Peaceful Warriors, Hackers and Merry Pranksters

Dr Bruce Damer (L), Joe Rogan (R)

Dr Bruce Damer (L), Joe Rogan (R)

A couple of months ago, I was listening to the Joe Rogan podcast, and heard an amazing tale from Burning Man. Joe, who is a very public advocate for hallucinogenic drugs, was interviewing Dr Bruce Damer, a long time Burner (’99). He was recommended as a guest for Joe by Dennis McKenna, whose brother Terence was called the Patron of Psychedelic Drugs in his New York Times obituary – Timothy Leary called him “the Timothy Leary of the 90’s”.

Dr Damer, a technologist and virtual world pioneer, gives seminars at the Pentagon, as well as lecturing Burners on psychedelic drugs.

They kick the podcast off with the “craziest story of all time”, which Bruce Damer originally told to Boing Boing, about being at Burning Man during Hurricane Katrina and hacking into military/intelligence satellites to watch the action:

JR: “You were partying at Burning Man with people who work at the Pentagon”

BD: “Yes”

JR: “That gives me great discomfort, to know that people who work in the Pentagon are partying at Burning Man”

BD: “Rocking! We called for Blackhawks…

Our camp was doing the Wi-Fi for the public and emergency networks, the private network…we had a dish, so we could take over satellites. One of our guys took over a recon satellite from the National Reconnaissance Office. He took this thing offline – this was a Pentagon move…Our Pentagon satellite phone rang, the general on the other side was saying “what’s going on” and then instructed the guy not to answer. We then had control of this satellite and could watch Katrina come in. The government wasn’t doing anything to help people, with all this equipment.

He worked on the Asian tsunami relief efforts, then he went straight to Afghanistan, then he went to Baghdad, then he came to Burning Man.

He works under Title 10 money doing extreme comms, extreme emergency relief efforts. This guy’s invented all this technology, cellphones in rubberized cases that come down on parachutes and run for a month… Here we have a natural disaster happening in our own country, barreling in. Nobody at Burning Man knows it’s happening, but we watched it come in.

You could watch video from orbit on this guy’s screen. You could watch people walking…we saw the first levee breach on this guy’s screen at Burning Man…hi-res reconnaissance imagery…the Iridium phone kept ringing. This is an innovative genius type guy that is totally respected in that organization. The general that initiated the enquiry was covering him, so that the general could then contact Space Command and say “I can’t get any information”. He had put the satellite in some kind of failsafe fall-back mode, so they would spend the next several days trying to get back into it…we could burn hydrazine and locate stuff on the Playa.”

Bruce then goes on to discuss billionaire camps with sherpas. It’s the first seven minutes here:

The whole podcast is worth listening to. Dr Damer gave a lecture at Burning Man in 2012 about shamans, the Pentagon and NASA at the Palenque Norte Psychedelic Salon.

The Palenque Norte journey began with the legendary Entheobotany Conferences held at the Chan Kah hotel near the ancient Mayan ruins just outside of Palenque, Mexico. There, Terence McKenna, Jonathan Ott, Ann & Sasha Shulgin, and a host of other psychedelic luminaries passed along many insights, discoveries, and wild tales to the fortunate Tribe members who were there. And it was at the end of the pool where Terence McKenna gave some of his last talks at the Chan Kah. Years later, then in 2003, a few alumni from those conferences decided to have a “Palenque reunion” at the Burning Man Festival, and so they organized a lecture series to continue the Palenque tradition.

Bruce Damer takes the 2012 Palenque Norte audience at the Burning Man Festival on a far flung journey into what he calls his practice of “global multi-cultural, multi-ethnic, multi-technic shamanism” where you “put yourself on the shelf” and dive deeply into the worlds of Pentagon think tanks, NASA mission designers, the tribal cultures of Pakistan, the Swiss [bankers], Egyptologists, IT professionals, and Christian Evangelicals, to come back with the true alchemical gold. With apologies to Terence McKenna, he says “there is no dominator culture” and that if we aren’t careful we can collectively fall for cartoon epistemologies, chase chains of weaker and weaker claims, and become a victims of our own delusions, and fall prey to others’ unsubstantiated theories. Bruce advises everyone to become their own best skeptic and develop “critical intelligence”. If someone says something that strikes you as flaky or just doesn’t feel right, Bruce suggests that you think it through before you pass on their meme.

