How the NSA Chills American Writers: An Interview with Suzanne Nossel

In the United States, writers aren’t jailed on a whim, and they don’t just disappear. If a writer is slapped with a lawsuit or charged with a crime for writing on a certain topic, you can be sure we are going to hear about it. Censorship happens elsewhere, not here.

Right?

Recently PEN American Center released “Chilling Effects: NSA Surveillance Drives U.S. Writers to Self-Censor,” a groundbreaking survey of over 500 of the organizations members on their attitudes toward blanket NSA surveillance and the effects such Big Brother behavior has on their research, writing, communication, and public engagement. The survey was restricted to PEN American members, who include editors, journalists, and nonfiction and fiction writers.1 The results are disheartening.

Among the findings, fully 85% of the respondents are concerned about current levels of surveillance; 76% think that increased surveillance is harmful to writers because it impedes their ability to create freely; one-third have steered clear of certain topics in phone or e-mail conversations, or have seriously considered doing so; 27% have avoided writing or speaking about a certain topic, or have seriously considered doing so.

The survey also makes clear that self-censorship is a creeping concern. The troubling impacts can be seen in how writers conduct themselves on social media, in public forums, on the phone, in e-mail correspondences, conducting research, and in meeting (in person or electronically) people who may be deemed as suspicious by the government.

The chilling effects are most pronounced among journalists, whose work puts them in direct contact with sensitive materials and people who operate in grey areas. Journalists and nonfiction writers suggest their work on topics proximate to the national security apparatus is being curtailed. Those areas include the Middle East, the Iraq War, the Occupy Movement, intelligence matters (including Edward Snowden), Libya, anti-American sentiment (like jihad groups), nuclear proliferation, Palestine, and drug wars.

Writers also express concern about pursuing other topics, including child abuse and pornography, the prison system, civil liberties, and certain foreign languages.

More difficult to parse are the effects NSA surveillance is having on fiction writers. For one, the revelations are too new to discern the impact on fiction being published. Writers of all stripes, however, are pulling back somewhat on speaking about certain topics in public events. There is also real concern that creativity may be dampened because of potential surveillance of phone calls and e-mails, where writers debate ideas and foster imagination. Weary of being watched, self-censorship becomes manifest.

More nefarious are the unconscious results. Sometimes we cannot tell if a writer wittingly passes on a taboo subject: is self-censorship purposeful or baked into regular communication and writing routines?

It is the proper place of the writer to engage public debate, not shy from it. We count on creative types to speak truth to power, not to duck and cover. The lasting impacts of our awareness of government surveillance are yet to be felt. That writers are starting to self-censor is disturbing, to say the least, and threatens the viability of a creative and dynamic public sphere.

Last week I spoke with Suzanne Nossel, Executive Director of PEN American Center, about the survey, its revelations, and the larger impacts of surveillance on American writers.

This interview is part of The Mantle's series Against Censorship.

SHAUN RANDOL: What prompted the survey?

SUZANNE NOSSEL: It was really seeing the reactions to Edward Snowden revelations [about NSA surveillance] over the summer and learning that a fair number of Americans seem to be relatively sanguine in learning that their communications, phone calls, and e-mails were being swept up into a big NSA server somewhere. We wondered whether writers would have the same reaction.

Writers depend on free expression to do their work. They test the boundaries of it. We felt like they were on the frontlines of this debate, that if there were effects on freedom of expression they might be manifest most tangibly among writers. It was worth finding out what they thought about the surveillance and whether they were changing their behavior at all. The answers might also signify something about the public at large.

 

Was there a sense that writers had fallen into some sort of lull or had let their guard down?

I wouldn’t say we went into the survey with that feeling. A lot of Americans are not really sure how to react. On the one hand, it seems almost paranoid—with these vast masses of data on many hundreds of millions of communication—that anything any of us do would actually rise to the level of attracting scrutiny. Some have even pointed out that there’s self-importance in that; people aggrandize themselves or what they’re writing about if they think it would capture the interest of an intelligence agency somewhere. In a sense it’s absurd to think of yourself as being consequential enough to be flagged within this system.

On the other hand, there is a recognition that surveillance of this breadth and enormity really is unprecedented and that even if the overwhelming majority of us are never going to be directly scrutinized in any individualized way, that nonetheless something changes in how we operate and function if we’re aware that even the remote and distant possibility exists.

 

That was the point Glenn Greenwald brought up at the recent PEN/ACLU panel on NSA surveillance at Fordham University. If people don’t necessarily believe we change our behavior when we’re being recorded, just pull out a tape recorder the next time you speak with a friend see how they react, even if the recording is for your own reference or amusement. People immediately become cautious or freeze up once they know they are being recorded.

What Greenwald points out is that when you ask people to really come to grips with what could happen if all of their communications are swept up and there’s a potential for them to be re-purposed or exposed or used against them in some way—that really does make people uncomfortable.

There’s a complacency that comes with the magnitude of this, that you’re just a drop in a massive ocean. The individualized notion that anyone would ever listen to that recording again seems so remote that some people can shrug it off. Others can’t. It depends on a number of different factors. People feel more vulnerable because of their racial or ethnic identity or because of their immigration status; they have heightened sensitivity. People researching, writing, and communicating on certain topics or with certain people or in relation to certain regions have heightened sensitivity. And there are a number of subgroups for whom I think the fears are more acute.

 

Some take a principled stance: that you have a right to privacy. That unwarranted searches just shouldn’t occur.

Yes, there are people who say that they are not changing their behavior and never would, yet nonetheless they still don’t like the intrusion. They think the intrusion is unwarranted and redraws the boundaries between citizen and government in a way that is unfavorable.

