If all I knew about Edward Snowden were his portrait in Laura Poitras’ documentary, Citizenfour, I’d probably regard him as a conscientious, brave young man, maybe an American hero. But Poitras, a very talented filmmaker who flipped from journalist to collaborator in this story long ago, has chosen to leave a lot out.
Snowden’s claim as a whistleblower, exposing the National Security Agency’s violations of civil liberties, rests on some of the documents that he leaked, which reveal that the NSA’s domestic surveillance was far more extensive than anyone had imagined—and, in a few instances, conducted in defiance of orders from the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court.
However, many other documents—which he downloaded at the NSA facility in Hawaii and turned over to Poitras and the Guardian’s Glenn Greenwald in Hong Kong—go far beyond exposures of spying on Americans.
Judging from Snowden-derived stories in the Guardian and the Washington Post, some of these documents also detail NSA intercepts of email and cellphone conversations by Taliban fighters in Pakistan; assessments of CIA assets in several foreign countries; and surveillance of cellphone calls “worldwide” that (in the Post’s words) allows the NSA “to look for unknown associates of known intelligence targets by tracking people whose movements intersect.” In Snowden’s first interview abroad, with the South China Morning Post, he disclosed that the NSA routinely hacks into hundreds of computers in Hong Kong and China. Just last week a story co-authored by Poitras in Greenwald’s new publication, the Intercept, revealed—again, based on Snowden-supplied documents—that the NSA has undercover operatives in Germany and China.
Whatever you think about foreign intelligence operations, the NSA’s core mission is to intercept communications of foreign governments and agents. If Snowden and company wanted to take down an intelligence agency, they should say so. But that has nothing to do with whistleblowing or constitutional rights.
At one very interesting point in the film, Snowden tells Poitras and Greenwald, “Some of these documents are legitimately classified,” and their release “could do great harm” to intelligence sources and methods. He adds, “I trust you’ll be responsible” in handling them.
This is what most baffles me about the whole Snowden case. What kind of whistleblower hands over a digital library of extremely classified documents on a vast range of topics, shrugs his shoulders, and says, I’ll let you decide what to publish? He tells the two journalists that he’s “too biased” to pick and choose himself. What does that mean? These are esoteric, in some cases highly technical documents; he’s in a better position to know their implications than Poitras and Greenwald; certainly he could warn them, “Oops, I shouldn’t have included this one. It’s really sensitive.”
In an Oct. 11 livestreamed interview, part of the New Yorker’s annual festival, Jane Mayer asked Snowden if any of the stories inspired by his documents went too far in divulging secrets. He replied, “It’s not my place” to render judgment. That’s not true: It’s precisely his place to do that. It’s a gigantic evasion to leak however many beyond-top-secret documents he leaked—some say tens of thousands, some say millions—and then abrogate all responsibility for their circulation to the world.
Daniel Ellsberg, whom Snowden cites as a model, didn’t riffle through every classified vault at the RAND Corp. and turn the stash over to the New York Times for its editors to pick and choose. Ellsberg had a goal: He wanted to end the Vietnam War. The Pentagon Papers—an official secret history of the war, commissioned by Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara, replete with internal memos and documents—revealed the delusions that got us into the war and the lies that perpetuated our involvement. Even so, Ellsberg did not Xerox or leak four volumes of the papers; he regarded them—they dealt with ongoing peace negotiations—as legitimately secret.
Then again, maybe there’s no mystery here. Maybe Snowden’s intent, all along, was to take down the top-secret edifice, and his dissociation from decisions on what to publish is a legal maneuver to quash his indictment under the Espionage Act, should he ever come home to face trial.
In the interview with Jane Mayer, Snowden said a few times that the secrets he spilled aren’t really very serious anyway. Regarding the NSA’s bulk collection of metadata—the topic of the first several newspaper articles about the leaks—he claimed, “They’ve never stopped a single American attack.”
His source for that claim was the December 2013 report by President Obama’s commission on NSA reform, whose members were given full access to the agency’s personnel and documents. True, the report concluded that information gathered from metadata collection (under Section 215 of the Patriot Act) “was not essential to preventing attacks and could readily have been obtained in a timely manner” using other methods. However, the report also noted that information gathered from foreign intercepts (under Section 702) “contributed in some degree” to halting 53 terrorist attacks. “We are persuaded,” the report went on, “that section 702 does in fact play an important role in the nation’s effort to prevent terrorist attacks across the globe.”
The claim about Section 702 would be moot if Snowden had leaked documents only about domestic surveillance, but he leaked documents about foreign surveillance, too.
