The broad outlines of the story of Edward Snowden and his revelations of surveillance by the National Security Agency (NSA) will be familiar to anyone who has followed news headlines since June 5, 2013. Leading up to that date, Snowden, a former system administrator contracted to the NSA, had met secretly with journalists in a Hong Kong hotel room where he handed over a trove of classified documents. The resulting series of media articles paint a disturbingly detailed portrait of the breathtaking range of state surveillance programs aimed at the comprehensive capture and analysis of electronic communications worldwide.
In her new documentary Citizenfour, Laura Poitras gives us a riveting portrait of Snowden, their fateful Hong Kong meeting and its wider significance. While adhering to the cinema vérité ethos, Poitras is obviously far more than a sharp-eyed fly-on-the-wall observer. She is a central off-screen actor who makes the whole enterprise possible.
After Snowden fails to gain the attention of Guardian journalist Glenn Greenwald, he contacts Poitras via encrypted email, using the pseudonym Citizen Four. Poitras, at the time living in Berlin to avoid persecution by U.S. authorities for her earlier award-winning film work (My Country, My Country and The Oath in particular), had become adept at protecting her communication through encryption and other security techniques. Once she and Snowden had established a secure channel and mutual trust, she brings Greenwald back into the picture. Persuaded that their shadowy informant had something important to offer, they and another Guardian journalist, Ewan MacAskill, arrange a rendezvous fraught with promise and peril.
The heart of Poitras’ new film takes place over eight days in Snowden’s cramped room at the Mira Hotel. Unlike Deep Throat of Watergate fame, this undercover informant was no senior, high-level official, but a personable, 29-year-old computer ‘geek.’ We witness up close Snowden’s remarkably calm and clear-sighted determination to show the U.S. public how its government has betrayed the Constitution by embedding mass surveillance facilities into the global communications infrastructure.
Snowden fully expects he’ll eventually have to face the brunt of the state’s furious reaction, as other whistleblowers have experienced before him. It will ruin his life. But his over-riding concerns are that the compelling evidence of wrongdoing contained in his documents be published before this happens, and that his family is protected from any fallout. He doesn’t want to dump the information into the public realm but relies on trusted journalists to exercise their professional judgment in ensuring that the message gets out without endangering anyone.
June 5, 2013 is the date Greenwald publishes an article (in the U.K. and U.S. media) on the mass collection of Verizon telephone records, followed by another the next day about direct access by the U.S. government, through its secret PRISM program, to the databases of the country’s tech giants. There is an immediate worldwide uproar, and tension rises. In a poignant moment, we see signs of Snowden’s pain on learning from his long-time partner, who he had to leave without giving an inkling of his mission, that the FBI is taking an active interest in his disappearance and checking out their Hawaii home.
Before his cover is blown, Snowden will have to go public, and the time is fast approaching. Again, unlike Deep Throat and many other leakers of secret documents, Snowden planned from the beginning to reveal his identity, to show he is not afraid. He just wants to hold this off as long as possible to avoid becoming the focus of attention, so as not to detract from the main story of government misdeeds.
As the media maelstrom builds, Snowden remains remarkably poised and determined, giving no hints of hesitation or bravado. In No Place to Hide, a good companion book for the film, Greenwald marvels that Snowden regularly goes to bed at 10 p.m., taking in a full night’s rest, while he, the journalist, suffers from excitement-induced insomnia.
When Snowden identifies himself in an interview as the NSA leaker, and explains his reasons, he becomes a worldwide sensation. The media close in on his Hong Kong hotel and start calling his room. With the help of human rights lawyers and Wikileaks, Snowden escapes the hotel just ahead of a frenzied press horde. But the U.S. government cancels his passport while he is in transit at Moscow’s international airport. Snowden is eventually granted asylum in Russia, where he continues to give interviews.
Throughout this dramatic personal narrative, Poitras supplements Snowden’s descriptions of the burgeoning secret mass surveillance infrastructure (and its dangers) with public testimonies from other experts.
