BARRY EISLER: FROM CIA TO THE BESTSELLER LIST
By Paul Freeman [January 2016 Interview]
They’re watching. They’re listening. They can follow your every move.
Government surveillance is one of the unnerving elements of Barry Eisler’s latest riveting thriller, “The God’s Eye View.”
The 52-year-old Eisler, his wife (a literary agent) and their 17-year-old daughter (a budding writer), divide their time between San Francisco and the Palo Alto area. Prior to becoming a bestselling author, Eisler was a technology lawyer and Silicon Valley startup executive. And, oh, yes, for three years, he worked as a covert operative for the CIA.
Publishers Weekly says of “The God’s Eye View,” "Eisler's expert knowledge of spy craft and hand-to-hand combat combine with his ultra-deep distrust of government intelligence to propel this suspenseful yarn into the front ranks of paranoid thrillers."
In the new book, real-life events and figures such as Edward Snowden add to the believability of Eisler’s fascinating fictional characters.
In Eisler’s piercingly plausible story, NSA director Theodore Anders seeks to ensure our nation’s safety, and maintain his massive personal power, by creating an all-pervasive surveillance system.
Evelyn Gallagher manages the NSA’s camera network and facial recognition program. She discovers that a whistleblower is about to give explosive information to an alternative journalist. As repercussions follow, she suspects that the agency will stop at nothing to prevent the leaks. Anders doesn’t blink at kidnapping, murder, staged terrorism or torture.
Gallagher doesn’t want to stand idly by, but, as a single parent, caring for a deaf son, she doesn’t want to put the boy in jeopardy. Into their lives comes Marvin Manus, a deaf, monolithic murderer who blindly serves the director. His humanity, battered to a pulp in childhood, is reawakened by Gallagher’s empathy.
“The God’s Eye View” will have you perched on the edge of your seat from page one. And you’ll be holding your breath right through the last sentence. Once you’ve finished reading, you’ll be ready for profound rumination.
Eisler is the author of two popular thriller series, one featuring John Rain, a Japanese-American former soldier turned international assassin, and the other focusing on black ops soldier Ben Treven. Eisler is working on his next novel, like “The God’s Eye View,” a stand-alone, this one about a female Seattle sex crimes detective who was trafficked and horribly abused as a child. He also eloquently expresses his concerns on his blog, “The Heart of the Matter,” http://barryeisler.blogspot.com.
POP CULTURE CLASSICS:
But then also, I’m pretty much of an activist, when it comes to things like - in no particular order of importance - torture, transparency, the metastatic growth of government secrecy. And the sort of government overreach I find to be increasingly dangerous in our post-9/11 environment. I like to do whatever I can to make people aware of these dangers. And one way I can do that is by including these actual events in my fiction.
But fear-mongering by the government, which everyone knows, or at least ought to know, dramatically increases government power, has a tendency to make the populace put up with all sorts of government incursions and encroachments that would otherwise be impermissible. So the government is benefitting, every time it can make the public afraid. People don’t discount government fear-mongering accordingly. And the other thing they don’t discount is the fear-mongering that leads specifically to policies of war. Tremendous fortunes are made in wars. I mean, trillions of dollars have been made by private industry, the security intelligence, military-industrial complex, since 9/11.
And yet, very few people stop and say, “Okay, first it was Al-Qaeda that was the big boogeyman I needed to be afraid of, because they were going to come to America and slaughter us all in our beds. And then it was ISIS. Okay, maybe it’s all true. Maybe ISIS is as Roger Cohen in the New York Times foolishly put it, “an existential threat” to the United States. I just had to pause it for a second. I mean, The New York Times, the gold standard supposedly of wise punditry called this pathetic little group on the other side of the world “an existential threat to America.” So either existential doesn’t mean what the dictionary says it means… or Roger Cohen doesn’t know what it means. Or the guy is just smokin’ his own dope. Something is going on. Too few people read something like that and ask, “Who’s going to make money from this?,” because if you ask those questions, you’ll know to discount this kind of overheated rhetoric and these constant calls for war. So if the question is - how many people are aware of government overreach and the establishment media ally of that overreach? I would say it’s too few.
