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Tuesday, July 2, 2013

Thriller novelist Nick Mennuti on the NSA and RAW

The official video for the free They Might Be Giants NSA ringtone. I found the video at Nick Mennuti's Twitter site.

A few weeks ago, I got an email from Theresa Giacopasi, a playwright and a publicist for the Little, Brown and Company publishing company in New York. Ms. Giacopasi told me that author Nicholas Mennuti is a big fan of RAWIllumination and that he's about to come out with a new thriller at the end of July, Weaponized, that's reminiscent of the ongoing Edward Snowden affair. Mennuti has an op-ed up a Huffington Post, she wrote.

I checked out Mennuti's piece, and then agreed to interview Mennuti.

Weaponized, cowritten with screenwriter David Guggenheim, has a hero who is hiding out in Cambodia after being falsely accused of leaking secret American documents. A "Publisher's Weekly" starred review says, ""[An] excellent first novel . . . The authors have their fingers on the pulse of contemporary life . . . The rare suspense novel that will genuinely surprise jaded genre readers." Weaponized comes out on July 30.

Your new novel, Weaponized, features a private contractor who is accused of leaking secret documents. While I'm sure your main purpose is to entertain, do you hope it will help readers think through issues raised by the Edward Snowden case?

Absolutely. Although in “Weaponized”, my main character, Kyle West, is actually an inversion of Snowden. He’s the guy forced to run because someone like Snowden leaked documents with Kyle’s name all over them.

The best way I can sum it up is this:

If in Snowden’s leaks, one name came up over and over again as the biggest reason the NSA was able to achieve such omnipotence – that would be Kyle. He’s basically accused of helping to enable a techno-fascist state to take root, so obviously with that kind of press, you run away.

What’s ironic is that Kyle ends up on the same journey Snowden’s on right now, even though they’re each other’s mirrors. He ends up floating between different countries as warrants for his extradition keep piling up. He’s dodging testimony before select committees. He’s branded a traitor. And more and more of his sins keep hitting the news every day – the exact sins I might add – that Snowden is currently accusing the NSA of committing.

I started out wanting Kyle to be two things: A private contractor. And also the accused party and not the leaker. That’s where his character began for me.

I wanted him to be the accused and not the leaker, because you rarely ever get that story, or if you do, it’s because that character has usually been unjustly accused. I like my characters to have a bit of ambiguity, so I wanted Kyle’s relative innocence in regard to what’s contained in the leaked documents to be a bit of a mystery itself.

Someone like Snowden may be fascinating to a journalist, but for a novelist, he’s slightly less compelling as a character, especially, if you’re writing a thriller. Snowden just has too much help right now. He’s got WikiLeaks and their lawyer, plus several countries -- if not actively hostile to the U.S. at least not eager to help us – that are willing to shelter him. So Kyle is more isolated than Snowden and that makes for better drama.

However, that said, if Snowden has to run for over a year, his experience may end up even further mirroring Kyle’s. Because I’m not sure how long Snowden can keep country hopping, and if he can, where he’s going to end up. Let’s hope he doesn’t end up in a shoot-out in Cambodia.

The private contractor aspect of Kyle’s character exists because I wanted to address how a great deal of the NSA has been privatized. We look at it as a government behemoth, but so much of the work being done there is conducted off-site. I think the freelance culture of both systems intelligence and spying in the current age is both dangerous and underreported on. And although no novel comes straight from a polemical desire, my concern about those symptoms definitely fueled the writing.

I don’t think my book will have an iota of the effect of Snowden’s leaks, I do hope one thing does happen: That something actually changes.

Because my greatest worry is that we have all these discussions about Snowden’s leaks and then things just stay the same. That’s exactly what happened in 2006-07 when we had leakers from Verizon and NSA step forward, and everyone screamed at the Bush administration, but we kept the program anyway, and Obama just put it on steroids.

So I hope that we not only discuss Snowden’s leaks – I hope we actually stop and consider the size of our security state, which is completely out of control. And it’s not only out of control from a civil liberties perspective – it’s out of control from any perspective.

