"CitizenFour,” a documentary by Laura Poitras, 2014
This documentary revisits the high-profile events surrounding Edward Snowden’s revelations about U.S. government spying through the NSA. It is ultimately a human portrait of people doing the very right thing under high pressure. The documentary has got some great ‘gotcha’ moments, as if Poitras studied the Michael Moore method. Snowden says at one point that this secret program shows there is a ‘ruling and the ruled.’ It is very clear from the evidence and from the conversations in this film that the surveillance piece of a U.S. totalitarian police state is in place and already being activated.
The film opens with computer code and typing on a black screen as if MS DOS were still in use. It is Snowden initially attempting to reach Poitras. These scenes are interspersed with appearances by NSA head Keith Alexander and DNI head James Clapper, who both lie to Congress about the NSA’s collection efforts. Clapper in particular is the definitive picture of a liar, given his body language and fidgeting. It is a great moment. William Binney, an NSA whistle-blower, talks to a group about what happened after the terrorist attack on 9/11, saying the NSA decided a few days after 9/11 to ‘collect everything.’ The FBI showed up with ‘guns drawn’ at his house in 2007 after he protested warrantless eavesdropping. They pointed them at him while he toweled off after a shower.
The first setting is a bland hotel room in Hong Kong. Snowden has asked for Poitras and Glenn Greenwald’s help, and they are both there in the room. Snowden and Greenwald, the ace reporter for Salon, then the Guardian and now the Intercept, come off as quite similar personalities and click well. Snowden is very smart and knowledgeable - an absolutely familiar and calm person. At one point, Snowden hides under an anti-surveillance hood to mask his passwords from spy satellites or imaging. At another, he gives sardonic ‘expert tips’ to Greenwald and Poitras about how to really do passwords and encryption. He takes an e-mail from his girlfriend Lindsey at one point during that week, as she tells him NSA cops and NSA HR are now in his house (where she was living), and later, that ‘construction’ trucks are parked all around the neighborhood and on his street. The hotel fire alarm starts ringing repeatedly during one session, and everyone gets nervous. Even innocent phone calls from the Mira Hotel front desk are cause for concern. Eventually the data is downloaded to Greenwald and another Guardian reporter and Snowden makes it clear that it is up to the journalists to decide what to publish.
It is all filmed in real time, as it happened. Poitras herself, even before these events, was constantly stopped by TSA in airports, showing that the ‘terrorist watch list’ is really also a dissident watch list. Greenwald’s partner David Miranda is filmed after being detained in London’s Heathrow airport for possibly carrying data. At that point, neither Poitras nor Greenwald wanted to risk entering the U.S.
Other scenes show Greenwald testifying before a Brazilian inquiry, speaking in Portuguese (this is not an untalented fellow) about the NSA revelations, making the point that the surveillance is not really aimed at terrorism alone, but are used for U.S. national and industrial espionage against other countries and corporations. In another, Binney testifies in front of a German inquiry after revelations that the NSA tapped Merkel and also Brazilian president Dilma Rousseff’s phones, along with others, saying that the NSA is a ‘threat to democracy.’ Another scene shows the head of Lavabits, an encrypted internet provider used to Snowden, explaining to an EU meeting why he shut down the firm rather than comply with NSA demands to give them a back door to his encryption.
The film shows the familiar details of the NSA program – gathering all meta-data from every person in the U.S. from Skype, Microsoft, Google, Facebook, Amazon, Verizon, Apple, AT&T, Century Link, etc. All of this is warrantless, allowed by rubber-stamp secret courts run by friendly judges. The collection of non-American information, or information between U.S. and foreign citizens communicating, does not even have to pass that ‘test.’ The British version of the NSA, GCHQ, collects the most in the world via their Tempora program, which is an all-encompassing ‘data’ collection program for text, pictures, video, voice - not just metadata. British law has fewer privacy protections that U.S. law.
Snowden and Greenwald discus when to go public, after the inevitable question of ‘who’ leaked the info becomes important. Snowden makes the point that he wants to make it clear by going public quickly that he is saying to the NSA “I am not afraid of you.” However, given he makes this announcement in the 8 days he’s sitting in 2 hotel rooms in Hong Kong, this brings on immediate U.S. action. Sure enough, the U.S. demands his extradition from Chinese Hong Kong. Snowden goes into hiding immediately with the help of the UN Committee on Human Rights and Hong Kong human rights activists. Then with the help of Wikileaks and Julian Assange, he is smuggled out of Hong Kong and ends up at the Moscow airport, where he later gets asylum.
3 felonies hang over Snowden’s head. The charges are based on the 1917 Espionage act, which was aimed at foreign spies, not whistleblowers or opponents of conscience. Obama self-righteously says that Snowden ‘is not a patriot” and instead of going outside the system, suggests that Snowden should offer himself up to the gentle and generous arms of the U.S. justice system. Luckily he is not so naïve.
At the end of the film is a pile of torn yellow notepaper on a table in Snowden’s Moscow apartment, where he is now living with Lindsey. Poitras and Greenwald are again there. Afraid to talk out loud, Greenwald informs Snowden via these notes that a new informant has told him that 1.5 million people were added to the watch list since 2009, and there might now be up to 2 million people on it. Even Snowden is stunned.
The ‘terrorist watch list’ is a misnomer. It should be called the ‘citizen watch list.’
Greenwald's book "With Liberty & Justice for Some," reviewed below.
October 1, 2015