Thursday, October 8, 2015

Speaking of bad readers...

I've posted a few times about how readers don't pay attention to what they read, and so tend to completely miss the point; this can be incredibly frustrating for writers. It's one thing to be criticized for what you actually wrote, but being criticized for the version of what you wrote that exists in the critic's head is maddening. I include myself among those bad readers, by the way. Like anyone, I can be too self-absorbed to give someone's writing its due.

But I may have never seen a more egregious example of willful bad reading than that by Peter Maass in an article from The Intercept on August 11th. In it, Maass revealed what he claimed were seven editorial columns from the National Security Agency's internal website, written by a working-level translator. The translator's name was known to Maass, allowing him to do some basic research on the NSA employee. Maass dubbed the translator "Socrates" because six of the editorials were supposedly written for a column NSA called "The SIGINT Philosopher." (I will call this translator "Melville" instead of "Socrates," because the writer himself joked about how little Philosophy he had studied.) Maass combined these editorials with what he found on what he believed to be Melville's personal, non-work blog about life as a failed fiction writer to create a composite, conjectural portrait. The picture was not flattering, as the title "What Happens when a Failed Writer Becomes a Loyal Spy?" might suggest.

Maass's eight-page article included long sections on his search for information on Melville--not much of a challenge, as Melville was attempting to be found rather than hide on the internet, and Maass already had a lot to go on from the editorials. Maass played a tongue-in-cheek game of "tell you who he is/not tell you who he is," sharing many paragraphs of detail about Melville's life taken from the blog, including hints about his family, apparently to make the point (already known by everyone) that people can find out a lot about you if they are really determined to, even if you work for NSA. He explained that even if readers managed to decipher Melville's true identity, he had a "get out of guilt free card," because he was certain he had interpreted Melville's editorials sufficiently. As he saw it, Melville wanted the government to collect everything on everybody, because it made us all safer. Maass found irony in Melville's desire to keep his name out of Maass's story, because, after all, hadn't Melville just said that the more others know about you, the safer you are?

Since Maass's decision to provide so much personal information on Melville was entirely built on his certainty of his own interpretation, it's odd he spent so little time actually, you know, reading the articles. He and NPR's On the Media referred unproblematically to Melville's belief in "total surveillance." Nobody seemed to notice that this phrase, appearing in some re-posts of the story in quotes as though it were Melville who said it, is Maass's restatement, not Melville's words. As I'm about to show, it isn't a good restatement.

"Melville's" Actual Writing: What it says and doesn't say

What did Melville actually say? Maass dealt mostly with two of the editorials, so I will look at the same two. One editorial was the first Melville wrote as SIGINT Philosopher. With what looks to be roughly a one-page word limit, Melville attempted to answer the question not--as Maass thinks--of whether NSA should grab all communications on Earth, but whether it is morally acceptable to conduct surveillance on foreign targets who are not clearly "enemies." When Melville first stated work, he had misgivings. He wasn't targeting terrorists or drug lords, but foreign government officials who seemed like good people. They were folks, like Melville, who had taken government jobs because work for one's country seemed like a respectable calling in life and because it enabled them to care for their families. They weren't being targeted for doing bad things; they simply knew information that Melville's employer also wanted to know.

Melville then recalled a moment when he was himself a "target": his employer was re-investigating him for his security clearance at work. He apparently had problems with the polygraph (not an uncommon occurrence, even for those who are telling the truth). He passed a month later, it seems, but in the meantime, he felt depressed while waiting to retake the test after failing it. Sardonically, he listed two wishes he had while nursing his wounds:

1) That he could run away from it all, take his family out onto the prairie of old and live in a mud hut.

2) That his employer would just know everything about him, rather than just the flawed information from a polygraph.

I don't think either with was a real wish. If given the chance, he wouldn't go back to the 19th century and rub elbows with Ma and Pa Ingalls. Neither did he really want his employer to look through everything of his. These were his depressed, illogical thoughts, and they are presented as such. These ideas made sense when he was under duress, but now that he has recovered his equilibrium he is making fun of his own thoughts. He's poking fun at himself, not expressing a true desire. These crazy thoughts do relate to what comes after, but the later thought expresses a different wish than total surveillance.