Great pants!

So this is the type of people at Burning Man. It’s not all drugged up hippies looking for an orgy. Some of them advise the Pentagon and NASA. Some of them can hack military/intelligence satellites, and get Generals to cover for them. Former Supreme Allied Commander of NATO, General Wesley Clark, is now a Burner. He ran for President, as did Denis Kucinich who attended for the first time this year.

Burning Man takes place on former military land. Many of the people who played key roles in its early years have a military/intelligence background.

Blackhawks on the Playa would not have been a big deal. Every year, military aircraft fly overhead. It is close to Naval Air Station Fallon.

Blackhawk military helicopter hovers low over Burning Man, 2013

Blackhawk military helicopter hovers low over Burning Man, 2013. Image: Patrick Roddie

blackhawks christopher olewnik

image: Christopher Olewnik/Facebook

 

christopher olewnik

image: Christopher Olewnik/Facebook

 

Other aircraft spotted flying over Burning Man over the years include Chinooks, F-14’s, F-16’s, F-18’s, F-22’s, C-130’s, even a flight of V-22 Osprey tilt-rotors.

Pacific Standard magazine published a great story last year by Brian Calvert, The Merry Pranksters Who Hacked The Afghan War, about the Synergy Strike Force – Burners who have serious juice in the military/intelligence world.

SYNERGY STRIKE FORCE BM LOGO

recognize anything familiar in this patch?

 

Their leader, Dr Dave Warner, is described as:

a former U.S. Army drill instructor, self-avowed “hippie doctor,” PhD neuroscientist, technotopian idealist, dedicated Burner, dabbler in psychedelics, insatiable meddler, and (weirdest of all) defense contractor.

From PSMag.com:

For a long time, the Taj Guest House was about the only place you could get a beer in Jalalabad. The provincial capital, about 30 miles from the infamous mountains of Tora Bora, has been the main staging ground for U.S.-led forces in the eastern part of Afghanistan since the early days of the war. When I showed up in the city in November 2011 to report on the propaganda efforts of a franchising Taliban, I found myself at the Taj. There wasn’t much to the pub—just a bamboo-covered bar, a fireplace, a glass-fronted cooler with some Heineken stacked inside, and a few bottles of vodka and other spirits lined up under the red glow of a lamp.

Plus there was an odd little sign: “We share information, communication, (and beer).”

…Looking like a cross between a mountaineer and a mathematician, he had a salt-and-pepper beard and curly hair that hung down to his shoulders, and he favored a uniform of black polo shirts over tied-dyed tees. His name was Dr. Dave Warner.

War zones attract a lot of sketchy characters. In Afghanistan and Iraq, where defense contractors have generally outnumbered soldiers on the ground, the cast of extras has been especially sprawling and inscrutable—security experts, mercenaries, aid workers, engineers, intelligence types, and consultants of every kind. It was just a guess, but given the array on the roof, I took Warner and his team for spooks of some kind.

I was at best half right in my guess about Warner’s occupation. He did indeed work for U.S. intelligence sometimes, he explained, but he wasn’t a spy. On principle, he refused to get a security clearance, out of a belief in something he called “radical inclusion.” The most valuable information in a conflict or disaster zone, he said, was information that could be shared with everybody.

image: Graham Smith/PSMag

image: Graham Smith/PSMag

The term radical inclusion stopped me. I recognized it from the summer of 1998, when I had gone to Burning Man, the hedonistic-fire-worshipper-art-festival that occurs every summer in Nevada’s Black Rock Desert. Radical inclusion is one of the event’s “Ten Principles.” When I mentioned this, Warner’s eyes lit up. He dug into his T-shirt and pulled out a shining Burning Man medallion. “Dude,” he said, grinning in the firelight. “This is a Burner bar.”