What state of siege does a country have to be under to justify sucking up this amount of information on its citizens? I mean we should literally be in a 24-hour total war for this kind of surveillance. And I’m certain someone is going to make the argument we are at 24-hour war between terrorism and cyber-attacks. But even with those two – which don’t get me wrong are real threats – the amount of personal information the government has access to is insane.

On top of all that -- I don’t think NSA is even good at sifting through all the information they collect. I said it in my article and I’ll say it again for your readers – for the security dragnet we have – two brothers in Boston who the Russians warned us about shouldn’t have been able to plant a bomb. I’m willing to grant we can’t prevent every act of terrorism, but if the Russians warn you half a dozen times, and you have this omnipotent security state, there’s no reason for that attack to happen.

I tried to Google you after I got the email from your publicist and couldn't find much information about you. (Good job!) Tell me a little about yourself, what you're willing to share with  my readers and the NSA.

Tom, I swear I wish I could tell you my relative anonymity in cyberspace has been a well-thought out plan. By nature, I’m kind of solitary. I’m a writer and an only child, which means I’m almost genetically pre-disposed to want to be alone. Also, I’ve never been a fan of over-sharing. I just got on Twitter and Good Reads and all these social networking sites for the book, to reach out because I believe in it, but I’d still like to retain some anonymity.

I think a lot of writers today – I shall leave them nameless – have developed their persona to such an extent that it’s what ends up getting reviewed and commented upon instead of the work. I actually suspect this hyper-persona may be directly related to the isolated nature of what writers do. If you don’t have the right temperament, the isolation can be troubling, and can lead you toward spectacle.

In terms of what I’m willing to divulge – and also what might interest your readers – I live in New York. I went to Tisch at NYU to study Dramatic Writing. I began my writing career as a short-story writer and those pieces had more of a literary bent; however, that started to change when the facts of the Bush administration’s warrantless wiretapping was exposed. I can’t think of any other way to describe it except to say, it really fascinated me from a technology angle and pissed me off as a citizen.

I wrote a short story about it called “Connected” which Sven Birkerts (a great essayist and a greater guy) published in his literary magazine out of Boston University called “Agni”, and my career sort of changed after that. “Agni” was a bigger publication than I had ever appeared in, and the germ of Weaponized sort of all sprang from that short story. The story of Weaponized is different of course from the short story, but the writing style and the content are similar.

Nick Mennuti

I heard from your publicist after you found my blog. Is Robert Anton Wilson's work an influence on your own?

I actually had my publicist get in touch with you because I’ve been a HUGE fan of your blog since I first found it in probably mid-2011. I know it existed before then, but that’s when I first happened upon it. And I thought, judging from your blog, you and your readers were people I’d like to have a dialogue with regarding the issue of state surveillance. On top of which, you’ve been doing a terrific job of covering it.

RAW’s work has been a huge influence on me in a number of ways, some of them more obvious than others.

I have to be honest about my own shortcomings when talking about RAW. When I read his work (starting in college) I was to put it mildly – blown away. However, as I got older, I realized I lacked his speculative gifts. To put it mildly, RAW was a visionary. Plus, I couldn’t spread myself across as many different mediums as he did. I mean calling the man a prolific polymath doesn’t even begin to do him justice. I was a fiction writer (and occasional essayist), but RAW did so much more and somehow all of it well. I think you have to do this with all your literary heroes – you have to be honest with yourself and say – what can I learn from this one. Because you’re never going to be just like them.

And from RAW what I learned was to look beneath the surface – way beneath the surface. To not believe any totalizing theory that’s presented to you as gospel or fact, and in general – just keep your fucking mind open to probabilities because nothing is necessarily true. He made doubt his religion (and I cringe using that word regarding RAW). And I still practice it on a daily basis.

