Cryptogams & the NSA

by John Sifton

©László Moholy-NagyThe first thing I did after I heard about the highly classified NSA PRISM program two years ago was set up a proxy server in Peshawar to email me passages from Joyce’s Finnegans Wake. A literary flight of fancy. I started sending back excerpts from Gerard Manley Hopkins poems.   

The cantankerous Seymour Hersh was my inspiration. He had told me about the program in a clipped expletive-filled summary in the summer of 2011: “They’re scooping fucking everything, man! Phones, Internet, the whole works.” 

I didn’t exactly believe him. He had also told me in 2008 that the Bush administration was close to authorizing airstrikes on Iran. So I treated his new pronouncement as a possibility, a sign from a questionable but often accurate oracle. I had wanted to rebel. The idea of esoteric poetry and prose in the NSA’s vaults appealed to me. “Yes,” I said to myself. “Yes I will.” And so I set out to tell Joyce’s story of a Chapelizod family, in a new way. 

I acknowledge now, of course, that the venture was not the wisest idea. Certainly after I was indicted I regretted the hoax. My wife has had her regrets, too. Signing over your house to a law firm is a humbling experience, and for my wife, a clarifying one.

I will not acknowledge, however, that my actions were illegal. I admit only that the idea was pretentious. I never meant to prove anything. I am no Edward Snowden, except perhaps in my sheer eagerness. It was the idea of CIA analysts’ consternation that set me alight, coded al-Qaeda email messages embedded in Joyce’s chaotic phonetic sing-song: 

Tark's bimboowood so pleasekindly communicake with the
original sinse we are only yearning as yet how to burgeon. It's
meant milliems of centiments deadlost or mislaid on them but,
master of snakes, we can sloughchange in the nip of a napple
solongas we can allsee for deedsetton your quick. 

My answers to these emails, in Hopkins’ alliterative lyric, had the author’s pause and accent marks, a little touch to drive the CIA analysts nuts:

Óur évening is over us; óur night ' whélms, whélms, ánd will end us.
Only the beak-leaved boughs dragonish ' damask the tool-smooth bleak light; black,
Ever so black on it.

My mistake was making the ruse plausible. I used an email address in Pakistan similar to that used by an al-Qaeda courier from Waziristan whose messages had been intercepted in the 2009 Zazi case, a failed bombing plot on New York City. A long shot, but the best I could come up with at the time. It seemed unlikely that NSA computers, vacuuming it all up, would flag the emails, since neither I, nor my phantom, was linked to any actual al-Qaeda couriers. “Suck on this, NSA,” I would mutter to myself, as I sent the stuff out. 

. . . .The spearspid of dawnfire totouches ain the
tablestoane ath the centre of the great circle of the macroliths of
Helusbelus in the boshiman brush on this our peneplain by Fan-
galuvu Bight whence the horned cairns erge, stanserstanded,
to floran frohn, idols of isthmians. Overwhere. Gaunt grey
ghostly gossips growing grubber in the glow. Past now pulls.
Cur one beast, even Dane the Great, may treadspath with
sniffer he snout impursuant to byelegs. Edar's chuckal humuristic.

Even if the emails were to be flagged, I figured any analyst’s scan of the text, a simple Google search, would reveal the passages to be from a work of literature. 

But no one has ever kept out of trouble relying on the competence of the United States government. I suspect it was the following passage that did me in, from page 261 of Finnegans Wake:

Terror of the noonstruck by day,
cryptogam of each nightly bridable. But, to
speak broken heaventalk, is he? Who is he? 

When the FBI showed up, my heart truly was struck with terror. The prospect of explaining the texts—it was possible, but I had a secret and awful shame: I didn’t actually understand some of them. The Hopkins texts I could perhaps handle, but Finnegans Wake

There is nothing more frightening for a pseudo-intellectual than to be called out to explain something he does not actually understand. I cancelled my first appointment with the feds—Special Agents O’Brien and Bloom—just to brush up. The fact that one of the agents was named Bloom filled me with foreboding. I spent 48 hours reading secondary texts to assure myself of relevant theories of textual interpretation. I didn’t want to sound uninformed. Notes from the interviews would become part of the permanent historical record. It filled me with anguish to think of my sons reading the FBI Form 302 interview notes decades later and realizing their father was a fraud.

I was shaky in the first meeting. But to my relief, O’Brien and Bloom asked first not about the emails, but rather my work for Human Rights Watch, my travels to Afghanistan and Pakistan. Bloom, amazingly, was the good cop. We went over my work history. My contacts with Afghan and Pakistani government officials. My work investigating CIA torture and secret prisons. I probably should have asked to have an attorney present. I should have called Human Rights Watch’s General Counsel. But fearful and arrogant, I did not.