Warner’s entire team – which he called, in all seriousness, the Synergy Strike Force—had just attended Burning Man that summer. He himself had been attending annually since 2002. And the bar, it turned out, was his bar…It was not only a place to drink and flop but also a kind of grand social experiment—an outpost of the Burning Man ethos in the Afghan desert

The war effort, in short, was sophisticated when it came to deploying lethal hardware like drones, but clumsy in just about every other way. A few people in the upper echelons of the command structure were painfully aware of this. Warner knew because he had their ear. He had connections in the Defense Intelligence Agency, the CIA, the Army Special Forces, and the Office of the Secretary of Defense. He also knew what an unlikely figure he cut—a Burner among bureaucrats. When I asked him later why the Department of Defense had turned to him, he shook his head and laughed. “Oh,” he said, “they’re fucking desperate.”…

Eric Rasmussen, one of Warner’s early sponsors at DARPA, has come away similarly awed by the doctor’s capacities. “I was taught by multiple Nobel Prize winners, and Dave is the equal of any of them in intelligence,” Rasmussen told me. Warner has been “trendsetting for a number of very forward-thinking organizations, like the Strategic Studies Group for the Chief of Naval Operations, like DARPA, like the Office of Naval Research,” among others. “He has shaped curriculum for the Marine Corps. He has influenced curriculum for National Defense University. He is a remarkable intellectual force who has managed to hold on to his idealism through everything.” What’s more, he has done it all without a security clearance. “And that,” Rasmussen said, “if you remember the kind of work that he does—and for whom—is astonishing.”…

I was just beginning to get used to his way of talking, which alternated between turgid military jargon and gonzo flights of fancy. (“I’m dismantling the Death Star,” he told me later, “to build solar ovens for the Ewoks.”)…

The group was also engaged in various maker-ish side projects worthy of Burning Man. Gold was busy building a methane generator from PVC pipe and an old oil drum. The design, popular among self-sufficiency buffs on the Internet, allows you to filter the gasses that come off human waste into pure methane, which can be used as a fuel source…

Last summer at Burning Man, members of the team gathered once again, and Warner invited me to join them. So I headed out to the Black Rock Desert and pitched a small tent next to Warner’s giant RV. He came out of nowhere, from the dust and the wind, as I was struggling with some rigging for a tarp. He was drinking a beer, wearing a tied-dyed shirt and cutoff jean shorts, with a tie-dyed bandana on his head and another around his neck. “We’re going to the temple,” he said, “for a service.”…

Warner gathered with other members of the Synergy Strike Force. He nailed a pakul hat to the wall, hung an Afghan scarf around it, and added a Synergy Strike Force patch. Around us, Burners wept and prayed. And at the end of the festival, the temple was burned to the ground, with everything in it.

Read the full story here, it’s a great read. Dr Dave Warner sounds like a hero to me. Definitely in the running for the “best Burner” prize.

Here are some links to other stories about the Synergy Strike Force:

WIRED (2012): Cash, Time Run Out for Afghanistan’s Wi-Fi City

Synergy Strike Force Handbook – Public Intelligence Blog

Who’s Who in Peace Intelligence

Human Geography: Dave Warner’s photos from Afghanistan

Their online hub, with links to many more photos, is at reachback.org

Image:  Peretz Partensky/WIRED

Image: Peretz Partensky/WIRED

Peace Intelligence. That seems like something that the world could use a lot more of. Sadly, the Synergy Strike Force’s Afghanistan operations have now stopped, due to lack of funding (they needed about $5,000 a month for their Internet connection). Now THAT would have been a good use of the non-profit Burning Man Project’s $30 million annual budget.

synergy strike force we came we shared we cured

14 comments on “Peaceful Warriors, Hackers and Merry Pranksters

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  6. Read that Manufacturing the Deadhead story. Yikes. Also, his responses to those questioning him in the comments are pathetic, like this response to someone suggesting that psychedelics can be beneficial:

    “What is abundantly clear is the evidence… and people have been conditioned to see them as spiritual, rather than biological tools.”

    He’s saying don’t trust your direct experiences, trust him. Ha. Typical conspiracy nut, always looking for the wizard behind the curtain, because the thought that there is no one behind the curtain is too terrifying. In that way, conspiracy nuts are like religious fanatics. Their need for something, anything, to exist beyond the everyday drives them to the craziest conclusions. The unease we all feel at times is more easily endured if it can be pinned on a single, identifiable, external source.

