It is only in the penultimate chapter of Kerry Howley’s “Bottoms Up and the Devil Laughs: A Journey Through the Deep State” that we properly get to Satan. The previous two hundred pages have traced an odyssey through the post-9/11 American security state, searching for rhymes and resonance among the lives of its whistle-blowers, accidental truth-tellers, targets, and victims—and also the rest of us, tapping at our phones, constantly feeding data onto the Internet, aware that it’s all accumulating somewhere, much of it accessible to the government. The book is full of suggestive swerves and leaps of association, Howley’s attempts at getting us to look again at subjects and stories that might have been shocking once upon a time, but which we’ve grown used to living with. When the devil shows up, we’ve been reading about Reality Winner, who, when twenty-five years old and working as a National Security Agency contractor, leaked to the press a document about Russian cyberattacks on U.S. election officials. Right after narrating the 2018 hearing at which Winner was sentenced to five years and three months in prison, Howley cuts to the Monster Energy drink company, describing a 2014 viral video of a woman with a story to sell:
Howley presents the video as a harbinger of our present—its subject an amateur conspiracist piecing together far-flung fragments into an absurd, morally Manichaean fiction; its Internet-friendliness and focus on Satan presaging QAnon and other twenty-first-century conspiracy theories. But the video is also a useful (and, I suspect, intentional) point of comparison for Howley’s own project. Picking the best fragments from the infinite universe, stitching them together, making formal and stylistic choices in hopes of encouraging the audience to cast off conventional wisdom and move closer to the truth as you see it: the work of conspiracy-mongers online and the work of writers of critically acclaimed narrative nonfiction have considerable overlap. “All narrators, I say, are fiction,” Howley wrote in her first book, “Thrown,” which was about mixed-martial-arts fighters, and concerned with questions of artifice and truth. “All. The reliable ones have the decency to admit it.” We can’t say we weren’t warned.
To the extent that “Bottoms Up” has a main character, it’s Winner, whom Howley profiled for New York magazine in 2017, and who represents, to a remarkable degree, a convergence of the author’s preoccupations in a single, colorful character (with, as a writerly bonus, a name straight from Thomas Pynchon). When Reality—as Howley typically refers to her heroine—is on the page, we feel the intimacy of a novel. Born in small-town Texas, Winner started teaching herself Arabic after 9/11—she was nine years old at the time—hoping to one day use the language to prevent another attack. After high school, she joined the Air Force and became fluent in Farsi, Pashto, and Dari. She was assigned to support drone operations abroad from Fort Meade in Maryland. She worked long days, watching people from above, and interpreting their conversations to help decide whether they would be killed. The work was classified, so she couldn’t talk about it with family or friends. In 2016, she left the military and started applying for jobs with N.G.O.s in Afghanistan. She never got one, perhaps because she had no college degree.
In 2017, Winner took a job with Pluribus, an N.S.A. contractor, using her language skills to translate classified documents related to Iranian airspace—subject matter in which she had little interest. She worried about where her life was going, what contribution she was making. She soothed her anxieties with weight lifting and yoga. At home, she had a dog and a cat and several guns, including a pink AR-15. She worried about global warming and racial inequality. She hated Trump. At work, TVs everywhere were set to Fox News, and she hated that, too. In a note to herself—later confiscated by the F.B.I. and presented as evidence at her trial—she wrote, “I want to burn the White House down. Find somewhere in Kurdistan to live or Nepal. Ha, ha. Maybe.” In a message to her sister, she wrote, “I have to take a polygraph test where they’re going to ask if I plotted against the government. #gonnafail [. . .] Look I only say I hate America three times a day. I’m no radical.”
One day, bored at work and browsing the ever-expanding world of classified material available via her work computer, Winner came across a five-page document about the 2016 election. Russian intelligence, this document said, had orchestrated a cyberattack that sent malware to hundreds of U.S. election officials, attached to e-mails that looked like they’d originated from a reputable election-software company. Winner experienced a yawning disconnect between the world that her security clearance let her access and the world that everyone outside her professional life seemed to think they were living in. She folded up a printout of the document detailing the cyberattack, stuffed it in her pantyhose, took it home, and mailed it to the left-leaning investigative news outlet the Intercept, which used a bafflingly sloppy process to verify the document’s legitimacy. On the same day the Intercept published their story, the F.B.I. put out a statement: Winner was in custody. She was eventually imprisoned, then transferred to a halfway house in 2021 for good behavior; she is under probation until 2024.
Howley’s central claim—the thread with which she seeks to string her wide-ranging material, including Winner’s story—is that American life since the early two-thousands has been increasingly marked by two developments. First: the mass collection of personal data by the state, with help from tech companies. Second: most individuals’ daily participation in this process, as we deposit more and more digital fragments of our life on the Internet, some of it notionally private, some posted publicly, accessible to the government. This creates a near-infinite well of details that can be used to tell stories about us. These stories—“sticky fiction” pieced together from facts, but not wholly true—get built to rationalize decisions about who gets charged with crimes, who gets tortured, who gets targeted by drone strikes, who gets imprisoned, and for how long.
