Sticky Fictions

Bottoms Up and the Devil Laughs: A Journey Through the Deep State by Kerry Howley. New York: Knopf. 256 pages. $28.
The cover of Bottoms Up and the Devil Laughs: A Journey Through the Deep State

WHEN KERRY HOWLEY PUBLISHED HER FIRST BOOK, Thrown, in 2014, bookstores labeled it a “nonfiction novel.” Its journalistic bona fides were somewhat straightforward—Howley embedded with two real lesser-known mixed-martial-arts fighters for three years, documenting the lengths they went to hone and destroy their bodies in real professional combat. The “novel” addendum stemmed from the book’s first-person narrator—a woman identified not as “Kerry” but “Kit,” a philosophy student who wanders out of an academic Husserl conference into a “Midwest Cage Championship,” where she encounters for the first time the subject of her book. Kit is earnest, pretentious, and not self-aware; that combo is why most of Thrown’s jokes are at her expense:

I remember well that first real conversation with Sean, wherein we lunched on satisfactory dive-bar burgers and I told him I thought his performance an extraordinary physical analogue to phenomenological inquiry. He cocked his head, arched an eyebrow, and said, in a way that seemed quietly pleased with my observation, “You’re insane.”

But Kit, we learn partway through the book, is not real. She’s a persona crafted by Howley, her “(admittedly neurotic) progenitor,” who is “so conscious of her own tendency toward self-confabulation that she hesitates to call anything she says of herself a fact.” Kit is her stand-in, a substitute whose existence is presented as, counterintuitively, an act of radical transparency. “All narrators,” Kit/Kerry says, “are fiction. All. The reliable ones have the decency to admit it.” In a less tactful writer’s hands, this could prove pat or gimmicky. In Howley’s, it doesn’t. She turns the reliability of narration into a point of wry obsession, one that propels her latest, and more overtly nonfiction, book.

Bottoms Up and the Devil Laughs, which drops from Knopf in March, is about the people brave or stupid enough to challenge the narratives of the “deep state” after 9/11. It is a Journalist and the Murderer redux, only the murderers are state-sanctioned, and the journalist is the government. The story the “deep state” tells about itself is, at best, curated; at worst, made up. Flaks broadcast a specific version of events, while actors on the inside must refrain from publicly pointing out errors or spoiling plot points. As intelligence analyst Chelsea Manning has pointed out, there is a significant gap between “two worlds”: “the world in America, and the world I was seeing.” Or, as Howley once described elsewhere, between the world of secret intelligence and the one that plays out on TV. Leaking can bring one world in closer contact with the other. It may also get the leaker in trouble and thus introduce other opposing narratives: the whistleblower’s and the court’s. The latter is as inclined toward confabulation as anyone else; a prosecutor, like Malcolm’s journalist, harbors no delusions about collaborating with his defendant on her case, intending always “to write a story of his own.” But he is far less eager to admit the deception than Howley. “The state’s view of us,” she writes, “is a sticky fiction. It assumes a permanent single self, for one thing, a lumbering anchored persistence.”

This book is an elaboration on Howley’s twin magazine profiles of two such whistleblowers: the imprisoned former intelligence official Daniel Hale, who smuggled out the files now known as the “Drone Papers,” and the former intelligence contractor Reality Winner, who printed and anonymously mailed a five-page classified document in 2017. Hale’s and Winner’s trajectories shared several key characteristics. Both were members of the United States Air Force who later became contractors with the National Security Agency. Both had “Top Secret” security clearance. Both were given assignments that involved figuring out who to kill with drones in Afghanistan. And both experienced the peculiar discomfort that accompanies top-secret tasks—namely, seeing the minutiae of one’s daily work get turned into a tidier, less gruesome story for public consumption. Both leaked classified documents to the leak-friendly outlet The Intercept and then went to prison.

Winner’s case structures the book, because, one imagines, of the features that made it unlike the conventional whistleblowing story. There is her name—a case of nominative determinism gone awry—which is indeed real. And there’s the symbolically rich nature of her job, a “cryptologic language analyst” fluent in Pashto, Dari, and Farsi. More importantly, Winner, unlike her more famous predecessors Manning, Hale, and Edward Snowden, did not leak a trove of documents concerning her own intelligence work. She leaked a single file—one she had basically stumbled on while bored and perusing the vast archive of classified documents to which any of the more than two million people with top-secret clearance has access. The report was about a hacking attempt, the success of which remains unclear, by Russian intelligence agents on a sole American elections-tech company in August 2016. Perhaps Howley was also drawn to the fact that the document had been marked ORCON, which means “dissemination and extraction of information controlled by originator.”

Howley notes that with this document, no one was in control: not the originator—the US Intelligence Community—and certainly not Winner. The Intercept, in whom she had trusted her anonymity, had carelessly sent her material to the NSA for corroboration with identifying watermarks intact, which landed Winner in federal custody days before the article ran. The absorption of the file into American political discourse was perhaps its most ungovernable aspect. The report, with its real but not-extensive evidence of Russian hacking, was perfectly timed to be exploited by a range of agendas, all of which misconstrued what the document actually said.