    In my opinion, it’s logical that there’s a CIA counter-culture connection. Both worlds attract unorthodox thinkers, in many cases, those who fully realize there are no rules, no wizards. The Pentagon types know this first-hand, they are the front lines and they’re making it up as they go along. The counter-culture types knows this intuitively, no one has all the answers, no one is in control. Anyway, that’s my take on it.

    Liked by 1 person

    • And another thing! Ha. Back to this quote:

      “What is abundantly clear is the evidence… and people have been conditioned to see them as spiritual, rather than biological tools.”

      This suggests he believes in a concrete truth, somewhere…out there… That a person’s interpretation of a direct experience isn’t enough. As if interpretation wasn’t the totality of human reality. As if there’s a difference whether a person ascribes a spiritual or a utilitarian meaning upon, say, a psychedelic trip. My favorite quote is this one from Kubrick:

      “The most terrifying fact about the universe is not that it is hostile but that it is indifferent; but if we can come to terms with this indifference and accept the challenges of life within the boundaries of death — however mutable man may be able to make them — our existence as a species can have genuine meaning and fulfillment. However vast the darkness, we must supply our own light.”

      Way off topic at this point, just had to type that out, ha.

      Like

      • Kubrick! Now there’s a guy deeply tied to the conspiracy world. I like the quote, which is very much aligned to my own spiritual beliefs.

        This more recent article from Jan, Entheogens – What’s In A Name – is a more concise presentation of his argument that people having a religious experience on hallucinogens was very carefully calculated by the intel guys who were introducing them to the counter-culture, and came up with the name “Psychedelics”.

        http://www.gnosticmedia.com/Entheogens_WhatsinaName_PsychedelicSpirituality_SocialControl_CIA

        Jan is actually an advocate of magic mushrooms, he published a book about them The Sacred Mushroom and the Cross http://www.amazon.com/The-Sacred-Mushroom-Cross-Christianity/dp/0982556276

        Like

        • It’s interesting, but I just don’t think the whole thing was as carefully orchestrated as he believes. There are catalysts, and some things can be nudged in one direction or another, but I’m of the belief that history unfolds more gradually and organically. And I was really turned off by is response to criticism.

          Liked by 1 person

          • Most of history is the result of small groups of people plotting and executing their plans, rather than random chance. As Margaret Mead said: “Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed, citizens can change the world. Indeed, it is the only thing that ever has.”

            Personally, I’m not a believer in Coincidence Theories. There must be a threshold where there are so many coincidences, that coincidence can in fact be ruled out. For me, this threshold is pretty low. Sure, coincidences happen – but if 100 coincidences happen around one event, it’s more likely that they were orchestrated than random.

            Like

  7. I love stories like these, but I’m highly skeptical of their veracity. I don’t doubt that high-level Pentagon types go to Burning Man, and that all kinds of crazy tech is being used out there. But the Katrina story sounds far-fetched.

    The whole counter-culture/Military Industrial Complex connection is highly interesting, though, and pretty well documented. The Laurel Canyon scene in the 60s was lousy with CIA connections, both direct and familial. And my favorite figure, Doc Humes, a CIA operative charged with founding the Paris Review. THAT shit is amazing. There’s a great documentary on him, appropriately called Doc.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Thanks, I will check it out. Dave McGowan and Jan Irvin are both researchers who’ve done excellent work covering these topics. Jan’s article with Joe Atwill, Manufacturing the Deadhead, should be required reading for Burners.

      This documentary is a good introduction:

      Dave McGowan’s book, Weird Scenes Inside The Canyon, is a cracking read, you sound like you might know of his work already.

      Like

      • Yeah I’m familiar with it. And I was wrong about Doc Humes, he wasn’t CIA, it was Peter Mathiessen. Of course, he’s another interesting figure. Blueblood family, Harvard, etc. Became a CIA operative and founded the Paris Review with Doc and George Plimpton. Later regretted his time with the CIA. Great writer, too. Everything happened mid 20th century, we’re still building on that foundation.

        Liked by 1 person

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