The Mission Cultural Center asked me to paint a mural-sized political cartoon during the opening of a show they produced of experimental drawings and political cartoons. I was sort of nervous about the prospect of painting in front of a large group of people, but I decided it was worth doing, just to say I did it.

I chose as my subject the “secret room” at AT&T’s Folsom Street facility. Here’s the time-lapse video my awesome co-workers, Chris Contolini and Richard Esguerra, shot and edited:

While I was painting, a visitor asked me if the story of the secret room was real. “Like, is this legit? I mean, for real?” he asked.

It does sound fantastical, but sadly, the story is true — except that no one knows if the secret room is inhabited by a giant, data-guzzling baby because only the NSA has the keys to that room.

What we do know is that the Bush administration asked AT&T to install a fiber-optic splitter — a big version of the device you would use to make a copy of your cable signal so you can watch cable on more than one television — and use that splitter to make a duplicate copy of most of the Internet stream passing through the Folsom Street facility.

How do we know this, you might ask. Well, I’ll tell you. A technician named Mark Klein learned about this spying setup when he worked for AT&T in the Folsom Street facility. It took him some time before he understood exactly what was going on, but once he did, he was horrified. He kept his mouth shut, but secretly collected documents to prove what he knew, and when he retired, he took those documents home with him. He shopped these documents around to journalists and privacy advocates, but he got nowhere until he walked into the EFF offices one day in 2005. EFF was already working on a case against AT&T, so Klein’s documents provoked a lot of interest. (Here’s a good video of Klein explaining what he saw on Keith Olberman.)

EFF hired an independent expert to examine the documents, and the expert — a guy named Brian Reid — verified their authenticity and made a statement saying that they showed exactly what Klein was claiming: a massive datamining program sweeping up the communications of millions of innocent people. For its part, AT&T angrily insisted that EFF return the documents, claiming they were private property — nice move, since this also provided verification of the authenticity of the documents.

So what this means is that copies of the communications and internet data of millions of people have been, and continue to be, intercepted and delivered to the government. For the lawyers at EFF, it doesn’t really matter what they’re doing with all that data once they have it in their secret room. What matters is the simple fact of interception on a massive scale, which violates several major privacy laws — including the 4th amendment to the Constitution. But for an artist like myself, it’s the secret room that holds the key! For me, it’s impossible not to try to imagine what goes on inside that room.

Sometimes, when I’ve told people about this, they express disbelief. It’s hard to believe something like this could be happening, and that it isn’t covered by the mainstream media. But in fact it is covered. The New York Times, the LA Times, the Wall Street Journal, the Washington Post, have all covered this story and confirmed the broad outlines of the story — and in some cases, these papers have uncovered new information. But as it turns out, getting a story onto the front page of the New York Times is not enough to make a scandal.

I’m reminded of the stack of newspapers from the Watergate era I once saw for sale at a garage sale in Berkeley. As I looked through them, I realized that the thing that made Watergate so big was the fact that it was on the front page every day for weeks and months on end. We haven’t had any coverage of the Bush spying scandals that even comes close to the saturation of the Watergate stories. Sort of ironic, considering the difference in scale: Wiretapping a few politicians, vs. wiretapping the entire public over the course of 6 or 7 years!

I like pointing this out, because I think it’s interesting that this is how secrets are kept in the modern world. They aren’t exactly suppressed, in the sense that journalists still cover the story, and groups like EFF still file lawsuits, and no one is sent to the gulag. But the story doesn’t ever quite get out. The secret is there, out in public, but nevertheless hidden. You could say that stories like the Mark Klein’s story about the secret room are public secrets.

So, anyway… That’s why I chose to this subject for my cartoon. I hope it intrigues a few people to dig deeper and find out what’s going on. And for those that already know about the NSA’s illegal spying program, I hope it helps add a little bit of mythology to the story. Maybe that’s what it needs — some mystery! A secret room to inflame the imagination…

The show is up through September 14th, with work by several fantastic artists, including cartoonist Spain and my talented friend Paz de la Calzada. Go check it out!

PS: Speaking of Public Secrets, my acquaintance Ken Knabb tells me that his website, the Bureau of Public Secrets, has just entered its 10th year. Ken’s site is a great repository of Situationist texts, but Ken has also filled the site with his own great writings on politics and Buddhism, as well as the collected works of Kenneth Rexroth. Great work, Ken!