Then the other shoe dropped. O’Brien brushed aside the prologue and laid out the emails – the one with the words “terror” and “cryptogam” – and another I had sent in 2011:

Lét life, wáned, ah lét life wind
Off hér once skéined stained véined variety ' upon, áll on twó spools;
     párt, pen, páck
Now her áll in twó flocks, twó folds—black, white;
     ' right, wrong; reckon but, reck but, mind
But thése two; wáre of a wórld where bút these ' twó tell, each off the óther;
     of a rack
Where, selfwrung, selfstrung, sheathe- and shelterless, '
     thóughts agaínst thoughts ín groans grínd. 

I read over the text. O’Brien looked disgusted.

“Can you just—explain yourself?” he said. An effacing affront. It badly shook me.

“It’s a poem.” I said. 

Are there three more pathetic words in the English language? It’s a poem.  

I retreated sideways. “It’s about the world being divided into two types, right and wrong.” I was terribly embarrassed. “It’s about how the conflict between right and wrong persists in…” I hesitated, “our thoughts.”

I am not an literary scholar. You try it sometime. At least he didn’t ask me to scan it. 

“It looks like code,” O’Brien said. “Who would write like this on purpose?” 

“Well, it’s sort of like code.” I smiled weakly. “There are tricks, like ‘skeined stained veined’, it’s like the leaves of a tree. Or ‘reckon but, reck but.’ Word games.”

“So you’re admitting its code?” O’Brien raised his eyebrows. “You tried to cue them for it by writing ‘cryptogam’.” 

“No, no” I said, too eagerly. 

“What is the code? What does this say in plain English? This ‘selfwrung, selfstrung, sheathe- and shelterless?’ – what is this shit?” 

My earnestness was like a disease, eating away at my sense of confidence. 

“It’s about how we torture ourselves with all our thoughts. . .  There’s this rack . . . where thoughts grind against other thoughts. That’s what it says…” I petered out.

“You’re writing about Abu Ghraib – about torture. This is some recruitment thing?” 

I tend to withdraw when I get nervous. The situation was now so upsetting that I’d lost the capacity for interaction. I avoided O’Brien’s gaze and looked down at the email text to which the Hopkins poem was a response, from the end of Finnegans Wake

Remember Bomthomanew vim vam vom
Hungerig. Hoteform, chain and epolettes, botherbumbose. And
I’ll be your aural eyeness.

“I would like to request an attorney be present for the rest of our interview,” I said.  

* * * *

So my troubles began. 

I had imagined that when I met my attorney, his first question would be of an existential nature. Something like: “Why did you do it?” 

But criminal defense lawyers don’t ask questions like that. My lawyer’s first question was: “How did you find out about PRISM?” What a relief that was. 

It isn’t easy to find criminal defense attorneys who have security clearance to be read in on a classified intelligence program. They are also very expensive, a fact that my wife has reminded me of on several occasions. However, they are very professional and get straight to the point.

The firm coached me for my subsequent interviews, and my attorney carefully walked me through the proper responses.

Lucky for me, most of my subsequent interviews were mundane. More questions about Pakistan, more explaining the Hopkins texts. It was amazing they asked about Hopkins more than the Joyce. In one interview with the agents I had to explain the word “dapple”: 

For earth ' her being has unbound, her dapple is at an end,
     astray or aswarm, all throughther, in
throngs; ' self ín self steedèd and páshed—qúite
Disremembering, dísmémbering ' áll now.

“It means contrast,” I said, the enthusiastic student. “Color juxtapositions. Like green and red and blue. ‘Dapple is at an end’ means it’s getting dark and you can’t see colors anymore.”  

Special Agent O’Brien was writing in his notes: “dapple = contrast.” 

“And ‘pashed’?” he asked, looking over his glasses.

“It means ‘broken,’” 

I could see him writing the words down. My heart sank as I read them: “End of right and wrong. Breaking. Dismembering.” The last word underlined, twice. 

My attorneys had to work hard to untangle it all.   

* * * *

Months later, as part of my plea agreement, I was obliged to give a deposition to the US Attorney’s office. It was at this point that my story reached its climax and moral. 

My attorneys and I sat on one side of a long table, the US attorneys and special agents on the other, a stenographer in the corner. The situation vindicated my wife’s opinion that I am a fool. 

But having the Special Prosecutor himself involved at that point – Pat Fitzgerald – was a great relief. He struck me as reasonable and intellectual, and he was Irish to boot.  

Indeed, the deposition started off smoothly. Fitzgerald seemed to immediately understand the farcical nature of the enterprise, treating the plea agreement as a way to brush the whole embarrassing matter under the rug.  

Of course, he needed to fill out the particulars. He had to show his colleagues in the intelligence community that my venture was only a pathetic trick: an ‘intellectual’ stunt by a conceited narcissist, played on an unsuspecting victim, the U.S. government – basically the most pretentious type of crime imaginable. There were some in the intelligence community who continued to think I was lying. 

Most of Fitzgerald’s questions were straightforward, about the technical details. At the end of the deposition, however, the questions veered into the morass.  

“So, this text – Finnegans Wake – can you summarize the plot for the record?” 

Fearful, I was struck dumb. My attorneys asked for the videotape to be stopped.