It’s much more comforting to believe that the government is an honest, disinterested broker with your best interests at heart. And again, one of those laws of physics, common sense aspects of being human that gets suspended is, when we know someone in life who’s discovered to be a liar, then you know not to trust this person anymore, unless you can independently verify what they’re telling you. You know that. It’s how we’re wired. But no matter how many times the government is caught lying about the most consequential issues of war and peace, the next time, we are like, “Yeah, well, this time I think it’s true.”
I don’t know how far back you have to go. Go to the Gulf of Tonkin resolution, the ginned-up news about Saddam Hussein trying to get hold of nuclear material and build weapons of mass destruction. It just happens again and again and again. If it was a person, we’d say, “Okay, this person is a bullshitter. I’m not going to believe anything he says from now on.” But when it’s the government, it’s like, the slate is washed clean and the next time the government says, “Oh, this time we really do need to go to war. This time the Bogeyman is real,” we’re just like, “Yeah, we’ve got to do it. What else can we do? They’re telling the truth.” It’s bizarre.
So that’s a need to believe. I guess you could call it “naivete,” but I don’t think it’s exactly naivete. I think it’s a little different. Naivete does enter it, too, but I think that’s a separate category. Some of it, yes, is complacency, laziness, because who has the time to search out venues of independent, trustworthy, non-corporate media? It’s so much easier to just turn on CNN or MSNBC or Fox News, whatever’s playing on the news. So much easier, if you fancy yourself sophisticated, to just read the New York Times and Wall Street Journal or Washington Post or whatever and absorb your news that way. And the brands are strong. The brands never get tarnished, no matter how many things these newspapers are wrong about or propagandistic about. The underlying mentality, the unconscious notion is - “Well, it’s The New York Times. It’s the Gray Lady. It’s all the news that’s fit to print. It’s been around for a long time. Millions of people read them. It must be trustworthy, right?” That’s how establishments get a pass.
And in one more sense, this fascinated me - the number of pundits who wanted to discuss Snowden’s motivations for revealing evidence of vast government criminality… And by the way, Snowden’s position that these positions were criminal and unconstitutional have since been vindicated by at least three federal courts that have described the programs as unconstitutional… unlawful - that’s the kind word, like the professional courtesy word we use sometimes for criminal or illegal, if we’re talking about the government. And even Orwellian. So when someone reveals programs that are subsequently found by federal courts to be unconstitutional and indeed even Orwellian, it’s pretty hard to argue that that person is other than a whistleblower.
Anyway, at the time, everybody wanted to focus on how Snowden violated his oath of secrecy. Do you remember that phrase? That was Josh Marshall of Talking Points Memo, David Brooks, naturally, in the New York Times, and a bunch of others, all talking about the oath of secrecy. Well, first of all, there is no oath of secrecy. I spent three years in the CIA and I can tell you that no one swears an oath to secrecy. There is an NDA, a non-disclosure agreement you sign, yeah, you’ve got to keep the governments secrets. It’s an NDA. You know what that is - in tech you see it all the time. The oath, there is an oath, the oath is to protect and defend the Constitution. You actually do swear an oath to protect and defend the Constitution. At least in the CIA… I’m pretty sure the military and the NSA, etc.
So it’s fascinating to me to watch these people talk about how Snowden violated a non-existent oath, while ignoring the true oath that he did take, which was to protect and defend the Constitution. So the best thing you could say, in an honest argument about Snowden would be something like this, that this is a guy who was faced with two competing imperatives. In his NDA, he signed a contract saying he would keep secrecy. And then he swore an oath to uphold the Constitution. And those two motivations, those two needs came into conflict. And he had to decide, one way or the other. There was no way to have it both ways, at least based on what his conscience was telling him.
So you can argue coherently that he made the wrong call, that his NDA was actually more important than his oath to protect the Constitution or that he didn’t properly understand what his oath to protect the Constitution meant. You can make those sorts of arguments. But you cannot coherently, legitimately talk about an oath of secrecy that doesn’t exist, while, at the same time, pretending that the real oath, which is to protect the Constitution, doesn’t exist at all. That’s mostly what our august pundit class was doing at the time.