He drew an analogy between himself as a target and his own targets he eavesdrops on. He wanted to be "complete and competent" in monitoring them. Not to listen to everything they said, but to listen to enough to be "competent," to not misunderstand them, to not misrepresent them based on bunk data, such as the bunk data from a polygraph. He said this was as much for the targets as it was for the Unites States, thinking of the repercussions that can result from a powerful agent that misunderstands an innocent target.

This is what David Hume (I think I have this right) would have called an "imperfect analogy." The two parts of Melville as target and Melville as eavesdropper only partly line up. He had a crazy desire to have the government know everything about him, and it led him to a less crazy realization that his job has meaning when he does it well enough to prevent propagating bad information.

I think Melville made a rather important punctuation error at one point. In a paragraph right after talking about his crazy desires, he began with "This is the attitude I have brought to my SIGINT work since then." That makes it sound like he meant "I've taken this crazy idea of the government knowing everything about me and put it to work." Some commenters have found this so outlandish they have even wondered if this was a mock piece, the NSA version of The Onion. But taking the whole article into consideration, I see it as a simple punctuation error. It should have said "This is the attitude I have brought to my SIGINT work since then <COLON>," thereby tying it to what came after.

This would have made it clear that the actual attitude he adopts is the next phrase: "If we are going to work on targets that fall short of being technically 'enemies' but are rather informative for our policy makers--and we are--then even looking at it from the target's perspective, we are honor-bound to do more and better monitoring rather than less." The more is not on everyone, only on his small set of foreign targets. And it's not infinite; it's only "more" to the extent it leads to "better."

There is a bizarre finale about seeking a "deity-like monitoring of the target." It's a weird, sudden insertion of a new metaphor of the government spy as God and the target as the humanity that God watches. I don't believe this was even Melville's original line. He's an agnostic. He just said the government "does not have godlike powers" a paragraph before that line. I think there might have even been a smiley-face emoticon stuck in there that didn't show up in Maass's version, and I don't think Melville would EVER use one of those outside a text message.

I'd wager that something happened here Maass can probably relate to. Melville had an editor. The editor thought this was a pithy way to wrap up, and Melville, in his first article, didn't feel he could fight too hard. But even if my textual postulations are wrong, and we take the text at its word, it's clear the text is not calling for monitoring "all of us," as Maass put it during his On the Media interview. It's deity-like monitoring of his targets. Those targets are apparently both foreign and few. He seems to have some level of familiarity with them, which would be impossible if he monitored thousands of people. He's a translator, after all. Ever try to translate just one person? It takes a long time.

All in all, I look at this article as a government employee saying that he finds monitoring other people to be a little unnerving, but that he has come to grips with it by determining to do his job competently. The government is going to do it anyway, so it's better for everyone if they at least get the right information. He has developed an ethic of trying to get "more and better monitoring of (his) targets," so that he can pass on information in a "complete and competent" manner.

This is certainly a position that you could still call into question. It does not interrogate many larger issues about the U.S.'s role internationally as a superpower and the effects thereof. I don't think he could have addressed all of this--short word count. In any event, these critiques, though important, are a long way off from a guy who thinks the government should find out everything about its own citizens.

Contents of second article

In the second article Maass quoted from, Melville, drawing on his newfound love for studying the American Civil War, found lessons from the past for civil servants of today. Melville believed that if he had been an adviser to Lincoln at the start of the war, he'd have urged Lincoln that he couldn't win, and therefore, Lincoln had no choice but to live with secession. Melville would have had a lot of solid-sounding pragmatic reasons why the war was doomed to failure, but his reasons, though brilliant in his own mind, would have been completely wrong. (Partly, he'd have been wrong because he'd have underestimated Lincoln's ability to make the impossible possible.)