Before the leak, Winner lived primarily on one side of this process, helping the state watch and listen and assemble its stories. Afterward, she was on the other side—someone the state wanted to tell one particular story about, in the service of punishment. In this story, supported amply by choice fragments (“I only say I hate America three times a day”), she was one thing: a young woman long determined to harm America. In Howley’s telling, Winner is, like all of us, many things. We contain multitudes. We communicate in different registers depending on whom we’re communicating with. We say things we don’t mean, or half-mean, or say things to see how it feels to say them, and learn something about how our minds work. Human multiplicity, and irreducibility to data points, seems to be Howley’s North Star, the principle that she is invested in more than any other, and is writing to protect. (When she describes Winner’s mother as “incredibly cagey and deeply opaque, among the most unknowable people I have ever tried to capture in writing,” it sounds like a compliment.) We change our minds, and we forget, and we lose parts of ourselves (sometimes intentionally, sometimes not), and we call this process becoming a self.
It’s as if Howley, in profiling Winner with such care, is trying to wash off the state’s sticky, simplifying fiction and reveal the human underneath—suggesting how easily anyone could be reduced to a version of themselves they wouldn’t recognize. The extent to which you’d share this concern might depend on your baseline feelings about the power of the government. Howley worked and has written for years at the libertarian magazine Reason; in “Bottoms Up,” the L-word shows up only in passing, but its traces are apparent in the insistence that we would all do well to treat the state—any state, but especially the sprawling post-9/11 American security apparatus—with a reflexive wariness, even if we believe we have nothing to hide. “The radical transparency we have accepted, step by step, these past years, is a bet we have made: that we and the people with the guns and cages will stay on good terms,” she writes.
Even though Winner is the center of Howley’s narrative mosaic, she doesn’t appear much in the first hundred pages. Instead, quickly drawn character studies form a montage of the post-9/11 era in which Winner came of age, the mood board of her psychocultural inheritance. There’s John Walker Lindh, the American who, at twenty, joined the Taliban, and, after being captured on the battlefield in Afghanistan, became a national symbol of treachery. There’s Abu Zubaydah, the Saudi man mistakenly thought to be a high-ranking Al Qaeda member, and as a result subjected to a nightmarish cycle of confinement and torture, many details of which have been destroyed. (When dealing with the C.I.A., it turns out, there may be no receipts to keep.) There are whistle-blowers of different temperaments and ideological inclinations, including John Kiriakou—a former C.I.A. officer who characterized waterboarding as an effective interrogation technique, but who also went to prison for leaking to a journalist the name of a colleague allegedly connected to the government’s torture program—and Chelsea Manning, who sent troves of classified data to WikiLeaks. There’s Joe Biggs, who joined the Army after 9/11 and got sent to Iraq and Afghanistan, and later became a correspondent for the conspiracy-weaving Infowars, then an organizer for the Proud Boys, charged with seditious conspiracy relating to the attack on the U.S. Capitol on January 6, 2021. (Biggs has pleaded not guilty.) Julian Assange gets a few pages, too.
Howley doesn’t strongly demonstrate how these stories relate to one another or to her stated arguments, which roam far beyond her central point about the state’s digitally supercharged storytelling powers and into the broader culture. Americans, she asserts, have lost touch with the skill of defining themselves as individuals; relatedly, they have “lost the knack for anonymity.” Our lives have become not less physical per se—screens and the like are as physical as anything else—but less sensual, and this has created for some a hunger for extreme physical experiences. “Bottoms Up” is peppered with such confident aphorisms, and it’s often hard to tell whether Howley is working to validate these claims or whether she assumes that readers will accept as common sense her descriptions of the world. Focussing on them in isolation, I sometimes felt skeptical. Did we ever really—before smartphones, before cloud storage—construct our selves through some fundamentally private, internal process? Haven’t individuals’ identities always been bound up with the gaze of others—sometimes experienced as a comfort, sometimes as oppressive or burdensome, sometimes as both?
In her attempt to connect government surveillance to the way we live now, Howley leans especially hard on the way our old opinions, stray thoughts, and jokes accumulate online, and how these decontextualized pieces of our former selves can make trouble for our careers and reputations. Though it’s true that the practice of combing through someone’s old blog posts and tweets looking for ammunition does bear resemblance to how the government might seek to cook up a case against a target, concerns about malicious and ungenerous misinterpretation of the words we leave online are, it seems safe to say, much more salient to a professional writer like Howley than to the average citizen.
