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the palace of dreams

3 January 2006

President Bush has recently defended his plan to listen in on Americans' conversations without a warrant. "It seems logical to me that if we know there's a phone number associated with al Qaeda or an al Qaeda affiliate and they're making phone calls, it makes sense to find out why." Put that way, the efforts of the National Security Agency seem like ordinary wiretaps. Bad guys are talking, the good guys listen in. We get an image of those fellows in the movies who sit outside the villain's house in a bread truck with a radio dish on top, headphones over their ears, rooting out a nefarious plot.

Of course, that isn't what's happening at all. As Shane Harris and Tim Naftali report today in Slate, the idea is more that the NSA will listen to every conversation made over wires or the aether, and sort out their meaning at leisure. That's why Bush has not asked for warrants, because eavesdropping on spec is blatantly unconstitutional.

The NSA appears to be vacuuming up all data, generally without a particular phone line, name, or e-mail address as a target. Reportedly, the agency is analyzing the length of a call, the time it was placed, and the origin and destination of electronic transmissions. Those details would be crucial in mining the data for patterns—according to the officials the Times cited, the goal of the NSA's eavesdropping system. [...] Deputy Director of National Intelligence Michael Hayden, who until this year was the NSA director, recently hinted that the NSA's eavesdropping program is not just looking for transmissions from specific individuals. It has a "subtly softer trigger" that initiates monitoring without exactly knowing in advance what specific transmissions to look for. [Harris & Naftali]

The weird world of such aspirations is more literary than political. In particular, the Bush/NSA project of data-gathering resembles nothing so much as the Tabir Sarrail, the oneiric government ministry in Ismail Kadare's 1981 novel The Palace of Dreams.

In The Palace of Dreams, young Mark-Alem, scion of a powerful Albanian family, takes a job at the Ottoman Sultan's Tabir Sarrail, the Palace of Dreams. Here the dreams of subjects from across the empire are reported (or extorted under torture), winnowed, interpreted, and crafted into the basis for Imperial policy. Mark-Alem soon realizes that he is a pawn in a dynastic struggle, but he never really learns – even when he rises to command the entire ministry – how any of his interpretations actually help or hinder the interests of his family.

In fact, he never really understands how the Sultan's massive project of interpreting everything reaches any conclusions at all. Any dream can become the Master-Dream, because the paranoid ideal of overhearing everything breaks down when it comes to actually deciding what the overheard symbols mean. Intelligence, in Kadare's Empire, is no sooner gathered than it is spun to accommodate the political interests of the listener. Dreamers are tortured until they reveal the dream that the torturer wants to hear.

Kadare has gained more and more prominence lately in the West as a great critic of totalitarianism, though some have questioned his overly-close relationship with the very Albanian regimes that he so incisively criticized. The value of his work now, however, seems less to lie in the facts of his own political activity than in the prescience of his work for showing us the bizarreness of 21st-century statecraft: benign, passive, ubiquitous, clandestine, and (because clandestine) susceptible to errors that would be hilarious if they were not so potentially lethal.

Kadare, Ismail. The Palace of Dreams. [Nepunesi i pallatit te endrrave, 1981]. Translated from the Albanian by Yusuf Vrioni as Palais de rêves, 1990; translated from Vrioni's French by Barbara Bray. New York: Morrow, 1993.