And the most, for me, interesting, and pernicious aspect of the whole debate over whether Snowden was a narcissist or a villain or what have you is this - Snowden’s just one guy. And he revealed programs that have a profound impact on our ability to function as a democracy, programs that have subsequently been found unconstitutional or criminal. So who can hurt a country more? One guy who’s doing something that’s illegal? Or the entire government doing something illegal? To ask the question is to answer it, because the answer is so obvious and inarguable. But our establishment pundits were far more interested in focusing on the arguably illegal behavior of one man, than in discussing the government illegal behavior that the one man revealed. That is such a warped sense of priorities, you could write a dissertation on it. But it is the set of priorities that characterizes our establishment media class… with some notable exceptions.
I dedicated the book to the whistleblowers. I think today, America’s whistleblowers are on the front ranks of defending democracy. So I think America’s whistleblowers are heroes. And I would be proud to call myself one of them. It’s just that I can’t accurately do it. And also I feel like it would be self-congratulatory in way that even aside from the inaccuracy, I don’t deserve, because I’m not taking real risks in covering the kind of political topics in my fiction that I cover. What’s the worst thing that’s going to happen to me? Maybe a publisher will drop me, because they don’t like my politics. Or a reader will give me a bad review or send me an angry letter. I’ve gotten all that stuff. And actually I have had trouble with previous publishers, because of some of my politics.
But if you put those risks in perspective, they’re not even risks. Snowden gave up his life, as he knows it. Chelsea Manning is rotting in Fort Leavenworth. Those are real risks. And I would like to think that I would have the courage to take those risks myself if I were in the right position. But that’s not something you can really know until you’re there. And I’m certainly not taking those kinds of risks as a novelist.
So the truth is, I would welcome any kind of protests, attempted lawsuit, anything like that by the powers that be, because it would just bring more attention to my work. I’d sell more copies and the books would do more good in the world. It would be a total win. But I don’t think it’s very likely.
But all of the media was calling it a leak. Sometimes a spill. And nothing else. And I thought, “This is just a complete violation of the English language!” I mean, we know what a leak is. If your roof is leaking, typically you have a drip of water coming out. I started thinking, “What a fantastic, propagandistic way of describing this thing, which is actually terrifying.” I mean, this thing was erupting, exploding oil, out of control, into the ocean, which is a scary thought. And I want people to be afraid and I want people to start protesting against this kind of really aggressive, risky oil-drilling. But if we all agree that we’ll just call it a leak, certain kinds of imagery come to mind, A leaky roof - what happens? You put a pan down. You put a pot down. You catch the dripping water. It’s totally contained. Really easy. It’s an inconvenience. It’s not a big deal. A spill? The glass got knocked over and milk spilled out? Okay, you wipe it up with some paper towels. A leak’s no big deal. A spill’s no big deal. And it can’t be a coincidence. A child, if you asked them to describe the video, they’d say, “An eruption.” “An explosion.” “Calamity.” “Disaster.” Nobody would say, “leak.” It’s totally artificial. And when you have something artificial like that, there’s a reason it’s injected.
It’s like “enhanced interrogation.” Nobody talks that way. We have a word for beatings, deprivation. You know, a hundred people died at Guantanamo. General Barry McCaffrey said, “We kill people. We torture them to death.” It’s known. It’s a psychologically painful thing to acknowledge. We have a word for it. It’s “torture.” Before the Bush Administration, nobody talked about “enhanced interrogation,” except, ironically, the Gestapo. “Enhanced interrogation” is, in fact, a euphemism that was invented by the Gestapo, for the same reasons that we used it.
So anytime you see a word or a phrase that is inherently unnatural or newfangled or whatever, you’ve got to think about it. It took some effort to come up with that thing and try to introduce it into the lexicon.
