The CIA has nothing on Noam Chomsky (no, really)

This month, a two-year-long investigation into CIA records on Noam Chomsky concluded with a surprising result: Despite a half-century of brazen anti-war activism and countless overseas speaking engagements, the Central Intelligence Agency has no file on the legendary MIT professor.

"Our searches were thorough and diligent, and it is highly unlikely that repeating those searches would change the result," reads an agency reply to a Freedom of Information Act request for any and all CIA records on Chomsky. The request, obtained by Foreign Policy, was submitted by Portland-based writer Frederic Maxwell, who's writing a book about the renowned linguist.

At stake is not so much the CIA's reputation (the agency's forays into domestic spying in the 60s and 70s are well-documented), but Chomsky's: For what's a towering leftist dissident without a lengthy CIA file -- that ultimate rite of passage for 60s-era dissenters?

Was Chomsky maybe even a little disappointed by the lack of a CIA file? Last, week, I presented him with the CIA's findings, which he hadn't been privy to.

"I don't care," said Chomsky, refusing to take the bait during a phone interview. "I had nothing to do with the request." While not particularly enthusiastic about the idea of being seen as envious of CIA surveillance, he did insist that he was the focus of another federal entity's dragnet. "I'm sure the FBI has a big file," he said.

But hold on. No CIA file? And Chomsky's not suspicious? I reminded him of his impeccable qualifications for such surveillance.

Over the years, Chomsky's broad criticisms of the U.S. government (a "terrorist state") made him the only person on both Richard Nixon's Enemies List and the Unabomber's kill list. In the 60s and 70s, he undertook frequent overseas speaking engagements in countries that included Cambodia and Vietnam. He contributed to the leftist political magazine Ramparts, itself a target of CIA surveillance. Detailing the agency's obsession with the magazine's writers, former CIA director Stansfield Turner wrote in his 2006 book Burn Before Reading that "the CIA investigation of the staff of Ramparts was definitely illegal." He added: "It was also just a small part of a much larger [President Lyndon] Johnson-initiated project that went by the codeword CHAOS."

Indeed, that program, initiated in 1967 under Johnson and expanded under Nixon, targeted the anti-war movement on U.S. college campuses, in which Chomsky was a major player. In total, the CIA program collected files on at least 10,000 American citizens. But nothing on Chomsky?

Kel McClanahan, a seasoned national security lawyer who submitted the FOIA request on behalf of Maxwell, was surprised by the CIA's final findings. It was "not a Glomar response, not 'we can't tell you if we have records,' an actual 'no records' response," he told me. In fact, the CIA's first denial about a Chomsky file came back in September 2011. McClanahan then appealed the outcome and received another denial letter this month.

"The Agency Release Panel (ARP) considered Mr. Maxwell's appeal and determined that despite thorough and diligent searches of the appropriate records systems, we were unable to locate any records responsive to his requests," read the Feb. 1 CIA letter.

Interestingly, Chomsky, a man forever mistrustful of U.S. government statements, actually believes the CIA's denial. But it's not because he's warming to the agency as he grows older: It's because he's convinced of its incompetence.

"These agencies are good at killing people, targeted assassinations and overthrowing governments," he told me. "But if anyone were to honestly look at intelligence records, they'd find it all to be a very dubious affair as far as competence is concerned." That is to say, the agency may have had no ethical qualms about spying on Chomsky, but whether it did, and successfully organized that information into its databases, is another story. "We shouldn't be overwhelmed at their pretense of superhuman knowledge," he added. "That's mainly for spy novels." 

Chomsky FOIA request by John Hudson


Why do people hate TED so much?

I realize that as the author of a listicle titled "10 TED Talks They Should Have Censored," I may not be in the best position to tackle this subject, but it seems like the snark and mockery aimed at the annual TED talks -- currently being held in Long Beach and Palm Beach California, and their TEDx offshoots around the world, has reached a fever pitch, and there's something of a pro-TED backlash brewing. 

Slate's Matthew Yglesias and Grist's David Roberts took to Twitter yesterday to express bafflement at all the TED-hate out there, and Roberts offered a pretty cogent defense of the TED phenomenon.

Alternative to casual internet user picking up idea from TED talk is *not* casual internet user being fully educated on a topic.

Like, if Average Joe wasn't burdened with that glib, simplified TED talk, he'd probably go read the original literature, right? 

This got me thinking about why it is that TED irritates so many people. The world "elitist" gets thrown around a lot to describe Chris Anderson's institution, which charges $6,000 for membership. But that's a hard label to pin on them given that they put all their talks online for free.

Some are also put off by the gee-whiz Silicon Valley buzzword culture surrounding TED. Take, for example, the names of of this year's sessions, which include "progress enigma," "beautiful imperfection," and "disrupt!" But let's be honest, anyone who's attended an academic or media conference has seen equally vague but more boring versions of these. Best not even to discuss the World Economic Forum, whose theme was "Dynamic Resilience" this year.

Some charge that TED has devolved into a glorified self-help seminar, a kind of Tony Robbins for geeks. (Sometimes featuring the actual Tony Robbins.) Yes, there's a certain amount of this, but you're just as likely to hear prominent scholars like Saskia Sassen, Jared Diamond, or Peter Singer sharing their latest work.

The biggest charge critics level at TED is that it glorifies "ideas" for their own sake, and rewards snappy presentation over rigorous thought or intellectual debate. 

The New Statesman's Martin Robbins writes:

The genius of TED is that it takes capable-but-ordinary speakers, doing old talks they’ve performed many times elsewhere, and dresses them up in a production that makes you feel like you’re watching Kennedy announce the race to the moon.

Evgeny Morozov, who, by the way, once gave a really good TED talk, takes it further:

Today TED is an insatiable kingpin of international meme laundering—a place where ideas, regardless of their quality, go to seek celebrity, to live in the form of videos, tweets, and now e-books. In the world of TED—or, to use their argot, in the TED “ecosystem”—books become talks, talks become memes, memes become projects, projects become talks, talks become books—and so it goes ad infinitum in the sizzling Stakhanovite cycle of memetics, until any shade of depth or nuance disappears into the virtual void.

Nathan Heller took a similarly skeptical tone in his New Yorker dispatch from TED last year, noting that "More than half of Long Beach talks end in standing ovations."

It's certainly fair to say that not every idea presented at TED is "worth spreading," but quite a few are. I could just as easily put together a list of the "10 dumbest magazine articles" of last year -- hell, of last week -- but I wouldn't condemn the entire form. 

Ultimately, I suspect it's the style more than the content that annoys critics -- and often annoys me. There's a certain dorm-room "is the blue I see the same as the blue you see?" vibe to many TED talks that can be very grating. (The Onion Talks web series parodies this brilliantly with videos like "What is the biggest rock?" and "A future where all robots have penises.")

But again, the magazine comparison is useful. I wouldn't avoid reading an interesting-looking article in Vanity Fair because I'm not really interested in the Kennedy family, Marilyn Monroe, or Hamptons garden parties. Similarly, you don't really have to buy the TED ethos to be grateful for the fact that a slew of fascinating talks are available for free at the click of a mouse.

TED via Facebook