As a fellow nineties kid, I sometimes wondered whether Howley was placing outsized significance on gauzy nostalgia for what it meant to be a teen-ager before smartphones, selfies, and social media. I get it: I do the same thing. It’s easy to forget that the challenge of becoming a person has always meant negotiating pressures between inside and outside, self and group, the stories you tell about yourself and the stories the world tells about you. Digital technologies have, of course, changed the texture of these negotiations—but technology didn’t create them. Similarly, state institutions have told powerfully distorting stories about their targets—and used those stories to justify injustice—since long before anyone ever sent an e-mail or left a trail of metadata.
For another, more conventional book, objections like this might be fatal. But “Bottoms Up” proceeds less by the sequential logic of the proof, or of typical journalism, and more by the associative logic of the mood board. And it works. Howley’s prose reminded me of Don DeLillo’s, not just in its preternatural attunement to invisible currents of feeling which course between varied pockets of the globalized American project, but also in the feeling that she’d taken her experience of the world and melted it down into a weapon meant to puncture our hardened habits of perception. “American surveillance is partly made of electrons and partly made of tubes and partly made of dogs,” Howley writes. This sentence is the sharp tip of a longer passage designed to remind us that, when we hear about surveillance on the news, we’re hearing not just about software programs running silently through the cloud. We’re hearing about thousands of middle-class Americans working in generic-looking office buildings in generic-looking office parks, and also—at the N.S.A. server farm in Utah, anyway—a crew of on-site security dogs, with, presumably, a stash of dog food and poop bags. Stories about government surveillance have a strange tendency to make an abstract concept even more abstract. Dogs, in Howley’s hands, deliver a jolt of the real.
The more of these jolts Howley produces, the more “Bottoms Up” restores the world to something akin to its original strangeness. It’s a daring approach, and an invaluable one: seeing the world anew makes it feel, in some small way, up for grabs, and this feeling is a precondition for real thought. I still haven’t decided whether I agree with at least half of Howley’s arguments, or the arguments suggested by her method. In writing as in intelligence analysis, there’s always the possibility that the connection you’re tracing isn’t actually there, or isn’t meaningful (bottoms up!). But that’s hardly a reason not to try.
As penance for its mishandling of her leak, the Intercept’s parent company funded Winner’s legal team, which eventually ran up a two-million-dollar bill. Thanks to the byzantine workings of security clearance, she was able to speak with her legal team only on the rare occasions when everyone involved—including lawyers in Washington, local counsel in Georgia, and Winner herself—could all get to secure-communications facilities at the same time. Details of her case, including the content of the document she’d leaked, were routinely discussed in the press, but her lawyers were afraid that, by accessing it themselves, they would run afoul of regulations on the handling of classified material. Winner never became a celebrity on the level of Edward Snowden or Chelsea Manning, perhaps in part because of whistle-blower fatigue, but also, it seems possible, because she fell between political fault lines. No one on the right wanted to support someone providing possible evidence to the Russia-Trump collusion narrative, and many on the left didn’t, either, viewing that narrative as an attempt by the Democratic establishment to dodge responsibility for its losses. Her mom, Billie, tried holding a protest on her behalf in her Texas home town, but only twenty people came.
The longer we stay with Winner, the more we sense Howley’s admiration for her subject—less for the impulsive leak itself, and more for the strength of her commitment to figuring out, however imperfectly, the world and her place in it. This explains why we hear so much about Winner’s time behind bars. (In fact, just from reading Howley’s book, you wouldn’t know Winner has been released.) We read in granular detail about the needless, punitive difficulty of simple visits. We read about the horrible food. We read about Winner asking her mother to give money to her fellow-inmates, leading in yoga classes, worrying about the health of a pregnant peer, arguing with a Bible instructor. These are, we come to understand, examples of Winner trying, under extraordinary pressure, to remember who she is and to work out who she’s going to be—or, more modestly, to remind herself that she’s alive. Sometimes, this means sticking her tongue out at the experience of constantly being watched, her every mood and appearance scrutinized by someone else. Like her courtroom sketch artist:
In jail, on the phone with her sister, and aware their call is being surveilled and transcribed, they amuse themselves by saying “vodka” to each other again and again in a Russian accent. Sometimes they phone up the White House, and ask for Donald Trump. These are small moments of silliness, but they contribute to an intimate portrait of Winner as someone fighting to be meaningfully human under constraints of the very sort that disturb Howley most.
In her introduction, Howley recalls being pregnant and worrying about the world her daughter would be born into. “I despaired many times [. . .] about my ability to protect the thing I was growing from a world that had abandoned walls, that asserted its right to invade, to amass electrons against wholeness, that had forgotten what it was like to construct a self in the dark.” She wants things to be different, but isn’t sure how. “She is here now, in the world, and there is nothing to do but help her remember.” The hope Howley is expressing is that, by trying as hard as possible to figure out exactly what story she wants to tell, and how to tell it, a writer can come to know something she didn’t before, and that, in the private space of communion with the text, the reader will learn something new, too, and feel the possibility of learning more. Like Winner’s small acts of resistance, this is a modest hope, but a fierce one. ♦