I remember in Iraq, when Bush acknowledged “the surge.” What a great word! The imagery is this, like the tide surges. You’re standing on the beach and the water comes surging in and it’s powerful and unstoppable. And a moment later, it recedes. It goes right back out. So don’t be alarmed, America. There is a word, a normal word that we’ve traditionally used for an increase in military hostilities. We’ve call it “an escalation.” But an escalation is open-ended. Maybe it’s going to go on and on. But a surge powerfully and inevitably comes in and then it goes back out, having cleaned up the beach. [Laughs] It was genius! When it comes to marketing, sometimes these guys are really good! So “the surge” was just brilliant marketing. I remember some Pentagon spokesman said, “Well, we’re going to see a spike. It’ll be a sustained spike.” I thought, “A spike is not sustained!” If you draw a spike on a graph, it makes a little point. Then it comes back down. [Laughs] It’s crazy what they do with the language. There are countless examples.
This gets back to the propaganda. This is just a small one that I came across recently. Someone else pointed it out. I had never noticed it before. “Regime.” You almost never hear the American news media using the word “regime” for an American friend or ally. It’s almost always a word that’s reserved for governments we don’t. Our friends and allies are “governments” and sometimes “administrations.” But we have the Iranian regime, the Russian regime. Its amazing. Russia has “gulags.” We have “detention centers.” Those guys torture. We have enhanced interrogation. It’s all propaganda.
So a guy like Theodore Anders, who, every day, gets all the secret briefings, he’s privy to all sorts of things that the American public doesn’t know about. You start to feel special. You’re one of the high priests. You’re one of the ordained ones who sees the world as it really is. People who disagree with you are at best ignorant or misguided. And they need to be resisted. You know what’s best. And all you’re trying to do is what’s best for the country, right? You don’t want to think of yourself as self-interested. Again, that’s psychologically uncomfortable. Villains don’t look in the mirror and see a villain staring back. They see a hero staring back. It’s the way we’re built. You know you’re only trying to do what’s best for America, but these people are trying to impede you, which means they’re trying to impede what’s best for America. Those people need to be resisted, so that you can do what you need to do, because what you need to do is best for America. That’s just the mentality.
Anyway, after reading this manuscript, he asked me, by email, “Is Manus the hand of God?” I didn’t really know what he meant. I wrote back, “Well, he does smite a lot of people. So maybe.” And he said, “No, no, ‘Manus’ is Latin for ‘hand.’ If it’s the God’s Eye View that’s the Director’s program and Manus is the Director’s man, is this kind of a wink at the audience, indicating that Manus is the hand of God?” And I said, “Oh, my God! I didn’t even realize that. Right. Manuscript. Manicure. Right, it’s the root for hand.” So anyway, people notice these things that I hadn’t noticed myself and it’s always interesting to me.
I had not even made the connection to the fact that I’ve got some deaf characters and there’s a program called God’s Ear, which is all about the government listening in on you. Maybe it was going on in my unconscious. But the main reason, at least the conscious reason, that these, Dash and Manus became deaf, I had a notion, I think it started with Manus, and I wanted there to be something about him that was different, possibly an affliction. I’m not saying deafness is an affliction. It’s a very interesting question. And there are a lot of people who would say it isn’t. And I respect their viewpoint. But I wanted there to be something about him that would make him feel kind of off, different, that would make people maybe kind of uncomfortable around him.
I probably considered several alternatives, because that’s the way it usually works. And I happened to be reading this book by Andrew Solomon called “Far From The Tree: Parents, Children and the Search for Identity.” It’s a fantastic book about what Solomon calls “vertical identity” versus “horizontal identity.” Vertical identity means things we share in common with our parents and we pick up from our parents. Religion would be a super obvious example. So your parents are Muslim and you’re Muslim. Or they’re Catholic and you’re Catholic. It’s just that you have it common with them and it creates a sense of shared identity, Vertical Identity.
But then there are children who are born different, sometimes radically different, from their parents, in a variety of ways. And those children don’t have the shared identity with their parents. They might develop it with other people who have in common with them whatever that thing is. That’s horizontal identity. There are chapters in the book on being gay, being autistic, having dwarfism, schizophrenia. And deafness was one of the chapters in the book.