Suzanne Nossel (photo: Ahmet Sibdial Sau)

If this report had come out of, say, Moscow, Beijing, or Tehran, do you think the reaction in the U.S. media would have been more furious?

Everybody knows that in those societies there is surveillance and it encroaches upon free expression. Here that notion is new. We’ve operated as a society in which people really cherish, value, and rely upon the freedom they enjoy. The idea that freedom is being encroached upon and undercut is a relatively new concept. For many people it really hasn’t sunk in. It seems remote or removed, so they’re really not that concerned.

The Obama Administration and intelligence agencies have put forward facts and evidence to substantiate the utility of these programs, for example on the attacks they’ve been able to thwart. We’re trying to stimulate a debate to balance that out with consideration of what the downsides are. Certainly there are advantages [to surveillance], and I don’t doubt that some of this information can be useful, but it does come at a cost. We have to understand what that cost is and have an open debate about where the right balance lies.

 

Perhaps it’s just too new to see the real impacts.

It’s true that awareness in certain ways is new. Once people are aware that surveillance is going on, that also changes the dynamic.

I also think that some of these effects are potentially insidious; they may not manifest clearly. Self-censorship is hard to document because it’s predicated on very individual and private decisions about what people write and say. There may not be egregious examples of these kinds of harm. I think they operate in a somewhat subtle and hard to discern way, but they nonetheless can be very significant. It’s important to really investigate and understand the changes in behavior that are happening.

 

A lot of the discussion has been focused on the journalism side of this. Are the effects similar toward the literary side of the debate?

Yes they are. We wanted to break it out and see whether there were differences between fiction and nonfiction writers and we didn’t really find significant differences. It seems like the effects we are documenting are cross-cutting.

It stands to reason that investigative journalists covering national security or those on the receiving end of leaks, I think they have heightened concern about their communications. But I think in the wider pool there seems to be fairly widespread and consistent levels of concern documented in the survey.

 

A lot of writers who may be repressed or censored elsewhere rely on PEN members to help them get information out. Does the surveillance have an effect on PEN’s mission?

It does. We work with PEN members all over the world. The reaction to the NSA revelations has been pretty explosive in a number of different countries. There is a concern about our ability to communicate with colleagues abroad when people feel those contacts may not be secure.

 

Because of your position at the head of PEN American Center, have you yourself been affected? Have you started to self censor or become cautious about following certain threads or topics?

[long pause]

Maybe a tiny bit. I have a heightened awareness that e-mail on a number of fronts is not perfectly private and you ought to just be mindful of that. If anything could come back to haunt in any kind of way, think twice.

The desk of Suzanne Nossel (photo: Ahmet Sibdial Sau)

What should writers’ reactions to this be?

It’s really important that we force a proper national debate and scrutiny in the U.S. Congress on these issues. That’s not to say we’re opposed to surveillance entirely, not at all. We’re not saying there’s no role whatsoever for this. What we are saying is it’s expanded so dramatically with very little public understanding, discussion, and oversight that the evidence suggests there could be real costs to that. It’s important that we understand those costs and take those costs into consideration and make deliberate decisions of what the scope of these programs should be.

There’s a degree to which we’re allowing the technological capabilities to drive the policy. Because we can do this, we can surveil at this level at this magnitude, we are doing so and maybe there’s some marginal utility. But just because there’s some marginal utility doesn’t mean the advantages outweigh the disadvantages.

What we’re asking for is a more fulsome public debate. Writers have a part to play in that debate.

 

What tools or resources does PEN make available to writers who may feel cautious?

We’ve done it more around the world than we have in the U.S. We led the creation of the Declaration of Digital Freedom that has been adopted throughout PEN globally. We’ve also worked to connect PEN centers around the world with organizations that provide tools, tactics, and technologies that enable people to keep their communications safer.

 

With this level of awareness, do we now realize that there are not so much free countries, but just some countries that are freer than others? Could one argue that more advanced economies could be less free because technology allows for this surveillance dragnet, which may not be available in emerging economies?

I think it’s hard to generalize about levels of freedom writ broadly, because there are so many elements that go into that. In many ways we are free here. The examples of people being punished for what they write are finite. There are places in the world where, if you challenge the government or criticize the emir or you publish a manifesto on democracy, you could be thrown in jail. That’s not true here. We have to be careful about drawing equivalencies or suggesting that things are perhaps even worse than they are.

What we do see is that the evolution of technology affects freedom. That’s something that has to be looked at, understood, managed, and thought through. We need to recognize the impact that the advent and use of these technologies may have on our freedom. My sense is that wasn’t too much thought about when they rolled out these programs.

 

Were there survey results that surprised you?

We were struck by the prevalence of people who said they self-censored. They were saying that in significant numbers. That’s the most worrying piece. Not only are people concerned, they’re actually changing their behavior already. Will that become more pronounced over time and how? Does it become baked in to how young journalists or novelists conceive their work, their role, and the scope of what they want to take on?

 

Unless you have a one-on-one conversation, how do you even figure out that’s happening?

Some of that is subconscious. I don’t know if we’re all aware about what we’re not writing about, because you just don’t think about going there.

  • 1. In the interest of full disclosure, I am a member of PEN American Center and participated in the survey.

Shaun Randol founded The Mantle in 2009. Today he is the Editor-in-Chief and Publisher. You can email him at shaun [at] themantle.net. Shaun is the co-editor of Gambit: Newer African Writing. He is also a member of the PEN American Center and serves on the boards of Nomadic Press, the Global Literature in Libraries Initiative, and Africa Book Link.