THE WAR ON ERROR: My Life As A Terrorist


WASHINGTON POST: The celebrated writer William Vollmann has revealed that the FBI once thought he might be the Unabomber, the anthrax mailer and a terrorist training with the Afghan mujahideen.vIn the September issue of Harper’s magazine, Vollmann describes the alarming and ludicrous contents of his 785-page secret government file, 294 pages of which he obtained after suing the FBI and CIA under the Freedom of Information Act. Spiked with sarcasm directed at what he sees as the agencies’ arrogance, presumptuousness and ineptitude, his Harper’s essay, “Life As a Terrorist,” is inflamed with moral outrage at the systemic violation of his privacy. “I begin to see how government haters are made,” he writes.

A winner of the National Book Award and a finalist for the National Book Critics Circle Award, Vollmann is considered one of the most insightful writers in the world on the subject of violence and war. His acerbic exposé in Harper’s about the government’s decades-long investigation into his personal life follows a series of recent revelations about National Security Agency surveillance. “Reading one’s FBI file is rarely pleasant,” Vollmann writes. He discovered that someone — Vollmann gives him the codename “Ratfink” — turned him in to the authorities as a possible Unabomber suspect because of the content of his fiction. His file claims that “anti-growth and anti-progress themes persist throughout each VOLLMANN work.” In this case, his accuser was referring to “Fathers and Crows,” a novel “set mostly in Canada in the seventeenth century.” Even more conclusive, the FBI observed ominously that “UNABOMBER, not unlike VOLLMANN has pride of authorship and insists his book be published without editing.”

What more evidence do we need!?

It’s hard to decide if we should be more concerned about what he describes as the agency’s nefariousness or its stupidity. Vollmann notes that the FBI couldn’t determine his Social Security number because it spelled his name wrong. His file incorrectly claims that he owns a flamethrower. (“I would love to own a flamethrower,” he writes.) It erroneously records him traveling to Beirut. In 1995, he was labeled “ARMED AND DANGEROUS.” He makes hand-made art books. MORE

WILLIAM VOLLMAN: As this story goes to press, Americans continue to shake their heads over new revelations of widespread data mining and near-universal phone tapping, while Unamericans righteously defend these tactics and call for the punishment of the leakers who revealed them. Were I to be shown in accurate detail why it was necessary for me to be kept under surveillance, possibly for the rest of my life, I might be able to accept these invasions of my privacy for the collective good. The ostensible purpose of this surveillance is to protect us, and our freedoms, from terrorists. What remains unsettled, since secret, is how terrifying the terrorists presently are, and to what extent rights and liberties may be undermined in order to save them. I cannot say how many intelligence operatives might be hampered or endangered by greater oversight; on the other hand, if the Unamericans continue to have their way we will never know how many innocent people have been imprisoned, tortured, and perhaps murdered, as a result of eternally clandestine misinformation. I would abdicate my responsibility as a citizen were I to rely on the Unamericans to decide such questions. By all means let the Unamericans present their point of view—but without justifying their surveillance through “proofs” kept secret. MORE

RELATED: For several years, the National Security Agency unlawfully gathered tens of thousands of e-mails and other electronic communications between Americans as part of a now-revised collection method, according to a 2011 secret court opinion. The redacted 85-page opinion, which was declassified by U.S. intelligence officials on Wednesday, states that, based on NSA estimates, the spy agency may have been collecting as many as 56,000 “wholly domestic” communications each year. In a strongly worded opinion, the chief judge of the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court expressed consternation at what he saw as a pattern of misleading statements by the government and hinted that the NSA possibly violated a criminal law against spying on Americans. MORE