My novel, What Happens to Us, indicts the NSA for its wiretapping policies. Over 4.9 million people have access to “confidential and secret” information gathered by the government, including nearly 500,000 who work for private contractors like Booz Allen, where Edward Snowden worked. http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2013/06/10/nsa-leak-contractors_n_3418876.html
That’s an awful lot of possibilities for misbehavior and misuse of that access. In 2007, I was so appalled by that possibility that I wrote a novel tracing a hypothetical instance of misbehavior and the havoc that it might wreak. It took the form of a thriller: Cat is being chased by a stranger whom she doesn’t even know. It’s made much more frightening because this stranger seems to know her friends, where she might spend the night, and seems to locate her mysteriously whenever she turns on her cell phone.
Once I published the novel, it didn’t even take a week for the NSA to learn of its existence. A Facebook friend forwarded information about my novel to a friend who works at the NSA. Even though he hadn’t yet read the book, he expressed extreme skepticism. He wrote that there is “no such thing as an ‘NSA operative,’ but that’s what you get when you combine the concept of CIA agents (‘operatives’) with the public’s view of the NSA as ‘one step even more secret than the CIA.’”
Of course, What Happens to Us never uses the term “operative.” (I just searched the document.) But never doubt the power of changing the subject, which is what the government so often does when it comes to surveillance. After arguing that irrelevancy, he continues in that vein:
“There aren’t ‘NSA agents’, either. No such thing. However, I have yet to see ‘Enemy of the State’, and as I understand, Gene Hackman or someone else is an ‘NSA agent’. It’s pure fantasy.”
Then he takes on a subject on which he is unexpectedly right.
“It’s probably because they’ve been so successfully secret in general that writers have to make such stuff up. The public probably DOES “know” a bit more about the CIA, which is why there’ve been so many CIA characters and movies related to it.”
In fact, it’s true that there’s very little known about the Prism, Pinwale, and other NSA surveillance programs. In all my research over a number of years, these are the things I learned about it. It’s based in San Francisco on Comstock Street. The telecommunication companies seem to be cooperating with it. And IT workers seem to have incredibly broad access to it. That’s pretty much all any of us knows.
So that’s the point. If you want to write about a supersecret program but don’t have many facts, what do you do? Ignore it? If you’re a novelist, you make stuff up, as our critic so eloquently put it. And after all, there is a reason that it’s called fiction.
The larger point of the novel, however, is that all employees everywhere sometimes step over the line. It’s that when you’re collecting private information, you need oversight. It’s that my antagonist Rafe Noyes, who hides his obsessions from nearly everyone, could easily exist. And that’s what’s so frightening about this novel, and ultimately, the NSA.