RAW also influenced me in that he had a tremendous sense of humor. I mean even when the man was discussing consciousness or systems theory – heavy fucking topics -- he was funny as hell. Now I don’t think I’m nearly as funny as RAW, but I do true to incorporate some of that humor in my books. I’ve always said to friends who don’t know RAW’s work that -- it’s like what Pynchon would be like, if he was actually funny and without those terrible songs. (I may have just infuriated half your audience).

He also was the first author I came across – and this is something I did steal directly for Weaponized from Masks of the Illumanati – who put real people in lead roles in their books. Obviously, RAW used Crowley (and others of course). Now I didn’t put any real people in lead roles. But large swaths of the Bush and Obama administration have cameos throughout Weaponized. RAW was the master of breaking the literary 4th wall. I try to do it in my own way.

According to an appendix to Illuminatus!, the Illuminati theory of history says that the fourth stage (of the the five stages) is "Bureaucracy," a period associated with the I Ching hexagrams for "oppression or exhaustion, superior men held in restraint by inferior men." In  your piece for Huffington Post, you write, "The current state of our government is neither idealist nor pragmatism -- it's bureaucracy, the obscene underside of pragmatism. It simultaneously keeps growing and yet nothing ever changes." How do we stop bureaucracy from controlling our national security system?

Fascinating question and one that terrifies me – now I have to present actual ideas about improving the system, instead of fulminating against it.

I mean I have some pie in the sky ideas – like rigorous term-limits for Senators and House reps, because I think once they stay in too long they just become shills for whoever paid for the last campaign. I’d love to see lobbyists under greater restriction and scrutiny. But let’s get real…

I think bureaucracy arrives when there’s something mostly unnecessary being preserved just because it’s making people too much money to ever let it stop. The more unnecessary said “project” is, the more people it needs to employ, either to justify its own existence, or to stop people from asking questions about it by putting them on the payroll.

And that’s when you get the kind of bureaucracy we have today. There’s too much money being made and fewer reasons for half these things to exist, but if you were to cut them, you might unleash levels of unemployment that could lead to total anarchy. So not only did we create a bureaucracy, we are slaves to it now.

Now in the particular case of the NSA surveillance program the only remedy I can offer is this.
Can we actually let people who aren’t 60 years old or older discuss the problem? Ninety percent of the people asking the NSA and FBI questions don’t even know what Twitter or Instagram is – let alone what it means to block or monitor it.

I think it would do a world of good if we actually allowed some experts on this issue to voice their support/concerns over the program. I know the government has gotten in touch with hackers before to recruit them for NSA or talk about cyber-attacks. Well let’s bring them before a committee and let them talk -- let them break down what current systems intelligence can actually do.

I think one of the reasons people can’t sustain a level of outrage over the NSA is that at some point – none of the facts being unearthed make any sense to half of them, so they just tune out. Which although I understand -- the technical aspects of the program can be maddeningly complex -- if you do care about privacy, this is stuff you need to know. You can’t tub-thump for privacy and not understand how it’s being stripped from you.

So I don’t know how to subvert the bureaucracy, it’s so entrenched now, all I can do is offer the above as a palliative. It’s like hospice care for the patient. I don’t know how to save it, but maybe a little pain can be prevented.


michael said... this is a good interview, and Menutti is articulate and engaging. I really want to read this book.

Your Q where you cite the appendix section of Illuminatus! about the Illuminati theory of history creeped me out, because, while I blogged on music tonight, earlier I was making a bunch of notes on Chris Hayes's recent book, about how "in-bred" elites have run us into the ground, and I was relating it to G. William Domhoff's sociological work and Kevin Phillips's historical work...and the Discordian/Illuminati cyclical model.

But again: terrific interview, Tom! Thanks.

Anonymous said...

I like the Cambodia synchronicity: seeking freedom in a country where the Church of Marx killed millions.

gacord said...

Awesome interview! I'm with Michael, I want to read his book, too.

Unknown said...

Hi Guys! So happy you enjoyed the interview. Thanks for the kind words and hope you enjoy "Weaponized" too!