Extrapolating from this, he suggested that civil servants like him may want to think twice before opposing too stridently policies they think are wrong. Those civil servants, though well-informed and well-intentioned, might be wrong, even though they could explain so well why there were right. Even if the employees were right and the policies from leaders were wrong, bad policies can sometimes work out: Lee made stupid decisions that his soldiers found a way to make look brilliant just by carrying them out in a brilliant way. (And luck.)

As a former military guy myself, I can't help but interpret this in the context of grousing government employees. Nobody can complain like a government employee can. Melville may have heard a lot of this type of complaint. Although his NSA colleagues are no doubt intelligent people who have brilliant reasons to pick apart policies, Melville apparently felt that to oppose every policy, to think he has everything figured out more than those who made the policy, would amount to hubris.

Maass saw in this a loyal-to-a-fault Melville willing to follow even unethical policies. But Melville did not say that Southerners who opposed slavery should have fought for it because their country demanded it. He said that those who accepted the South's cause were doing the "right thing" (within the context of being utterly wrong about slavery), to try to make the flawed strategies of their leadership work. If NSA employees accept NSA's overall mission of using foreign communications to provide foreign intelligence for America's military and policy makers, then they should generally work to make policies in support of that mission achieve their intended results. In this context, the policies Melville thought that workers might object to are more likely to be inefficient or counter-productive in nature, not unethical. This is clearer if one reads some of the other columns Melville wrote, in which he himself groused about a number of those policies, such as a promotion system that discouraged the collaboration it was supposed to reward.

In fact, Melville listed three valid responses to policies employees might not like. One was "I might be wrong." Second was "I might be right, but the wrong thing might work anyway." Third was--directly quoting here: "My oath is to uphold the constitution, and as long as those decision makers are operating constitutionally, I will put my own feelings aside, and support them." (Bold mine.) Melville was willing to give his leaders a lot of latitude, but not infinitely so.

Melville's far from a perfect writer. His blog is sometimes intolerably self-indulgent. In his SIGINT Philosopher columns, he tried to avoid bureaucratic speech and write something interesting, but in the process he left daylight for an uncautious reader to arrive at interpretations that I don't think he meant. But there is no reason to read the worst into what is there unless you've already made your mind up beforehand that you know what he's talking about. That is to say, you might not have the necessary context, and should approach with caution. Melville was wary about pretending he knew more about his targets than he really did (one of his columns was entirely about this). That's why he wanted to know more about those targets. He was worried that the government might take action against the target based on a faulty understanding of the context.

Maass seems to have done exactly the thing Melville wanted to avoid in his work. He pulled the trigger on an accusatory story without having enough context. He read into Melville what he assumed he would find. He assumed, anachronistically, that Melville's admonition to follow policies he didn't like was about NSA metadata programs that have since come under fire (even though those weren't an issue of public debate until months after Melville wrote). It seems more likely, though, that Melville was referring to something entirely different, possibly government policies Melville thught were counterproductive concerning parts of the world he cared about. Maass also assumed that Melville meant "more" monitoring equaled "total" monitoring, and monitoring of everyone, and for whatever reasons suited his fancy. A remotely careful reading, though, clearly shows Melville wanted better monitoring of a limited number of foreign targets picked for specific reasons so that the government had the correct information.

I don't fault The Intercept, The Guardian, or any other venues for trying to write stories about NSA. The Intercept does some important journalism. Last month, they had a story about women on Riker's Island who faced sexual abuse for seeking medical care.  After the Kalief Browder story, I don't see how anyone could not see this as critical journalism. Giving a voice to the voiceless is journalism at its best. But a story like Maass's, so blatantly missing the point of writing that was right there in front of him, calls his reliability into question. By extension, it calls The Intercept into question. As the de facto mediators between the Snowden documents and the public, they have to do better than this, or the entire public discourse about surveillance will be off course.

