Book Review: “Bottoms Up and the Devil Laughs” — Surveying the Surveillance State

By Tim Jackson

Kerry Howley’s exposé is a vibrant report on the chaotic and often disquieting world of surveillance and national security.

Bottoms Up and the Devil Laughs: A Journey Through the Deep State by Kerry Howley. Penguin Random House, 256 pages, $28.

Kerry Howley’s new book begins with a survey of the surveillance state and digs into the consequences that inevitably follow from a world consumed by storing, using, and manipulating data. She reminds us that, “More data has been created and stored since the year 2000 than in the entire previous course of humanity.” Digital ones and zeros archive everything. Cloud storage is a clearinghouse for everything from uploaded research and analysis to personal memories. Our complex webs of social relationships, buying habits, and communications are translated into data. Howley underlines a simple reality: “Surveillance is made of us.” Of course, that raises the question of who is using that data and for what reasons. Are there any restrictions? On anyone? In capitalist America, the endlessly expanding “cloud” of statistics and technical information sucked up from a trusting public is nothing if not profitable — a supersonic boost for marketing efficiency. And a fecund nursery for conspiracy theories.

The reassuring side of data, at least what’s told to the public, is that it is being used to monitor global communications for the sake of maintaining Homeland Security. It is a form of protection. But, as the book progresses, a darker and more alarming picture emerges of how our government is acting on what it learns from the “cloud.” Data and statistics are being used for destructive purposes, often based on self-interested judgments and manipulated versions of people and events. Surveillance aids and abets the creation of elaborate untruths. Howley reminds us of what a CIA director once said: “We kill people based on meta data and they are often the wrong people.”

The book looks, with welcome skepticism, at the so-called victories gained through surveillance and cyber snooping. Howley goes into how we learned that American John Walker Lindh had become a member of the Taliban as well as about the disturbing mechanics of the enhanced interrogation of Abu Zubaydah, who eventually admitted to being involved with the 9/11 attack on the World Trade Center. These stories are followed by profiles of people who gained illicit access to massive amounts of classified information, such as Edward Snowden and Chelsea Manning, who are considered admirable whistleblowers by some. The motivations and personalities of these dissenters were different, but what they revealed is the same: how classified information was being used in amoral ways.

These perspectives lead up to Howley’s protagonist, Reality Winner, who is less well known than Manning or Snowden. She is the woman who leaked classified reports on Russia’s interference in the 2016 presidential election. Winner had been a National Security contractor charged with intercepting communications on Iran’s aerospace program. Winner was a disciplined “cryptologic linguist” fluent in Persian, Pashto, and Dari, a Persian dialect, when she discovered information about Russian interference in the 2016 election of Donald Trump. She made the mistake of sharing her secrets with a friend. Detained and confined to a maximum security prison, she eventually was brought to trial and sentenced to five years and three months for violating the Espionage Act of 1917, reported to be the “longest sentence ever imposed in federal court for an unauthorized release of government information.” Howley paints a colorful profile of Winner and her mother, who stood fast in defending her daughter.

Howley’s focus is on examining the grueling trials and tribulations of Reality Winner, but this is anything but a dry journalistic study of American skullduggery in high places. Take this vivid description of Donald Trump:

Trump had absolutely no impulse to transparency. There was nothing in him that desired to limit executive power. His attitude towards power was straightforwardly authoritarian, constrained primarily by incompetence. On torture, Trump said he would “bring back a hell of a lot worse than waterboarding.“ On Guantánamo Bay: “We’re going to load it up with some bad dudes.” Leakers, he said, were “traitors and cowards.“ Snowden “should be executed.” His was a simple, phenomenally successful program that operated by personal vendetta. His principal strategy was eroding trust in established authority.

Frightening as all this is, particularly how the growing power of the surveillance state is nurturing the rise of a conspiracy mentality, the author preserves a lively sense of humor. Howley’s attitude is summed up with the video (gone viral) that gave her book its title. A Christian woman claims that a cross on cans of Monster Energy drinks is the devil’s work. Why? Because when the can is sipped the cross is turned upside down — a sure sign of the devil. Lifting the container to her lips, the woman says: “Bottoms Up, and the Devil Laughs.” If we’re going to hell in a handbasket, we might as well go with a few yuks.

Tim Jackson was an assistant professor of Digital Film and Video for 20 years. His music career in Boston began in the 1970s and includes some 20 groups, recordings, national and international tours, and contributions to film soundtracks. He studied theater and English as an undergraduate, and has also worked helter skelter as an actor and member of SAG and AFTRA since the 1980s. He has directed three feature documentaries: Chaos and Order: Making American Theater about the American Repertory Theater; Radical Jesters, which profiles the practices of 11 interventionist artists and agit-prop performance groups; When Things Go Wrong: The Robin Lane Story. And two short films: Joan Walsh Anglund: Life in Story and Poem and The American Gurner. He is a member of the Boston Society of Film Critics. You can read more of his work on his blog.

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