The premiere of Oliver Stone’s film Snowden Live brilliantly depicts the intellectual and emotional underpinning that motivated Edward Snowden to first enter into and then defect from the CIA with the revelatory files that have since become a fundamental game-changer in not only American but World History. The convergence of this film with the Standing Rock Sioux Indians defiance of the Dakota Access Pipeline, Wall Street and the petrochemical industry’s destruction of their sacred lands and burial grounds in North Dakota have had a cathartic effect on many people’s lives.
The theme underlying the Snowden Story is the fundamental question of Allegiance. To whom must the citizenry ultimately devote their allegiance: to the blind, unquestioning support of the Nazi War Machine during WWII; the American government and its CIA, NSA & DIA’s mass spying on its people, or; the Standing Rock Sioux Indian people and their supporters in the world allowing Wall Street and the Dakota Access Pipeline to forever desecrate the sacred waters and lands of all the people? Snowden Live and Sioux Indian defiance challenges every human being to answer for themselves the question, “What country, philosophy, ideology or way of life do you subscribe to and to whom you are prepared to commit your life’s total allegiance?”
Like the Missouri River’s confluence with the Mississippi River, this question, flowing together into, around and through this writer’ own personal life, has served to dirge up many memories – some wonderfully happy, others extremely painful – that, over the years, happened to have manifested some strikingly similar parallels to the convergence of these two recent historical events.
For this writer, too, once was a former military cryptographer who, fifty years ago, briefly entered into the CIA with the same intellectual and emotional fervor as Snowden to do, as President John F. Kennedy back then once challenged, “Ask not, my fellow Americans, what your country can do for you, but what you can do for your country.” Time and again was heard JFK’s dare, “To dream of things that never were”.
Before entering into the CIA I had been a high school drop-out, like Snowden, who was also bored by the grinding, regimented, hum-drum of schoolwork and the tyranny of dull, biased classroom texts and tests and eagerly sought to satisfy an inquisitive Scorpio urge to explore new, secretive, mysterious realms. So my life’s odyssey soon turned into a stint in the U.S. Navy. The military’s expectation of blind obedience to its rigid authoritarian military code didn’t ever set well with my basic renegade, ‘lone wolf’ nature, softened only by the love and desire to work quietly on my own ciphering and deciphering cryptic messages in some dark CIC center in the middle of the South China Sea. It could have easily turned into a life’s career but the negative rigidity of military life far outweighed the positives.
It wasn’t long after, that the odyssey next turned into a two year stint on the shadowy edges of the Criminology world with a police department where tough, no nonsense, old guard street cops of the “more action and less talk” school of thought were met up with who were more inclined to roust a group of otherwise peaceful people, especially if they were people of color, off of a street corner before, if ever, asking them what they were doing there. Though the investigative, underworld nature of police work proved stimulating, I had no stomach for the violent, busting-head tendencies of too many ‘Law & Order’ types. But the realization quickly dawned that to become a whistleblower, and buck the Blue Code of Silence was tantamount to career suicide and so life’s odyssey was broken yet again.
Each time life’s circle was broken and a new beginning and direction anticipated, an ever-present psychic image always seemed to linger in my minds-eye and dreams. As life shuffled onward, a mysterious, smiling, old woman would constantly appear in the same reoccurring dream, each time dancing serenely ‘round the same smoky fire while I, danced close behind her, my eyes clouded by all the smoke. She seemed to symbolize some kind of vision quest I was being called upon to make in search of some ultimate truth that beckoned beyond life’s dark, outer edges.
A mind-shattering twist of history in 1963 soon launched the odyssey’s long, wandering vision quest upon a completely new visionary course. The morning President John F. Kennedy was assassinated found me lying in agony on the cold black tiles of a bathroom floor, head in the toilet, dry-retching up my guts. My body caught in the throes of a violent struggle to shed the dregs of an epic hangover; an apt penance for a bacchanalian Scorpio-Sagittarius cusped birthday party celebrated the night before in the ‘Black Cat’. That den of iniquity a hot-spot for beatniks, gays and other cultural renegades of San Francisco’s once wild, wicked Barbary Coast.
Well on the way to becoming a carouser and roustabout town at 25, I was going nowhere fast ‘til that black cat-crossed day. JFK’s death at once triggered an intense stock-taking of where life as an indolent, high-school drop-out had led me to that point and in what fateful direction it was meant to go from that moment on.
Brain-dazed, as if in a somnambulistic trance, with blood-shot eyes riveted to the T.V., I passively watched the life blood of a Camelot dream – splattered all over the back-seat of a black limo convertible – speed away time and again from an obscure Dealey Plaza roadway in Dallas.
Each new blurry, time-lapse shot of President Kennedy’s head violently snapping backwards in front of all us frantic passengers, sitting helpless in our living rooms and dens – locked together in a macabre, slow-motion dance of death – stole away with it, piece by piece, a bright New Frontier hope and dream-vision for the world; his haunting voice echoing and re-echoing that signature challenge.
By the time Virginia’s Indian summer harvest of 1966 had come and gone, I’d served a brief stint with the Central Intelligence Agency in pursuit of this quest to better serve my country and dream of things that never were. Yet the decision to join the CIA and then abruptly leave was part of what was the same unfulfilled quest: searching for a place to belong; wondering who my people were to whom I would give my complete allegiance; pondering in what direction life’s journey should lead.