I understand, given the age we live in, anxiety over monitoring of electronic communications. The public will never feel easy about monitoring its government does in secret, just like Melville did not feel easy about his employer monitoring him. NSA must do a better job of explaining how it balances the 4th Amendment rights of its citizens against the need to protect its citizens. A much better job. As in, it should allow the people who actually do and know the work to explain their jobs instead of marching its leaders in front of us to give broad and generic reassurances. Providing a declassified version of USSID SPOO18, NSA's regulations for protecting 4th Amendment rights while carrying out the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act, was a great start, but there is much more NSA could do to make clear to Americans what NSA actually does.

It won't be easy. NSA is, I imagine, worried that every reassurance it makes to the American people has a cost in what it teaches adversaries about how to evade NSA. And they might be right--since we don't know everything about how they work, we can't imagine how seemingly innocent revelations might hurt NSA. But it can be done. It just takes creativity and political willpower. I appreciate that The Intercept is part of creating that political willpower, although they are doing it, like all us writers are, imperfectly. Because honestly, nobody would rather see NSA open up more to its citizens about how it does what it does than I would.

In any event, it's another warning to writers. Do everything you can to avoid being misread. But know you'll still be misread, anyway. Me, I take solace in recalling the scorn the real Melville, Herman, received for Moby Dick when it came out. Commenters in America noted that it didn't make any sense how Ishmael was telling the story, when the entire crew of the Pequod died. But it was a simple printer error. The American version left off the end, "I alone have escaped to tell thee," where Ishmael survives. There's no end to things that can go wrong in writing. But keep writing anyway. Someday, perhaps, you'll be vindicated.


  1. I appreciate a close reader as much as the next writer, so I would like to thank the Workshop Heretic for his response to my Intercept story, even though I disagree with much of what he has written.

    The Heretic describes my story in a disapproving way as a “conjectural portrait,” to which I respond—he’s right. Writers bring limitations to just about every story they compose—their own biases, their lack of omniscience, and once they start writing, a choice of words that is rarely perfect. Perhaps everything we write qualifies, to one extent or another, as a conjectural portrait, some of them more accurate than others, and I hope our readers understand that.

    Yet I remain comfortable with my portrait of the NSA’s philosopher of signals intelligence. For brevity’s sake I’ll focus on just one of my objections to the Heretic’s post: his argument that the articles by the philosopher were not a call for the sort of pervasive surveillance that has gotten the NSA into so much trouble of late. The Heretic says the articles called for extensive monitoring of only “a small set of foreign targets” who are legitimate targets, rather than entire populations.

    That’s a sound mission—monitoring just the targets who deserve monitoring. But I think the Heretic is executing a dodge of sorts. Where do these targets come from? The phrase “collect it all” has become commonplace in the post-Snowden era because the NSA believes that in order to know whom to target, it needs to collect all the information it can on virtually everyone. I think the Heretic is aware of this.

    I respect the Heretic’s insights into the mindset of the NSA’s philosopher; the Heretic has a unique vantage point. But I also think conjectural portraits, when done well, can serve as mirrors that cause discomfort to their subjects, whose self-assessments might be at variance with the assessments of others. That said, one of my regrets in writing the story is that I couldn’t know more about the philosopher. I had just one brief phone conversation with him, and I had access to only a handful of the articles he wrote for the NSA and just one of his fiction pieces. I found much to admire in those snippets of his life, and I hope that one day I might have the opportunity to learn more. We have much in common and much to discuss, preferably over a beer.

  2. Thanks for your response, Peter. Believe it or not, I really don't have the technical expertise to say for sure whether "in order to know whom to target, (NSA) needs to collect all the information it can on virtually everyone" is correct. I believe it's not true, but I'm not a reliable source. I've tried hard to learn technical information, but I'm afraid I'm a Luddite at heart. I rely on people I trust who know more than I do to help me muddle through issues of technology and ethics. Not just where surveillance is concerned, but with things like net neutrality or the extent to which I ought to monitor the online activities of my own kids.

