"Roman Candle" turns 20: Secrets of Elliott Smith's accidental masterpiece (slideshow)
Elliott and the friends with whom he recorded in middle school in Texas (photo courtesy of Dan Pickering)
Unless you live under a rock that has no Internet connectivity, you know of Ed Snowden. You might also be aware of his predecessor in NSA whistle-blowing, Thomas Drake. But it’s likely you haven’t heard of Perry Fellwock (once known by the nom de plume “Winslow Peck”). But Fellwock, the semi-retired antiques dealer, was the NSA’s first whistle-blower, revealing in an essay for now-shuttered radical magazine “Ramparts” the shadowy and barely heard of surveillance activities of the spy agency 30 years ago.
In a stunning profile published on Gawker Tuesday, Adrian Chen meets the skittish former NSA analyst and recounts his fascinating story, which traces too the shifts and expansions of NSA operations, and the growing war on whistle-blowers in recent decades. Chen notes:
Fellwock became the NSA’s first whistleblower, going to the press to explain the spy agency’s immense scope and mission to a public that had barely been allowed to know such an organization existed. His revelations in the radical magazine Ramparts were picked up by the front page of the New York Times. He went on to be a key player in the turbulent anti-surveillance movement of the 1970s, partnering with Norman Mailer and becoming the target of CIA propaganda.
Chen’s piece deserves reading in its entirety. Some details worthy of note, however, include Fellwock’s praise of Snowden:
“I think Snowden is a patriot,” he said. “I admire Snowden and some of these other whistleblowers because they’ve come out in a time when there’s not a lot of political support.”
However, as someone who stayed in the United States after his own whistleblowing, he believes Snowden made a miscalculation by fleeing the country. “I think he should have stayed here and faced the consequences,” he said. “I understand his fear, but I really think it was a mistake on his part.”
Fellwock also tells Chen how he believes the NSA continues to be misrepresented as an integrated arm of government. He sees it as far more rogue than typically portrayed:
“Most people in those days thought that the NSA and CIA worked for the U.S. government,” he said. “But they don’t. They’re an entity unto itself, a global entity that is comprised of the Five Eyes.” The Five Eyes is the informal name for the intelligence-sharing agreement between the United States, Great Britain, Canada, Australia, and New Zealand. “This community operates outside of the Constitution,” Fellwock said, “and from everything I’ve seen, it still does.”
And Chen himself comments on the difference between Snowden’s circumstance and that of the original NSA whistle-blower, reflecting the fierceness with which the surveillance state has grown and attempts to fortify itself against those who want to expose its most shadowy and totalizing spycraft:
It’s nearly impossible to imagine Edward Snowden being a quietly retired antiques dealer on Long Island 40 years from now. Snowden will never come back to the U.S., charged as he is with espionage, unless it is in chains.
Whatever cracks in the surveillance state’s armor of secrecy were pried open by Counter-Spy and the Church Committee have been sealed over with titanium and Dobermans on either side to guard them.
Natasha Lennard is an assistant news editor at Salon, covering non-electoral politics, general news and rabble-rousing. Follow her on Twitter @natashalennard, email firstname.lastname@example.org.More Natasha Lennard.
Heatmiser publicity shot (L-R: Tony Lash, Brandt Peterson, Neil Gust, Elliott Smith) (photo courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
Elliott and JJ Gonson (photo courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
"Stray" 7-inch, Cavity Search Records (photo courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
Elliott's Hampshire College ID photo, 1987
Elliott with "Le Domino," the guitar he used on "Roman Candle" (courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
Full "Roman Candle" record cover (courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
Elliott goofing off in Portland (courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
Heatmiser (L-R: Elliott Smith, Neil Gust, Tony Lash, Brandt Peterson)(courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
The Greenhouse Sleeve -- Cassette sleeve from Murder of Crows release, 1988, with first appearance of Condor Avenue (photo courtesy of Glynnis Fawkes)