Citizen Four: Portrait of Edward Snowden


AND THOSE WHO AIDED THE NSA WHISTLEBLOWER. In this last week we have learned that The US Air Marshalls, under the broad umbrella of the National Security Agency, have been conducting surveillance operations using Cessna aircraft out of five major US cities. The planes are equipped with a device, called a “dirtbag,” that mimics a cell phone tower. This dragnet surveillance has produced records of thousands of telephone transactions. The revelations made by Edward Snowden, the NSA systems analyst and whistle blower, apparently did not curtail these activities.

In the same week we have learned that Snowden, who sought protection in a number of countries after the disclosures and ultimate lit down in Russia, has been granted an additional three years permission to stay. Russia has no extradition treaty with the US. Whether he will remain there or seek asylum in another country affording the same protections has yet to be revealed.

Snowden’s revelations about the scope and the secrecy of myriad NSA surveillance programs is the subject of a new documentary by Laura Poitras. It’s a film well worth seeing if you care about the ways in which invasions of privacy have been conducted under the guise of the national security. At the time that Snowden went public 1.2 million Americans were under a special watch list and the NSA was using its powers to eavesdrop on world leaders, most notably presidents of Germany and Brazil. Only a very small percentage of that 1.2 million could be called bona fide enemies of the state. We also learned that the NSA turned its attention to gathering information about politics and commerce as often as it looked at terrorism.

The film does not attempt to enumerate the multiple cases of the violation of personal freedoms and the right to privacy. Instead, it focuses on the human drama of Snowden and how he agonizingly makes the decision to be a whistle-blower. A good portion of the film is very dull visually, but riveting emotionally. It’s a well-crafted thriller. Snowden, knowing that his communiques are monitored, uses his encryption abilities (his alias is CitizenFour) to solicit the help of documentary film-maker Laura Poitras and journalists Green Greenwald and Ewen MacAskill of The Guardian. Snowden picks Poitras in part because her 2006 Academy Award nominated documentary film My Country, My Country, about Iraq life under American occupation. CitizenFour is the third part of a trilogy that includes The Oath (2010).  And the energetic and articulate Greenwald, never shy to go on camera, has long made surveillance and the erosion of privacy his beat.

As portrayed, Snowden is much closer to choir-boy than diabolic betrayer of state secrets or enemy accomplice. He had hope in Obama’s campaign pledge to review the Patriot Act and to put a brake on the NSA runaway train, but is disappointed when Obama continues, and in some cases even escalates, the surveillance plans of his predecessors. In one clip, Obama labels Snowden unpatriotic and regrets that the review of NSA was not conducted through normal congressional channels. But the denials of any illegal operations by the NSA director speaking to a congressional panel makes it clear that Snowden’s end run was necessary. The bold-faced lies and congressional timidity required an extraordinary response.

Poitras patiently films Snowden’s examination of his motives and this team’s strategizing about the timing of the damning revelations. Snowden is very convincing when he say that he has recruited journalist to weigh the information and manage its distribution. He claims that he didn’t want his biases, developed over close to a decade of working inside the NSA as a systems analysis, to get in the way. He also didn’t want to the story to be about him. He is no grandstanding Julian Assange of Wikileaks notoriety.

In one painful scene, Snowden, noodling his laptop keyboard, comes to a realization that his long-standing relationship with a girlfriend is about ready to come to an end. There is nothing histrionic about his decision to suffer the consequences of his conduct. He’ll never go home again, though more than a fair share of civil libertarians would welcome a trial that they are convinced would exonerate Snowden. Presumably his defense attorneys would show that The Espionage Act under which he is arrested is an antiquated piece of World War I era legislation that is an inadequate snare for whistleblowers in the 21st century.

The secret meetings between Snowden, Poitras, Greenwald and MacAskill take place in a Hong Kong hotel over an eight day period. Greenwald becomes the point person, writing a series of columns that enable the story to gain momentum. Initially Greenwald argues that Snowden should continue to lay low and let the government find him. But half way through this time in the bunker, they collectively decide that Snowden should disclose his identity. He has been under suspicion since he failed to report to work and, as he jokes, there are an unusually large number of service vehicles outside his Honolulu residence.

The passionate and skillful Greenwald also pays the price for allegedly aiding and abetting a criminal; there’s an intrusion into his personal life. Poitras captures the moment when Greenwald, a resident of Rio de Janeiro, greets his Brazilian partner after David, guilty by association, has been detained for eight hours in London’s Heathrow Airport. It is with a special enthusiasm that he appears before a special committee of the Brasilian government in Brasilia to document the way in which his adopted country is in the cross hairs of the NSA.

On Veterans Day last week a number of mega-stars from the rock world gave a Concert for Valor on the Washington Mall. Designed to honor our veterans, the event apparently became a stage for Eminem to speak profanely (what else is new?) and for Bruce Springsteen to provide an offensive update to John Fogarty’s “Fortunate Son.”

My guess is that no one made tribute to Edward Snowden, but if there is someone who deserves a concert for citizen valor, is it not he? He as much as anyone else has alerted us to the ways in which the NSA is willing to burn down the haystack in order to find the needle.


About Dr. Michael Cunningham

Dr. Michael Cunningham is Professor Emeritus in English.

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