The first is William Binney, a good-natured mathematician who worked at the NSA for 30 years developing its capacity for algorithmic analysis of communication data. Binney resigned immediately after 9/11 when he saw how the NSA turned his techniques on the American people in ways that violated the Constitution. He later became an active whistleblower, joining three other (former) NSA officials in drawing attention to the illegal behaviour, first through internal official channels and then through the press. Rather than investigate their claims, the FBI targeted them instead. In Binney’s case, the bureau invaded his home, guns drawn, while he was in the shower.
We also hear from computer security researcher and ‘white hat’ hacker Jacob Appelbaum who, like Poitras, lives self-exiled in Berlin to avoid U.S. government harassment. Appelbaum builds on Binney to show how meta-data, or data derived algorithmically from communication transactions, can be as revealing of personal movements, attitudes, social networks and other potentially sensitive characteristics as the communication content itself.
In counterpoint to the courage, candour and moral integrity of Snowden and his allies, those in positions of power, speaking for the security establishment, come off as much weaker individuals. We see Obama on the hustings, proclaiming that presidents don’t have the authority to spy on Americans and are not above the law. After his duplicity is revealed, he lamely claims he had already initiated a review of surveillance operations, so Snowden’s revelations were unnecessary.
We also see General Keith Alexander, former director of the NSA, and James Clapper, current director of national intelligence, stating categorically, under oath and before public congressional hearings, that there is no warrantless surveillance or mass collection of personal data on U.S. residents. Of the two, Alexander is the far better liar. Clapper appears uncomfortable and admits, after Snowden’s leaks reveal his mendacity, that his statement was the “least untruthful” one he could come up with under the circumstances. Astonishingly, at least for those of us who still hope for a modicum of democratic accountability in government, neither official suffered any apparent sanction.
We are also treated to some dark comic relief from the U.K. government. Poitras takes us into the basement of the Guardian newspaper to witness what has to be one of the most bizarre moments in the history of journalism. Facing strong legal pressure, the paper decides to destroy laptops containing leaked Snowden documents rather than turn them over to the government, with everyone knowing full well that other copies exist. We get to see Guardian staff, under the watchful eye of two GCHQ technical experts, absurdly drilling into the computer chips and grinding away at the motherboards. Undeterred, the paper continues its devastating reports but from its New York office. Press freedom is still stronger in the U.S. than the U.K.
Given the disturbing subject matter, and our apparent helplessness in the face of an omniscient state security and intelligence apparatus acting with impunity, the film ends with some welcome, surprisingly upbeat notes.
Another whistleblower, evidently inspired by Snowden, contacts Greenwald to provide evidence that 1.2 million Americans are on one of several U.S. watchlists—far more than any realistic ‘terrorism’ threat could justify. Could this new source represent a trend? Are other brave insiders revealing the dirty secrets that need public airing?
The closing scene shows Snowden, now reunited with his partner, cooking dinner together in domestic tranquility. It is shot from outside their kitchen window, bringing a whiff of both intimate voyeurism and menace. Is he still being spied upon (by the Russians now)? Or does it represent how all our quotidian lives are similarly captured and scrutinized?
Snowden has weathered the storm, for the moment at least. After risking so much for us all, his life has returned to a degree of normality. With his extraordinary bravery Snowden has offered us two great gifts.
We can’t now avoid the fact that our democracies are gravely threatened from within, by a security/surveillance state-within-a-state gone rogue. If his revelations don’t incite a move to radical reform, what would it take to bring things back or closer to the liberal democratic ideals we like to take for granted?
Furthermore, Snowden’s fearless openness, and his principled resolve in adhering to these ideals in the face of enormous pressures to relinquish them, provide a stark contrast to the deception and cowardice of the official representatives of the public interest. He sets an inspiring example for those of us in more comfortable positions to stand up for what we believe.
A youthful David has rocked Goliath back on its heels, exposing both new threats and vulnerabilities. Snowden has more than done his part. It’s our turn now. Can we provide the makings of a sequel—Citizensmany, anyone?
Andrew Clement is a Professor in the faculty of information at the University of Toronto. Among his current research projects on surveillance is IXmaps.ca, which shows people the routes their communications take across the Internet, and where they may be intercepted by NSA surveillance operations. Citizenfour is playing in select theatres in Toronto, Montreal, Quebec City and Vancouver.