An uneven chronicle of what our nation has lost—in personal rights and moral standing—since the inception of the War on Terror in 2001.
A graphic novel written by journalist Pratap Chatterjee and illustrated by political cartoonist Khalil, Verax: The True History of Whistleblowers, Drone Warfare, and Mass Surveillance is an uneven chronicle of what our nation has lost—in personal rights and moral standing—since the inception of the War on Terror in 2001. The book is part Chatterjee’s memoir of investigating the surveillance state and part visual primer on the technologies and algorithms used to spy on Americans at home and kill “terrorists” abroad.
The book begins in 2011. Chatterjee was one of a group of journalists recruited by Julian Assange to help disseminate Wikileaks’ initial document dump pertaining to mass surveillance by the American government. Transparency is Assange’s religion and whistleblowers seek him out due to his devotion, so he is portrayed here with some reverence. It is difficult to remember a time when one might think admirably about Assange, but his motivations seemed less murky then than now, and Khalil flatters the snowy white Australian in almost angelic caricature.
Through Assange, Chatterjee meets filmmaker Laura Poitras, who will later be his conduit to Glenn Greenwald, who eventually leads to Eric Snowden. But between high profile whistleblowers, Chatterjee pursues a parallel investigation into the victims of the expanding drone war sanctioned by the Obama administration. To his surprise, many of the systems used in domestic surveillance are the same used to target suspected terrorists around the world. Both rely on the collection of metadata, and innocent people are dying due to endemic inaccuracies.
It’s never a good idea to have a character in your story questioning your narrative, but Ian Overton, Chatterjee’s editor at the Bureau for Investigative Journalism, voices the reader’s frustration at the tedium of the book’s initial chapters. Assange has set Chatterjee on the path of the technological side of military contractors, so the journalist heads off to trade shows at fancy hotels looking for the people trying to sell more efficient spying software to both dictators and democratically elected officials. The commodification of oppression is clearly illustrated, but the book feels stagnated by Chatterjee’s assignment. Overton fires him at the beginning of the fourth chapter, a catalytic event that intensifies the narrative. Snowden, Greenwald and Poitras dominate the next few chapters, with Khalil pacing his panels with the sharp cuts and misdirection of a spy thriller.
The book opens with a prologue that follows a drone as it whirrs above a village in Central Asia. The drone sees everything until its camera lens morphs into the eye of the military officer seeing what the drone sees from the safety of a base in Florida. It is a haunting, wordless opening, but that artist seems to vanish in the restrained layouts of the book’s initial chapters. Once the story turns to Snowden, Khalil’s linework begins to loosen, his layouts becoming more inventive. But it is not until he enters the story as a character that the full expression of his artistic acumen is put on display.
Khalil exists within the narrative to listen to Chatterjee. He is the audience for all the technical explanations for how metadata collection, mass surveillance and drone warfare function. Imagine if Scott McCloud had a partner strolling beside him while he explained his theories through the continually changing panels and pages in Understanding Comics. Khalil’s illustrations bring to vivid life the kind of material that might make a layperson’s eyes glaze over if it had just been presented as text. This is the most important function of Verax: to document clearly the opaque crimes of the government. One can quibble with the details of its history, but this is an essential reminder of the price this country has paid since 9/11 and the human cost of our misbegotten wars.
Though the drone war started during his administration, George W. Bush is barely mentioned; Obama is the villain of this story. No matter how professorial his demeanor or considered his actions, he used drone warfare with impunity and had his Justice Department find the necessary justifications to keep the program secret. He continued the trend of expanding executive power started by his predecessor, assuming he’d be turning over the apparatus of the state to the measured hands of Hillary Clinton. It did not turn out that way, and the book ends with Trump and the uncertain future we all feel.
With reports of Trump increasing drone strikes, the dropping of the “Mother of all Bombs” on Afghanistan and the murder of four servicemen in Niger, it felt for a moment like the American public was on the cusp of entering the dialogue about war it has avoided for most of the century. But the daily shock doctrines emanating from the current administration have made it impossible. A discussion of warfare would require nuance, balancing domestic fears of existential attack with the very real devastation the American military continues to reap upon the Muslim world, but we would rather define our discourse around the posture of athletes during anthem performances.
The old saying says we are as sick as our secrets, and that has never been truer than today. No administration acts in the light, but Trump and his lackeys have drawn the curtains on the White House while claiming there is no darkness inside. In Latin, verax means truth teller; this book commemorates the people who have risked everything, whether anonymously or publicly, to provide the American people with the secrets of its government. If America is to survive Trumpism, our next wave of verax will have to be legion.