Produced by investigative reporter Pratap Chatterjee and artist Khalil Bendib, Verax: The True History of Whistleblowers, Mass Surveillance and Drone Warfare (Metropolitan Books) delves deeply into the international intelligence business—a global marketplace for espionage technology—and the role of software and bad data in a complex work of graphic nonfiction about mass surveillance and civilian casualties in the wake of the 9/11 attacks.
Chatterjee’s findings are grim: due to misidentification and poor data—using thermal imaging, for instance, to target people with guns in a country where lots of noncombatants have guns—the victims of U.S. drone attacks carried out in Pakistan and Afghanistan are just as likely to be innocent civilians. And the American pilots responsible for the drone strikes—twenty-somethings who pilot drones remotely from the U.S.—are left with deep psychological scars and PTSD from the killing of women and children carried out from bases located thousands of miles away.
In addition the book also illustrates the extent to which U.S. and foreign spy agencies use increasingly sophisticated technology to record people’s everyday activities, mining that data for clues about possible illicit activities.
Just published, Verax is both a documentary graphic narrative—Chatterjee and Bendib are characters, and we watch them research and craft this story—and a deft example of using innovative visual design to make a complex information-laden report easier to understand. PW interviewed Chatterjee, Bendib, and Riva Hocherman, their editor at Metropolitan Books, about the creation of Verax and their hopes for it.
You are writing about very recent events. How did the story evolve as you worked on the book?
Bendib: This book was conceived in agony, and it took three years and a half of constantly changing the story and starting over and over again, just to keep up with what was happening in the news. You might say it was produced in real time.
Chatterjee: We started planning the book in the fall of 2013, soon after Ed Snowden blew the whistle [on the NSA]. About half of the events (by page numbers) that are depicted occurred after we started writing and drawing. Indeed the last page of the book is drawn from an interview with Chelsea Manning on June 9, 2017, just two months before the printing presses will start rolling on Verax.
Many chapters were rewritten several times, one I think as many as six times, to create a coherent narrative. In fact, the book was initially just about Snowden and then it grew to cover my main area of work in the last two years, that is to say drones. As we emphasize in the book, you can’t actually separate the two and we eventually embraced writing about the bigger picture.
Pratap, you spoke to multiple sources with differing points of view to research this book. How does that complicate your work?
Chatterjee: I often come out learning that I was wrong to begin with. I remember going to both Afghanistan and Iraq, assuming that the local population would be angry at the invasions and discovering on both occasions that was not true. I spend a lot of time talking to people in the military, as you can see in the book, not just to victims and activists. After you work in the field for a while, you start to build up a network of people to ask questions from. My sources include people who believe in torture and people who work at the highest levels of the corporate and the intelligence world.
How did you figure out how to turn this complex story into a readable narrative?
Chatterjee: That was a lot of hard work! Every time I wrote a new chapter, I spent a day going back and forth over old material to see what fit next and perhaps more importantly what to take out. There was a lot we had to discard, such as a chapter in Hawaii about Snowden’s early days, a chapter about Trump’s national security plans etc. etc. I have to say because the book focused on my own life, the task was a little easier because I had to stick to my own work mostly.
We chose to depict Snowden’s escape to Moscow because it really gave a glimpse into the life of a whistleblower. And sometimes we could not use actual events to depict complex ideas, so we chose instead to use actual conversations between Khalil and me to fill in the gaps. That also involved a lot of creative thinking, as you can see from the drawings, to create big spreads that depict how surveillance works. I think Chapter Ten [which depicts how technology captures data around the world] took us three months at least. Not least, a lot of credit should go to Riva for asking us difficult questions and making us throw out extraneous information.
Bendib: We’re both news wonks, reading several newspapers every day, and Pratap is a journalist who actually covers and reports on these matters, so this was no different than what he usually does, except in graphic form.
Riva, you have edited several graphic novels set in the Middle East, including Joe Sacco’s Footnotes in Gaza and Riad Sattouf’s Arab of the Future. What insights do these books offer?
Hocherman: What all of them do is give the stage to people who are rarely visible in mainstream media coverage. They’re often ordinary people, whose lives are affected by the events we read about in ways that we never usually see. The focus in Verax is largely domestic, on the U.S. War on Terror and on mass surveillance, but we do see the effects of that war abroad—particularly of drone strikes. Take the noise of drones, for example, which is all-pervasive and penetrates people’s homes night and day. Or the crippling PTSD that affects former drone operators. These are details most of us never encounter.
What do you think the impact of Verax will be?
Hocherman: Verax tells a story of national—even international—significance in a way that’s lively, engrossing, and accessible. Apart from the issues surrounding mass surveillance and its use in war, the book touches on many other terribly important subjects: the vital role of a critical media, for example, or the need to act according to one’s conscience, even at great personal cost, or the question of what information the government owes to the public.
The hope is to engage the broadest possible range of readers in this story and in the issues it raises. I believe that in its ambitious treatment of this complex history, Verax has expanded the boundaries for what graphic non-fiction can do and the kinds of topics it can tackle.