AMERICA’S BARNES & NOBLES are now filled with hardcovers unpacking any number of Trump-era scandals. More than a few of them are “debunkers” of some kind—they set out to correct what we all, so recently, may have gotten wrong. On a superficial level, Howley has added another spine to that shelf, as she details the misconceptions that plagued Winner’s case. But where the politics of such books are often easy to discern, Howley manages to push beyond partisan hack work to lay bare the flaws or biases in everyone’s read on Reality—be it the right or left, the Intercept or NSA, Winner’s family, her lawyers, or her prosecutors. No one, as Howley puts it in a prefatory note, constructs a “self in the dark.” Winner is, like everyone, “a web of social relationships,” a “map of connections.” Howley is more interested in that map than in Winner’s intentions or ideology. She illustrates the ways in which the raw data of someone’s life can be culled into a story they didn’t know they had told.

Howley begins by situating Winner in a network of various state enemies. She traces the story back to John Walker Lindh, the twenty-year-old Californian who traveled to Afghanistan to join the Taliban in 2001. Specifically, she starts with Chuck D, the Public Enemy vocalist whose music first led Lindh to Malcolm X, to Ice Cube, to posing as a Black rapper online, to the Nation of Islam, and eventually to Arabic, which he would learn in pursuit of an identity less white, suburban, and morally “impure” than his own. Howley paints Lindh as an adolescent of many extreme if familiar qualities—a persistently searching personality, a disregard for danger, an occasionally grating dogmatism (“Dear Inhabitants of This Room,” he once wrote to some dorm mates, “please abstain from getting naked in front of the window.”) Foremost of these was bad timing; Lindh’s first day on the Taliban’s front lines was September 6, 2001.

When he was arrested soon after, Lindh became a case study in the American state’s narrative powers. “John Lindh would be allowed only one identity in the end,” Howley writes, “but the contours of that identity were still being negotiated on cable news.” It was President George W. Bush, of all people, who initially offered some empathy; he called Lindh a “poor fellow,” who “thought he was going to fight for a great cause.” That tentative warmth rapidly cooled, as Howley recaps:

“Poor Fellow or Traitor?” asked a headline in the New York Post, which went on to answer its own question, also in the headline. “Looks Like a Rat, Talks Like a Rat, Smells Like a Rat, Hides Like a Rat—It Is a Rat.” Rudolph Giuliani, the mayor of New York City, admitted he didn’t have “all the facts” but added, “I believe the death penalty is the appropriate remedy to consider.” Hillary Clinton called him a “traitor.” Diane Sawyer asked the president’s parents what they thought of their son calling John Walker Lindh a “poor fellow.”

“Well,” said the president’s mother, “I think the president meant that he’s obviously demented.”                         

Howley intersplices Lindh’s progression from Public Enemy fan to the so-called American Taliban with similar scenes from Winner’s childhood—her first word (dada), her second word (no), her frustrations with grade-school soccer (lacking rigor), and her early interest in Arabic, born from a paternal insistence on the “importance of communication, the language and culture that separate us from the other.” Like she did with Lindh, in other words, Howley introduces Winner as a person with context. She fleshes out that background with digressions on Winner’s obvious allies—Snowden, Manning, Hale, Julian Assange—but also less predictable peers: the InfoWars pundit Joseph Biggs; the alleged Al Qaeda official Abu Zubaydah; former CIA agent John Kiriakou, the first official to confirm the US was waterboarding prisoners; and Jesselyn Radack, the former Department of Justice lawyer who defended some of the names on that list. By the time Howley arrives at the story of Winner’s leak, she has methodically primed the reader to see Winner not as a scandal, but as merely one member of a special, if frequently irritating, demographic:

People who feel they must confront the nature of reality, whom we call “whistleblowers” or “traitors,” tend to feel that the rest of us should do the same, which makes those people annoying, because not looking is a skill, and after a while you too might lose the ability to not look.                       

One might argue that knowing how to look is the real skill here, partly because Winner came of age at a moment swarmed by stimuli. The past two decades have made it easier than ever to understand anyone’s “map of connections.” On the one hand, government surveillance had long moved past the targeted wiretapping of the Nixon era and into what Howley characterized as “absorb everything, all of it, at once. Stash it somewhere. Worry about it later.” As Howley works her way through whistleblower history, she outlines how the “deep state” began to collect more data than it could manage—and responded by classifying it almost instinctively. By the time Winner secured her clearance, the term “secret” could apply to a report on Russian hacking just as easily as, per one FOIA finding, “an agreement between the 2012 movie Battleship and the U.S. Navy in which the navy is promised ten DVDs.”