Then there’s the unavoidable issue of Snowden’s escape route: first to Hong Kong, then to Latin America via Moscow. (WikiLeaks arranged for the Russian leg of his travels.)* There are many more efficient routes from Hong Kong to Latin America than one that goes through Moscow. Snowden says in the film that he hadn’t planned on stopping in Moscow, but the State Department canceled his passport, so, for 40 days, he was trapped inside Sheremetyevo airport, before the Russian government granted him asylum.
There are some problems with this scenario. First, if the Kremlin had wanted Snowden to leave, he could have been issued a temporary visa, allowing him to leave the international transit lounge and board a plane. Second, the Russian newspaper Kommersant reported that, in the three days after the hotel interviews when Snowden went missing in Hong Kong, he was, for at least some of this time, inside the Russian Consulate. (The film says he went “underground” with the help of local lawyers.)
Finally, Poitras does not show, for obvious reasons, the press conference that Snowden held in Moscow soon after the asylum was granted, thanking those who had supported him. “These nations—including Russia, Venezuela, Bolivia, Nicaragua, and Ecuador—have my gratitude and respect,” he proclaimed, “for being the first to stand against human rights violations carried out by the powerful.”
It must be hard to read those words, and still defend Snowden as a bold defender of liberty, without hiding one’s head in shame.
* * *
So, how’s the movie? For the first hour, it’s very entertaining. It begins with Poitras receiving an email from a “senior government official” who wants to supply her with shocking secrets about U.S. intelligence. (Snowden, a 29-year-old contractor, was neither senior nor a government official, but who’s counting?) Then she and Greenwald meet him at his hotel room in Hong Kong, where they stay holed up for eight days, interviewing him and sometimes just watching him shuffling across the room, looking out the window.
This is the heart of the film. Snowden comes off as an appealing character: smart, eloquent, eccentric, and self-centered (nothing wrong with that—most whistleblowers are), and more than a little paranoid. (He covers himself with a blanket while typing a password on his laptop, to elude … what? An NSA camera hidden in the wall behind his bed?) Even though we all know how the story turns out, Poitras makes it suspenseful and gripping.
But after Snowden leaves the picture, the film drags. We see Greenwald driving around, giving speeches, some of them in seemingly fluent Portuguese, which is impressive but also redundant and boring. Ditto for scenes with the Guardian’s editors and Snowden’s pro bono lawyers; they might be interesting if they conveyed anything of substance, but they don’t.
In the final scene, we see Snowden reunited with Poitras and Greenwald in the Moscow hotel room where, if I’m not mistaken, NBC’s Brian Williams conducted his own shamefully softball interview with the spy who went into the cold.* Greenwald whispers news of a “second source” at the NSA, no doubt inspired by Snowden’s example. But this source’s revelations, which spark oohs and ahs from Snowden, as if on cue, are nothing new at all. One of them discloses that the decision chain for launching drone strikes goes all the way up to “POTUS” (the president of the United States). This has been known for a long time.
Another of the disclosures is that 1.2 million Americans are under some stage of “watch.” The Intercept wrote about this in August. Reuters’ Mark Hosenball wrote about it, albeit in less detail, in May 2013. And the existence, if not the precise scope, of the program—known as the Terrorist Identities Datamart Environment, or TIDE, run by the National Counterterrorism Center—is cited in public government documents.
If Greenwald’s numbers are true (and let’s say they are), this is clearly an out-of-control program, all too typical of the tendency, among law enforcement agencies everywhere, to mistake vast lists as a substitute for focused analysis. But it’s not the case—as the scene at the end of the film suggests—that these 1.2 million people are actually under active NSA (or FBI or CIA) surveillance.
Nonetheless, Snowden makes a valid point—that the existence of these programs, and the amazing technology that allows them, creates a potential for abuse. Snowden makes the same point in the film. “If policy switches,” he says in the film, these programs—twisted in a certain direction—would make it impossible for anyone to speak out against “state power.”
It’s significant that Snowden prefaced his concern by saying, “If policy switches … ” The policy is not so twisted today. The Obama commissioners, cited by Snowden in a different context, wrote in their report that they “found no evidence of illegality or other abuse of authority for the purpose of targeting domestic political activity.”
But potential abuse is a legitimate concern. Imagine if these programs had been around when Richard Nixon was president or J. Edgar Hoover was FBI director. The violations of civil liberties, which were eye-opening enough (when they were later revealed), might have been very oppressive.
That’s one warning worth taking from Snowden’s disclosures. I wish that he’d left them at that.
*Correction, Oct. 17, 2014: This article originally misstated that WikiLeaks planned Snowden’s entire escape route. It is believed the organization only assisted with his trip to Moscow. It also misstated Tom Brokaw conducted the interview with Edward Snowden in a Moscow hotel room. It was Brian Williams.