“We have to object, Pat – he’s already said in the interviews, the plot itself is a matter of textual interpretation. Each word of the text is open to multiple interpretations. There are potentially an infinite number of plots.”

“Um, ok, that’s ok,” Fitzgerald responded. “I’m not trying to lay a trap here.” 

He smiled kindly. “Just give one interpretation,” he said in an encouraging voice, like an 8th grade English teacher. The deposition continued. 

I swallowed hard before speaking. I felt very fragile, like a teenager. 

“The book is about a family from a suburb of Dublin,” I began. “It’s about them. There isn’t really – a plot so much. . .”

Fitzgerald and his colleagues looked at me with bovine eyes. I felt the dread one feels in the silence of eternal spaces.

“The main character is a man named Humphrey Chimpden Earwicker,” I said. Here I go, I thought. I felt so self-conscious it almost hurt. “He goes by his initials, HCE. The acronym is then used for other names and jokes, like, for instance ‘Here Comes Everybody” or ‘Howth Castle and Environs” or ‘Hag Chivychas Eve.’ Stuff like that. There are a lot of puns and made up-words.” 

“Like ‘cryptogam,’ for instance?” said Fitzgerald. “I take it that that’s not a typo.” 

“Actually cryptogam is a real word.” My attorneys had suggested it might come to this. “It’s a plant that doesn’t reproduce with seeds. Like a mushroom or algae. Or moss and ferns.”

The stenographer clicked away in the corner. The words “moss and ferns” had become part of the case record.

“I see,” Fitzgerald said, writing in his notes. “Well, it’s very interesting.” He seemed to be honestly interested. “So, for the record, you’re saying ‘cryptogam’ does not refer to code?”

“No!” I said, too energetically. “It’s mushrooms. Yeast. That sort of thing.” 

Fitzgerald’s team wrote steadily in their notes. My nervousness pushed me on. 

“There are a lot of references to mushrooms and yeast in Joyce,” I said. My attorney touched my arm lightly, but I ran on.

“Look—” I took the book up, “There’s a part late in the book. . . Here, page 613. Halfway down the page.” I pushed it across to Fitzgerald:

A spathe of calyptrous glume involucrumines the perinanthean Amenta:
     fungoalgaceous

muscafilicial graminopalmular planteon; of increasing, livivorous,
     feelful thinkamalinks;

luxuriotiating everywhencewhithersoever among skullhullows and
      charnelcysts of a

weedwastewoldwevild. . . 

“See? Fungoalgaceous muscafilicial,” I said. “It’s a portmanteau of different types of cryptogams.”

The stenographer interrupted here, her north Baltimore accent like a knitting needle stuck in my ear. “Are those words in that book?” she asked, “Because – otherwise you’re going to have to spell them.”  

She was waved off by one of the US attorneys. 

Fitzgerald read the text, or looked at the letters anyway, and then he looked at me again. A kind, blank, innocent look. Unaware of the fear he was instilling in me, not knowing what he was doing, he suddenly twisted the knife.

“And why would someone write like this?” 

My silence now. “Why?” I repeated, meekly. I was devastated. 

“Just your opinion. A short explanation.” Absolute innocence in asking the question. 

My hands began trembling. One of his assistants looked at the clock. 

“I don’t know, sir – honestly I don’t.” 

I felt the way I did as a child, fighting tears. Who could say why this was. Was it my dark secret, emerging into my consciousness, that despite my provocative line of work, all my life I have wanted to answer questions posed by people in authority – people like Pat Fitzgerald? At this point, it seemed that even O’Brien was smiling in encouragement and sympathy. I had never seen him smile before, yet there it was: a subtle and kind pursing of lips under his dark mustache. 

My epiphany came here. These people had provided me more love and sympathy than anyone ever had. While Joyce, Hopkins, Proust, Shakespeare – what of their childishness? In vanity, they had sought immortality in their endeavors, an assurance that their texts would be preserved for all of time. And yet, here the government had actually done it – no, something even more magnanimous, and not just for authors but for all of us: everything written now preserved for evermore – and if the United States of America had her way, it would be until the end of time. Our immortality in the mineral composition of database drives. We “mortal trash” would “fall to the residuary worm,” as Hopkins wrote, and yet fools like me – a “Jack, joke, poor potsherd” – would be “immortal diamond.” 

I felt an immense shame. I had been such a stubborn person to exile myself from these people. Almost four decades of life wasted in rebellion. Two tears trickled down the sides of my nose.

“I don’t know,” I said, looking down, the tears now blinding my vision. But it was all right now, I didn’t need to answer Fitzgerald’s question. Everything was going to be all right, the struggle was finished. I had learned to love the government. 

And with that, my persecution ended. 

John Sifton is an attorney at Human Rights Watch. He worked in Afghanistan and Pakistan from 2001 to 2004 and was senior researcher on terrorism and counterterrorism from 2005 to 2007. He is currently the Asia Advocacy Director.