At the same time, the American public was starting to surveil itself in the form of social media, smartphones, and the increasing digitization of basic human activity—shopping, reading, exercising—the cost of which was always our data. “We all have to have the receipts,” Howley says, “receipts for everything, receipts for texts and one-line emails and Facebook messages.” The internet can know us better than even our closest friends. Until this book, for example, only Google had registered the search spiral Howley followed one night, when her new infant wouldn’t stop crying, typing: “colic solutions, baby won’t stop crying, colic peer reviewed studies,” then “pediatrician colic, colic long-term effects, colic average duration,” then “foods breastfeeding colic” and “anxiety drugs safe for breastfeeding,” and finally “adoption.” Of course, with the right subpoenas, the NSA could know this too. She calls her book a “polemic against memory cast into print.”

One might think that a traceable record of our everyday interactions would make it easier to corroborate our actions or discern our intentions. With endless documentation comes endless proof that our version of events—our Tuesday dentist appointment, our lunch at that hotel with our uncle—really happened. But taken together, those tidbits “form a sclerotic social identity with a strange relation to the real,” Howley writes. And their permanent availability brings—as Winner learned from the news, at trial, in prison—the ability to strip out the backstory, “to tell stories perfectly matched to the intentions of the teller, freed from the complex texture of reality.” Technology has allowed us to narrate our lives all the time and in great detail, but we don’t get to choose who listens or which parts they hear.

The only real villains in Howley’s story are those who refuse to see the self as David Hume described it in Treatise of Human Nature: “a bundle of different perceptions, which succeed each other with an inconceivable rapidity, in perpetual flux.” These villains are not, say, Abu Zubaydah, who was alleged to be Bin Laden’s third-in-command and was arrested, jailed, and waterboarded as many as eighty-three times in American custody. Howley introduces him, like Winner, like Lindh, as a person caught in the tangled multiverse of being alive—a person with particularities, like the faulty memory that prompted him to keep “thick diaries full of drawings and spare thoughts” and “10,000 pages of notes written to his future self, whom he calls Hani—the name his mother used for him.” The bad guys here, instead, are the FBI investigators who would reduce those notes to evidence of a “schizophrenic personality.” Or maybe the agents who would use that simplification to justify what they did to him—as Kiriakou did when he maintained, for years after the fact, that waterboarding had worked. As Howley writes:

This is not just propaganda; it is torture fan fiction. It suggests not only a psychic need to torture but a need to frame it as an act of life-saving heroism. Fairy tales are stories in which darkness precedes transformation, and this is a story for America’s children: We stuffed a man in a small box to set you free.

THE LONG TITLE OF HOWLEY’S BOOK does not come up until near the end, though it may be familiar to anyone old enough to have been clicking links in 2014. In November of that year, a Christian woman appeared in a YouTube video called “MONSTER Energy drinks are the work of SATAN!!!” in which she detailed how the can design of the chemical-flavored caffeine vehicle revealed Luciferian meddling at work. “You cannot deny that that is a cross,” she said, pointing to a cross in the “o” in “monster” on the can. “And what is witchcraft? When the cross goes upside down,” she explained, inverting the can for a sip. “Bottoms up, and the devil laughs.”

It is easy to make fun of this woman, as many did when the video first came out. But Howley sees in her speech—“a crisp patter punctuated by forays into Hebrew, textual analysis, paranoid semiotics, and moments of well-timed eye contact”—a kind of prescience. The history of Monster Energy Company is indeed marred by a string of devilish offenses. That included bullying small-time business owners for minor copyright infractions, such as Li Chih, “a man who owns a small online forum called ‘Monster Fish Keepers’ for people who love predatory fish.” Monster Energy did this so often, it earned the distinction of copyright database Trademarkia’s “All-Time Biggest Bully.” And the behavior alleged in lawsuits filed against Monster’s male executives, claiming harassment, retaliation, and in one incident, physical assault. The latter allegedly left a woman with broken nails, a bloody thumb, and “strangle marks on her neck.” The company’s fruit punch is called “Assault,” Howley remarks, before revisiting a line from the video: “If God can use people and product, so can Satan.”

Howley’s capacity for incisive empathy extends to those whom most would dismiss as kooks. Just as narrators who purport to be reliable can be wrong, she suggests, those whom we write off as unreliable can, on some level, be right. Howley knows, for example, that Trump’s hysteria over “unelected deep-state operatives” has a kernel of truth to it—who else are these inhabitants of America’s bureaucratic underground other than Winner’s faceless tormentors? Trump’s vision of this secret world was, of course, populated by “globalists,” which quickly became “Satan-worshiping pedophiles.” But Howley finds something of value even in QAnon, in whose followers she sees a relentless optimism, an insistence on “making life better, both for yourself and the babies who would otherwise be eaten.”

The characters who populate her book are all dissidents of some kind, all “moral narcissists—unable to compartmentalize, to ride the wave of whatever mundane evil shapes the lives of their agreeable colleagues.” Wariness of official narratives can be found on the left and the right, among “cryptologic language analysts” or tin-can rune readers. One cannot have Winner without Marjorie Taylor Greene. “Q,” Howley notes, “was a whistleblower.” 

Tarpley Hitt is a writer at Gawker and an editor at The Drift.