It didn’t take long to realize that many of the dynamics in the CIA that were so cogently portrayed in Snowden Live – the ideologically hard-nosed instructors (in my case tough ex-OSS instructors from World War II); the glamour of all the cloak and dagger secrecy, the sense of exclusivity and ability to potentially wield enormous levels of power from behind the scenes; a secret training base in rural Virginia with covert cover stories to keep the local populace totally in the dark about its real purpose; the attractive lure of a lifetime of field assignments in exotic, challenging places everywhere in the world; and a lucrative double salary between one’s overt job designation and actual real covert responsibilities, secretively deposited each month in a numbered Swiss bank account – each possessed its own addictive appeal.
However all the plusses soon were outweighed by too many negatives as more and more ‘war stories’ were heard recounted, off the record of course, by long-time CIA personnel either retiring or recovering from extreme mental stress or various addictions. it soon became obvious that the CIA already was guilty of every crime in the books against humanity; its sinister view of the world described with dark, cryptic, “special ops” words that spoke of tales of: murder, mayhem and torture, political assassinations, death squads, bloody coups, drug smuggling, illegal arms sales, dirty money laundering and rampant bioterrorism. Instructors in clandestine operations spoke contemptuously of Kennedy’s “liberal turncoat” actions in the Bay of Pigs fiasco. Some were outraged that he could let a tiny banana republic socialistic rabble a few miles offshore arrogantly thumb its nose at Yankee imperialism. Some spoke gleefully of JFK’s violent demise and the welcomed reality of a ruthless Shadow CIA within the Agency who, with the help of trained assassins from the School of the Americas, were responsible for Kennedy’s assassination if not so many others.
Then there were the everyday happenstance things that suggested this was a strange, dark, closed world to be entering into where signs posted on all the door and walls warned “Loose Lips Sink Ships!” and “Do You Have a Need to Know? If Not, Don’t Ask!” If some careless one ever happened to forget these admonitions and, in the course of simply attempting to make small talk, asked some proverbial No-No, the room suddenly would turn cold and silent while darting eyes glanced accusatively in the direction of the speaker. Then there were the constant warnings that since a covert employee would spend the bulk of their career outside of the continental limits of the U.S., the odds were great of eventually meeting up with that potential soul mate in life who would no doubt be a foreign national. In which case, that potential mate would first have to be veted by CIA officials to determine if he or she was an unacceptable security risk or threat. If the soul mate didn’t pass muster, the CIA employee only had the option to either give the person a miss or leave their career in the Agency. It didn’t take long to add up the plus and minuses and make another one of those seminal decisions in life.
What those brief Jonah-in-the-belly-of-the-whale days spent in the nation’s Beltway revealed was that whatever dream-visions one might possibly entertain for America’s moral and spiritual reclamation, or its attunement with the earth, they would find no receptive soil in which to root within the Beltway’s corrupt body politic.
So the odyssey next turned to VISTA (Volunteers In Service To America), its ‘War Against Poverty’, and the sweeping re-educational process I instinctively knew needed to be undertaken. Above all others, what seemed like the best way to renew America’s real ‘Camelot Dream’ of peace, freedom and justice would be to address the Achilles Heel of this frustrated dream by discovering something about the West’s historical genocide of its native peoples and their homelands. Through the VISTA experience the hope was to try to leave behind, like so much unwanted baggage, all the White Man’s ugly ideological lies deceit and betrayal.
It was this quest that first lead to a sojourn among the Dakota elders of Crow Creek and later among the Lakota elders of Pine Ridge South Dakota to learn, first-hand, from them what it was like, from their life’s perspective, what it meant to live “in the land of the free and home of the brave”. It was during the brief time spent with them that an ultimate awakening occurred as to who are the real spiritual grandparents – the real philosopher kings and queens – of those of us who see ourselves as pioneers of yet another, never-ending ‘New Frontier’.
And so it was, as life shuffled onward, that that mysterious, smiling, old woman who constantly appeared in the same reoccurring dream, each time dancing ‘round the same smoky fire, had guided me among those ancient native Siouan peoples to, as it were, ‘begin dancing backward into the future’ with them
There is a saying among the Dance Lodges of the Dunneza* that goes;
When people dance together and listen to the dreamers songs, they know what it is like to be with their relations before them. With all the others you follow a common trail around the fire in the sun’s direction, leaning into it until smoke gets in your eyes, and you hold your breath – and hold it – until you are again up wind of the searing center. And it takes so long because one old woman is moving serenely in the song’s tracks – taking tiny steps like the sun – as it moves from summer to winter and back…Because of her we are all dancing close together, getting close enough to feel how the others dance as the touch of bodies is passed around the circle…When your tracks lead you to one of the sacred places, the song will return to life and take you with it. If the circle is being broken now, it can only be because there is to be for you a time of new beginning. Look to the old woman dancing slowly on the other side of the fire. She is giving you smoke that rises, lifting your shadow towards the light.
(*excerpt from Dunneza Dance Lodge by Robin Ridington)
My, My! It does seem a long time ago, in more ways than one, since those early days in the CIA!
*These excerpts were drawn from Volume One of the author’s trilogy, “The Wild Gentle Ones; A Turtle Island Odyssey” (www.turtle-island-odyssey.com)
Author’s Bio Note: During the 1960’s and early 70’s Irwin lived with the Dakota and Lakota peoples on the Crow Creek Sioux & Oglala Sioux Reservations in South Dakota and later published the book, “The Wild Gentle Ones; A Turtle island Odyssey” (www.turtle-island-odyssey.com) that documents their historical plight and those of other indigenous peoples on Turtle Island.