External Affairs

An Author, an Actor, and Two Whistleblowers Walk Into a Hotel…


Edward Snowden, John Cusack and Arundhati Roy at the Ritz Carlton in Moscow

Things That Can and Cannot Be Said, the new publication by Juggernaut, is almost un-extractable. In the winter of 2014 the American actor, producer and scriptwriter, John Cusack arranged a meeting between him, Arundhati Roy, Edward Snowden and Daniel Ellsberg, who exposed the lies of the US government about the Vietnam War through the Pentagon papers in the 1960s. The book is recollections of the conversations leading up to, and at the meeting, with Cusack and Roy, taking turns narrating the events that unfolded. But the conversation is the context, and without the fullness of the context, the extracts only catch some of the meaning.

That caveat aside, here are some parts that give a sense of the richness as well as the complexity of the subjects being considered.

John Cusack:

On impulse, I called New Delhi.

Wanna go to Moscow and meet Dan Ellsberg and Ed Snowden?

Don’t talk rubbish . . .

Listen . . . if I can pull it off, should we go?

There was silence, and I felt the smile over the phone.

Yaa, Maan. Let’s go.

Arundhati Roy:

The Moscow Un-Summit wasn’t a formal interview. Nor was it a cloak-and-dagger underground rendezvous. The upshot is that we didn’t get the cautious, diplomatic, regulation Edward Snowden. The downshot (that isn’t a word, I know) is that the jokes, the humor, and repartee that took place in Room 1001 cannot be reproduced.

Cusack and Roy in conversation:

JC: So, what do you think? What do we think are the things we can’t talk about in a civilized society, if you’re a good, domesticated house pet?

AR: (Laughs) The occasional immorality of preaching nonviolence? (This was a reference to Walking with the Comrades, Roy’s account of her time spent in the forests of central India with armed guerrillas who were fighting paramilitary forces and vigilante militias trying to clear indigenous people off their land, which had been handed over to mining companies.)

JC: In the United States, we can talk about ISIS, but we can’t talk about Palestine.

AR: Oh, in India, we can talk about Palestine, but we can’t talk about Kashmir. Nowadays, we can’t talk about the daylight massacre of thousands of Muslims in Gujarat, because Narendra Modi might become prime minister. [As he did subsequently in May 2014.]

They like to say, “Let bygones be bygones.” Bygones.

Nice word … old-fashioned.

JC: Sounds like a sweet goodbye.


It was a classic human rights evening, to be sure: gourmet food and good intentions, a choir singing beautiful noels. I enjoyed watching the almost pathologically anti-gala Roy trying to mask her blind panic.

JC: What is the meaning of charity as a political tool?

AR: It’s an old joke, right? If you want to control somebody, support them. Or marry them. (Laughter)

JC: Sugar daddy politics….

AR: Embrace the resistance, seize it, fund it.

JC: Domesticate it . . .

AR: Make it depend on you. Turn it into an art project or a product of some kind. The minute what you think of as radical becomes an institutionalized, funded operation, you’re in some trouble. And it’s cleverly done. It’s not all bad…some are doing genuinely good work.

JC: The first time you spoke at the World Social Forum … when was that?

AR: In 2003, in Porto Alegre … just before the US invasion of Iraq.

JC: And then you went the next year in Mumbai and it was . . .

AR: . . . totally NGO-ized. So many major activists had turned into travel agents, just having to organize tickets and money, flying people up and down. The forum suddenly declared, “Only nonviolence, no armed struggles….” They had turned Gandhian.

JC: So anyone involved in armed resistance . . .

AR: All out, all out. Many of the radical struggles were out. And I thought, fuck this. My question is, if, let’s say, there are people who live in villages deep in the forest, four days’ walk from anywhere, and a thousand soldiers arrive and burn their villages and kill and rape people to scare them off their land because mining companies want it—what brand of nonviolence would the stalwarts of the establishment recommend? Nonviolence is radical political theater.

JC: Effective only when there’s an audience . . .

AR: Exactly. And who can pull in an audience? You need some capital, some stars, right? Gandhi was a superstar. The indigenous people in the forest don’t have that capital, that drawing power. So they have no audience. Nonviolence should be a tactic—not an ideology preached from the sidelines to victims of massive violence


Just after Ed [Snowden] left, Dan collapsed on to my bed—exhausted and blissful—with his arms stretched wide, but then a deep storm erupted. He became distressed and emotional. He quoted from “The Man Without a Country” by Edward Evere Hale, a short story about an American naval officer who was tried and court martialled. Hale’s sentence was that he should forever go from ship to ship, and he should never hear the name “America” again. In the story, a character quotes the poem “Patriotism” by Sir Walter Scott:

Breathes there the man, with soul so dead,
Who never to himself hath said,
“This is my own, my native land!”

Dan began to weep. Through his tears, he said, “I’m still that much of a patriot in some sense…not for the State, but…” He talked about his son and how he came of age during the war in Vietnam, and how he, Dan, used to think his son was born for jail. “That the best thing that the best people in our country like Ed can do is to go to prison… or be an exile in Russia? This is what it’s come to in my country…it’s horrible, you know…” Roy’s eyes were sympathetic but distinctly unsettled.

Cusack, Ellsberg, Roy and Snowden in conversation:

Dan Ellsberg: He says, the Old Man says the Soviets have a thousand missiles. Now the CIA estimate at that time was, if I remember, one hundred and twenty, and State’s was higher than CIA’s, I think one hundred and sixty, and the air force was saying hundreds. That was in August. In September, they completed the satellite coverage.

John Cusack: So, what was the number? What was the real number?

DE: Four.

JC: So, the real number was four?

(Dan holds up four fingers)

DE: Four.

DE: And it was a bad missile, very inaccurate, and very, very vulnerable. If you got over there fast, you could blow this thing over. They had these four missiles, liquidfueled, thin-skinned missiles sitting on one side in Plesetsk. We had forty Atlases and Titans. They had four.

JC: Jesus Christ. So, the entire Armageddon of the planet was predicated on no one exposing the lie that there were only four goddamn missiles.

Edward Snowden: People forget how massive the American industrial advantage was after World War II.

DE: Yeah, but this wasn’t just industrial, you see. They hadn’t built anything. We thought the Soviets must want the capability to have a first-strike capability against us. We would bend every effort to get that capability if we were them. We estimate they must have it! So they neither had a first-strike capability nor were they going to have a first-strike capability, nor had they tried to have a first-strike capability.

Things That Can and Cannot Be Said, by John Cusack and Arundhati Roy is available on the Juggernaut app and in bookstores