Remember that old Bill Hicks routine about how both “sides” in the grand American political debate are actually puppets on each hand of the same puppeteer? Here’s a fun story that’ll remind you why Hicks is so dearly missed.
Keith Alexander is the former (that is, recently retired) head of the National Security Agency. Earlier this week, Alexander was back in the news having apparently developed and patented “a new technology, based on a patented and ‘unique’ approach to detecting malicious hackers and cyber-intruders.” This technology, we’re told, was made possible by Alexander’s experience in keeping America’s secrets safe, albeit with mixed success. Safe from the Russians and the Chinese, of course, but also safe from prying journalists and those who would traffic in leaks. People like…
…Pierre Omidyar — the founder of First Look Media. Late last year, Omidyar hired journalist Glenn Greenwald, and with him a trove of secrets stolen from General Alexander’s NSA by whistleblower-turned-Moscovite Edward Snowden. As Rolling Stone reported, Omidyar “came to Greenwald specifically because of the Snowden leaks.”
First Look was in fact two companies: A journalism nonprofit; and a for-profit technology company, building tools for journalists to help protect their sources and make it easier for leakers like Snowden to share what they know. Earlier this week, Omidyar was back in the news having decided to restructure First Look to focus much more on its for-profit technology business, and far less on the network of “independent, public interest” journalism sites he had pledged to launch.
It’s heartwarming, I suppose. These two wealthy, powerful men — both with close ties to the White House — but ostensibly on different sides of the government secrecy debate, finding common ground in monetizing secrecy: The financial opportunity of the late Obama Era.
Now, of course, that’s not to suggest that either Omidyar or Alexander planned it this way. I’ll leave that kind of conspiracy nonsense to Alex Jones. Both men, I have no reason to doubt, were sincere in believing that the world had either too little, or too much, secrecy and dedicating a phase of their career to public service in furtherance of that belief.
But the fact is, through a nice quirk of fate and the markets, both men now find themselves in a position to charge corporations a lot of money — a million dollars a month in Alexander’s case, however much he can squeeze out of giant media conglomerates in Omidyar’s — to buy their technology. And both men have the ultimate spokespeople for the effectiveness of their wares: In Alexander’s case, the entire national security state. In Omidyar’s case, the world’s most famous whistleblower and his Pulitzer-winning Boswell.
In a final twist of irony, the public celebrity — and thus increased marketability — of both men comes from their very public tussle over the exact same set of leaked public documents. A set of documents that We, The People are supposed to own, and the production of which We certainly paid for. Both are profiting handsomely from their privileged access to the public’s secrets, and by their willingness to abuse the public trust for personal profit.
If the secret to a great sales pitch is to identify (or create) a problem, communicate that problem to the public, and then sell the solution — then both Alexander and Omidyar are, by accident or design, playing a remarkably similar, and equally brilliant, game. They’re both claiming to have solved the “better mousetrap” problem, even if one is pitching to the mice and the other to the trappers.