So I was reading this incredible book and I think that’s probably when I realized “Manus will be deaf. That works perfectly.” And then I wanted Dash to have something, too. Initially didn’t think it was going to be the same thing. I thought maybe he would be in a wheelchair. But I wanted him to have something, too. And that probably started, because I was trying to create a situation where Evie had a lot of needs, like a son who’s in a special school and she’s divorced. It’s not like she’s some heiress with a large family that she could turn to for help or something like that. I wanted her to be pretty cut off and resource-poor, because that heightens the tension of what’s happening to her in the book.
So if her son had a problem, that’s now her problem and her limitation, in terms of how she’s going to deal with what she’s learning at work. It also provides a psychological motive for her to try to ignore what she suspects might be going on at work. There are certain things you don’t want to acknowledge, because, once you do, you now have to make some difficult choices. Like if you acknowledge corruption, bullying, overreach or whatever, well, now if you don’t do anything about it, you have to acknowledge that, in some sense, you’re a coward. And nobody wants to think that about himself or herself. Or you have to do something about it. And that’s scary and risky. So I wanted Evie to have reasons to try not to see clearly what was clearly going on at the NSA and put her in that position where she would finally, reluctantly, be like, “Oh, God, this is really bad. I have to do something.” And having a son with a disability was one way to do that.
And then at some point, it was just one of those epiphanies, where I was like, “Whoa, yeah. Dash is deaf, too! Of course!” That solves the first order problem I was thinking about. He’s in a special school and Evie has to be really devoted to him and all this stuff. But then he and Manus would bond over that. And that was another thing I was trying to accomplish. Manus is going to have this competing imperative, where, on the one hand, he is completely, unthinkingly loyal to the Director. And that’s the only thing that matters to him in this world - protecting the Director, the only man who’s ever treated him well, since his mother died, when he was a teenager. But then I wanted him to defect to Evie and Dash in various ways and for that human side of him that had been cauterized by all the trauma of his childhood, I wanted that part of him to be essentially awakened and to create a competing imperative. Now he wants to protect Evie. Well, the Director just ordered her killed. What’s Manus going to do? So anyway, that’s how it all happened, with Dash and Manus being deaf.
I read voraciously in college. But the stuff I was reading was The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, The New Republic, The Atlantic, the New York Review of Books, foreign policy, foreign affairs. Those are the things that I read incessantly. And it sounds like a lot. It even sounds diverse, if you don’t know what you’re talking about. But those things are all offering the same, jingoistic, pro-U.S., establishment mindset. There’s no diversity there. It was just more quantity. But because of the quantity, I did have a lot of information, as evidenced by the fact that I did really well on that test. And that was me.
I thought America was nothing but good intentions in the world. What was good for America was good for the world. And I’m still patriotic, it’s just that my patriotism expresses itself differently now than it did then. At the time, I thought patriotism meant doing something like what I did, which was to join the CIA or join the military, be on the front lines in defending democracy. And now I realize that what’s much more needed in America and more beneficial for America and for the world, is honest feedback and criticism about the shortcomings of the country, of which there are many.
America is unquestionably the most powerful country in the world. And I believe that the more power any actor has, the more scrutiny that actor requires. How can that be true for a person and yet not be true for a country? And America spends, just on its military, more than the next seven biggest spenders in the world combined. That’s massive! So the notion that a country with this kind of disproportionate world power is just an innocent - which is how we like to look at ourselves, the shining city upon a hill, nothing but good intentions and what’s good for us is good for the world - that’s one of those things that, again, contravenes common sense and the laws of physics.
We can’t seem to understand that the more power a person has, the more scrutiny and responsibility is required, because, as Madison put it, “If men were angels, we wouldn’t even need government.” Or Jefferson said, “Let us hear no more of trust in men, but bind him down with the chains of the Constitution.” This is just common sense stuff that we take in from the earliest stage in America. We should take it in as part of our understanding of who we are as a country. And yet, we’ve forgotten how to apply it in the real world. America’s not just 13 colonies anymore like the British invading and burning the White House in 1812. We have friendly neighbors to the north and south and huge oceans, east and west, unparalleled, unprecedented power in the world, including military power. What we need is more rigorous oversight, scrutiny, not more unthinking patriotism and jingoism. It just doesn’t make sense to me. How could that be what we need? How could that be what’s good for us? We need more scrutiny. And my patriotism now expresses itself in trying to provide that.