovers Islam, travels to a disappointing madrassa through a Yemeni university, returns home, goes to a training camp in Pakistan, and from there to the Taliban. Lindh encounters Osama Bin Laden while he’s visiting the Taliban camp, and falls asleep while listening to him give a speech. In Afghanistan, he’s assigned to an Arabic-speaking group called Al Ansar: the Taliban can’t use someone who doesn’t speak Dari or Pashto in its regular units. He arrives at the front five days before 9/11. Lindh doesn’t leave when he learns about the attacks because, almost sensibly, he can’t see what Bin Laden and al-Qaeda have to do with him.

It is difficult to ascribe to Howley a coherent analysis of her subject that is not self-occluding or a platitude.

This is a mistake. Lindh and his unit are betrayed by the Taliban, who hand them over to the Northern Alliance just a few weeks after the United States invades. They are imprisoned in part of a nineteenth-century fortress called Qala-i-Jangi. A CIA team arrives the day after the prisoners do, presumably eager to interrogate the first substantial tranche of non-Afghani Taliban. Soon after the CIA start the interrogations, an uprising begins: CIA officer Mike Spann is killed immediately, the agency’s first casualty in Afghanistan. The prisoners were held twenty meters from an ammunition cache, which both started and ended the uprising. It was quickly discovered by the prisoners, but when struck by American air support later, the cache created such a large explosion that the gunship which ignited it had to leave the area. This effectively ended the uprising. Lindh survived with some others, trapped in the basement of the “fetid, flooded fortress where he waded through water filled with corpses, and, dehydrated nearly to death, struggled with the temptation to drink.” The Northern Alliance first tried burning the remnant out with fuel; when that failed, they tried drowning them. Of the three to five hundred Taliban who reached Qala-i-Jangi, only Lindh and a few dozen others survived.

Lindh’s American captors stripped him naked, blindfolded him, tied him to a stretcher and wrote “shit head” on the blindfold. The bullet that wounded him was left in his leg for another week. Howley asks, soon after she introduces Lindh:

Could any of us have done this? All the terrible ideas you had when you were twenty, the fanaticisms that come so easily, clean of consequence, ideologies unmarked by encounters with the world. What if you had acted on them?

I wonder what she means: Lindh is kind of an idiot, but not much more than that. Lindh and his lawyers maintain he never fired his rifle while on the front or during the rebellion at Qala-i-Jangi, and no one has ever proven otherwise. But Howley’s question isn’t posed to Winner, who joined the Air Force at nineteen. Her Air Force Commendation Medal rewards her work in “650 enemy captures, 600 enemies killed in action and identifying 900 high value targets.” In a 60 Minutes interview in 2022 after her release, Winner acknowledged that her mission had “a very high civilian casualty rate.” Howley’s equivocation here is worrying: she asks why Lindh is in Afghanistan as if it’s harder to understand than what the CIA is doing there, which would seem the better question for a book about the deep state.

Howley’s disclosure that “John Lindh is exactly my age” is a more exact justification for her interest, though powerfully unsatisfying. Likewise unconvincing is her belief that Lindh “sought animal suffering,” a contrast to her feeling that “our sensual world is radically diminished.” Apart from a description of the leaked “Collateral Murder” video, the view from a pair of Apache helicopters attacking a group of militants, journalists, and children published by Wikileaks, Howley writes little about those brought animal suffering by the war, whether at the end of an M4 rifle or by a drone’s Hellfire missile. Abu Zubaydah’s inclusion could have been an opportunity for Howley to tell more stories like those, but instead he’s folded into a narrative that doesn’t make a place for him. The alleged al-Qaeda member appears in two sections of the book, including a lucid and jarring description of the torture he suffered, like beatings, waterboarding, isolation, and confinement in a box built to look like a coffin. The journals confiscated during his capture by the CIA, which he wrote to compensate for memory loss and brain damage, are made into an awkward figure for Howley’s arguments about privacy and the self. But his presence largely reads as a device for getting Kiriakou onstage. It’s possible to imagine this book without Zubaydah—who was captured using old-fashioned human intelligence, a tip from someone who knew where he was, rather than the kind of surveillance Howley is concerned with—but not without Kiriakou, who for Howley is Winner’s corrupt double. Even former CIA chief John Brennan admitted in his memoir that he felt “the practices [the torture inflicted on Zubaydah] were brutal and inhumane and should not be carried out by the U.S. government.” One would hope a writer who didn’t work for the CIA could do more, but Howley isn’t interested.

William James once remarked on his brother Henry’s “method of narration by interminable elaboration of suggestive reference,” and the same could go for Howley’s argument. There’s nothing wrong with writing about moral gray areas, but there’s little history to contextualize them and, apart from the fragile claim on Zubaydah, nothing about what it might be like for someone who isn’t like Howley to experience wiretapping, prison, or war. Lindh’s stature within the narrative is only explicable through Howley’s identification with him (the shared birthday), and Howley’s interest in Winner is most complete when showing the prosecution’s manipulation of her past (the right to a “fluid and multiple” self). Instead we get piles of gnomic pronouncements, which can’t be taken as seriously as they ask to be: “Prison is the erasure of personal context and every battle therein is a battle to reclaim it.” “Privacy has been the freedom to live as if most of what passes for experience will not endure.” “At a certain level of distance, proximity means nothing at all.” “It [Bottoms Up] is a polemic against memory cast into print.” (Odd, for someone writing a book.)