    All I can say is that I know some very smart, very decent people who've explained it to me as best they can, people who don't necessarily have a stake in convincing me they are right. The general consensus is that no solution is perfect, but what NSA, Congress, and the courts have come up with is at least a reasonable stab at trying to do two things at once, both prosecute its mission and protect privacy rights of its citizens. Their explanations match my limited experience. I wouldn't dream of trying to be the apologist for their programs. I'm not nearly smart enough. I wish we could hear more from people who are. It's more than enough for me to wrestle with the moral issues of the job I have and do know something about. And I do wrestle with them, in ways you really can't imagine.

    Beer and talk are always a good idea, but I suppose the Philosopher told you why it's problematic in your short phone call. I think before he said "Don't use my name," he said "I can't talk." I take it he meant there are rules about talking to the media. He may not like the rules, but his first duty isn't to make himself happy. It's to take care of the people running around his house. I think he'd trade a Nobel for them if he had the choice.

    Now, back to failing at writing. I was in the middle of being stuck on a scene in a story when I wandered onto my blog to avoid trying to write it.

  3. jake:

    the interesting thing about the nsa socrates saying he couldn't talk boils down to this: in such conversations, the risk of job loss -- no trivial thing when families are involved -- weighs entirely on the would be talker. the journalist is in the opposite situation entirely: he gains by getting the talker to talk. he's got little to nothing at stake by comparison. i do acknowledge the fundamental value of journalism, but there's something very parasitic about that.


    1. Chris, I mostly agree. People who talk to journalists in America generally face far greater risks than the journalists they talk to. But that doesn’t hold true in countries like Russia, where journalists can get killed for publishing what they are told by their sources. And in America there can be a cost, at least in reputation, for a journalist whose source gets into trouble due to a lapse by the journalist. Earlier this year I wrote a story about Fox News reporter James Rosen, whose State Department source, Stephen Kim, wound up in prison under Espionage Act charges because, in part, Rosen did not take adequate precautions to protect their communications. Rosen remains a prominent journalist and is frequently on the air, but I think his reputation suffered a bit. That’s nothing compared to Kim going to prison, however. Rgds, Peter

    2. Thanks for replying again on my humble, now-defunct blog again, Peter. I read your article on Kim, and started to write several responses to you, but gave up on all of them. There's nothing I could say that would really do justice to it, or that everyone doesn't already know. Democracy can't live without journalism. But journalism will always itself be in a tough balancing act between working in the public interest and being a business. I think Rosen was kind of cynical. He didn't care that Kim's life might be ruined, and he didn't even seem to care that the story he got in return for Kim's life wasn't even a useful story. He just wanted to feed the beast and get a scoop. That doesn't mean all journalists are parasites. We all have to walk a line between our own idealism and real life. A lot of journalists seem to be trying to do some real good while wading through reality.

      The few times I've read stories about something I actually have first-hand knowledge of, I don't usually get a warm fuzzy that the journalist really gets it. That is a concern of mine, that journalists are stretched so thin, and sometimes maybe under pressure to put SOMETHING out, that they just don't have the expertise to get it right. Or, maybe they have good source, but that source can only provide so much context, and the journalist fills in the gaps the wrong way. I can sympathize. I've written elsewhere about how seeing journalists get it wrong doesn't fill me with a sense of superiority. It fills me with humility, wondering if I ever do the same thing in my own work.

      In any case, the fact that you're willing to twice comment on the obscure, poorly-designed blog of some nobody on the internet to talk about a story you wrote suggests that you probably do care about truth and getting it right.


  4. Thanks for the comment, Chris. Glad you managed to get past the gremlins who were making it difficult to post.

    For everyone else who doesn't know him, Chris has a great intellect and is more deserving of the title "philosopher" than anyone I know, myself very much included. He has a particular expertise in a subject that might interest some readers of this site: the balance for bureaucrats between delegation and discretion, between doing what the rules say and doing what they might view as right. This is a link to his doctoral thesis on the subject (one of his doctoral theses; he has two Ph.D degrees):

  5. This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.

    1. Sorry I removed this. First, I found it in the spam folder nine months after you posted it. I didn't even know there was a spam folder. Then, I started to type a reply, didn't like it, hit delete, and deleted both your comment and my reply. I don't like to delete comments, even ones I disagree with.