Meeting Thomas Drake

Day 13 of a poem a day from Vagabonding, my second poetry book manuscript (this one from the “Finding Berlin” section, near “Publish and Perish“). This poem grew out of a snippet and then (unsung) song I wrote after the Logan Symposium, where NSA whistleblower Tom Drake signed the pocket constitution I left the U.S. with years ago. (The founding documents remain among my favorite works of fiction. Most of my songs remain unsung, because making noise is hard. Someday I will give up fiction because it is sentimental, and being embarrassed to make noise because embarrassment is an embarrassment.)

“Meeting Thomas Drake”
London and Berlin

His face is paler than you think,
and he smiles like it’s unusual, like it’s a treat
when I ask him to sign my pocket Constitution.
Paltry restitution
for losing your job, house, savings,
country, and wife
for telling the truth—
losing a life.

Tom Drake was number four at the NSA
when higher-ups threw Thin Thread away.
An executive spy,
he didn’t see why
they’d scrap the solution
(to the terrorist revolution)
that would have prevented 9/11,
try to roll a lucky seven
finding signal in much more noise
after collecting data on millions of American girls and boys
instead of being selective,
encrypting the mass.
Was rule of law elective?

They came after his ass.
He blew the whistle—
first up the chain—
giving the Inspector General
a chance
to throw him under the train.
The evidence he gave them was destroyed.
The FBI raided his house.
After legal defense and a plea bargain deal,
his assets were null, his expertise void.
Pleading his innocence cost him a spouse.
How were onlookers within to feel?

In Hawaii, a young analyst looked on with fear:
blowing the whistle in this atmosphere
would require more daring, and more public aid.
People would have to know first why he had made
the decision to show them the secrets within
the war machine’s heart.
How to begin to grasp the gap between the Constitution
and the black art
of “collecting it all“—
the NSA motto?
The law promises due process.
The surveillance apparatus, much less
protection of names and dates and times.
Who you called—when. What you said—where.
They look back when there are crimes
on the mass of data we share
without consenting to have lost
our basic protections there
in everyday digital benefit and cost.

So Snowden went farther afield to cry foul,
calling out to the People, the world,
with his Constitutional howl.
And how he was hurled
from the country he served,
for learning from Tom:
don’t take your qualm
up the chain, or they’ll crush you.
Both men deserved
heroes’ thanks,
and the calm
of a whistle rightly blew.

What experiment are we running now,
in the land of wild experiments?
Can public scrutiny contain power’s arrogance?
Tom and Ed still believe in how
our fathers’ fathers made a deal
to dwell in hope, not live in fear.
Life, liberty, and pursuing happiness
require the audacity of hope, no less.
But I wonder, when their lawyers call me “dangerous”
and I leave my own country penniless
for being a scholar and activist
of some small, forbidden thing
(is this really happening?)—
does the whole load of laws and myths
mean anything at all? Did it ever?
For all the well-meaning American Flanders and Smiths,
how many apple-pie soccer moms and teen-fucking dads never
to question cars, guns, and drugs, however
many deaths from shit air and bloody crashes they see or hear about.
No questioning climate denial despite this flood, that fire, one more drought.
No recognition that the drug war’s ignition
was always racial panic—and fear of the hippie left’s organic
power to overcome corporate capture.
But when Big Pharma is after
a law change, they get it.
So why can’t it just be time to hit it?

War pigs say it’s privacy or security—
and privacy is dead. They used to say
liberty, instead.
We’ve lost the war.
Now what’s worth fighting for
will require rest and bigger-picture dreaming,
not small-scale resistance scheming.
Although he is a little old and gray,
I wish to fall in love with Tom and sway
him Europe-way,
speed his getaway
from the Apple store where he wastes every day.
We roam freely here, veterans of the silent war,
information freedom fighters,
living now for more—
hackers, scholars, thinkers, writers,
in our ghetto of common mind,
all our future undefined.

At least here we are together in a herd that feels right,
like African animals in Sigean
roaming by day, cuddle-piling by night.
They look so natural—lion, gazelle, bear, and all—
being with each other under blue skies, in thrall
to no cage bars and loneliness like in a zoo.
Resistors have here our own nature reserve, too.
Send for me by carrier pigeon,
and I’ll meet you at the dock.
How is it nearly six o’clock?

In the growing dusk,
all my hope becomes a husk,
except for small groups of us
who love each other and do good.
I wonder what Sapolsky would
have made of Jefferson’s experiment on Monticello—
his wife’s sister and slave his bedfellow.
Even baboons don’t pretend to own
their mates and children til they’re grown.
There are no bonobos in Virginia, but
experiments in sanctuary sometimes make the cut.
Although with dominance it’s easier to explain
blacks still slaving in prisons, the super-rich
unsoiled by poverty’s stain,
surveillance of every pre-crime itch.