The book’s relentless panning and zooming isn’t a representation of her subjects’ complexity but something that could be called drone realism.

Accordingly, it is difficult to ascribe to Howley a coherent analysis of her subject that is not self-occluding or a platitude: “Surveillance is made of us,” but it is also “made of dogs” [sic]; to study it is “to learn, over and over, that we cannot escape ourselves,” yet “surveillance finds truths, and surveillance serves the creation of elaborate untruths.” It seems Howley has spent this much time with surveillance only to believe the important thing about it is that someone might read your old tweets, or to muster an ingenuous astonishment that government prosecutors might, in building a case against you, use any part of your life they find damning. Howley assumes we agree there is a kind of identity that belongs totally to oneself, unmarred by incursions or affinities, and that we are the same kind of afraid of seeing it reflected.

Howley has previously defended this way of thinking about identity. In Thrown, her first book, the narrator Kit undertakes a “phenomenological study” of professional fighters. They are two men named Sean and Erik, who are decent and guileless and also volatile and desperate. Sean and Erik are real people, but the narrator isn’t, exactly. As Howley explains, Kit is

every bit as fictional as longitude and latitude, as the Roman calendar, as the sixty-second minute, and I encourage you to dispose with all of these to the extent that they offend you. The Prime Meridian, an act of imagination, runs over Arctic sea ice, Mediterranean waters, the sands of the Sahara. Do you doubt the sand because you doubt the line?

I have looked at this for a long time and have no idea what it means, so I understand why Howley would want to explain it. In an interview after Thrown is published, she says disclosing Kit’s fictionality is “more honest” and less “boring” than the tactics of other works of creative nonfiction, which she feels submit a plangent “Please like me” to the reader in exchange for imposing on their time. This seems as likely to be true as anything else, and perhaps so evidently true as to undermine building a narrator around it. It’s a gimmick—Kit’s fictionality can’t be said to bear on the rest of the book—and a gesture whose strongest effect is to show us the extent of Howley’s anxiety about becoming visible. The obverse of “Please like me” is “Please know my worry,” or, more familiar and sometimes more sinister, “Please know my grievance.” The hoped-for identification authorizes her concern without having to account for where it comes from or why it matters

There is a narrator in Bottoms Up who we are permitted to mistake for Howley. She appears occasionally, as a young journalist in Myanmar, a woman who is becoming a mother, or, briefly, sitting across the table from Winner in jail. We learn more about the stakes of the project from her appearances than elsewhere, like this disclosure on the second page:

I was constructing, out of the food I had eaten at the dinner party, a wall of tough fibrous tissue around a spherical group of cells. I despaired many times, in the writing, about my ability to protect the thing I was growing from a world that had abandoned walls, that asserted its right to invade, to amass electrons against a wholeness, that had forgotten what it was like to construct a self in the dark. But she is here now, in the world, and there is nothing to do but help her remember.

To be clear: these lines are about having a child who will post on the internet. Frustration on the part of reader is appropriate here. There is a world that has not abandoned walls, that does assert its right to invade, and it is one in which people are imprisoned in dark sites and locked in boxes built to look like coffins so as to destroy a self in the dark.

That she seems to have forgotten these things at the moment she considers the kind of history that should exist is alarming, but indicative. Between 2003 and 2009, Howley wrote a daily blog called Hit & Run for the libertarian magazine Reason, and remains a contributing editor there. In June of 2004 the forty thousand subscribers of Reason received issues of the magazine with satellite images of their neighborhoods on the cover, their own house circled in red, above their name styled like the byline of a cover story. But the editors didn’t mean this to alarm. The cover story, subtitled “The upside of ‘zero privacy’,” explained the growing availability of personal information as an opportunity for companies to offer consumers personalized ads and deals. Its writer guaranteed “incredible convenience,” so long as we prevented the country from “devolving into a police state.” Many people had no difficulty understanding the police state was already there.

The benefits of hindsight do not accrue to Bottoms Up. The libertarian idiom is maximalist minimalism—all these words just to say “get off my lawn”—and Howley has reduced analysis to resemblance, its least part. When Howley writes that intelligence agencies are “relatable” because they “are having a lot of trouble with data,” she is borrowing the fact of surveillance and laundering it for an argument about the most banal privacy. Her book’s real project is an update on those magazine covers, with Howley showing you your house from a drone, or the cubicle cockpit of its operator. The drone is not important as a weapon, but as a metonym for the misplaced fear of persecution. The book’s relentless panning and zooming isn’t a representation of her subjects’ complexity but something that could be called drone realism: solipsism sustained by an inventory of threat. Relating an episode of panicked googling, Howley writes, “Google has my searches. The NSA can ask for them. Either could thus see me, on a late night, spiraling.” She continues, “I didn’t tell anyone beyond Google about this spiral. I’m only telling you now because I don’t know you.” This is a flattening that makes all acts and consequences of surveillance the same, whether you’re afraid Google will give the NSA your searches or if you’re dying in a drone strike. As a critique of surveillance, it is the substitution of paranoia for solidarity. There is no society, only individual targets.