“Citizenfour” - Laura Poitras (2014)

“What people used to call liberty and freedom, we now call privacy. . . . and we say in the same breath that privacy is dead. . . . . . When we lose privacy, we lose agency.  We lose liberty itself, because we no longer feel free to express what we think.“
                                                                             – Jacob Appelbaum, in Citizenfour
The revelations of US government overreach that were made possible by Edmund Snowden in 2013 represent a critical moment in American history.  The very foundations of American civil society were shown to be willfully and systematically undermined to an unprecedented degree by the National Security Agency (NSA) and the associated “intelligence” community.  Much has been written and testified on the subject, but the documentary film Citizenfour (2014) directed by Laura Poitras stands out as unique.  It offers an authentic historical document in real time – what is shown is history in the making.

It was Laura Poitras and journalist Glenn Greenwald who went to Hong Kong in June 2013 and secretly met with Snowden, thereby making the arrangements for one of the most explosive news bombshells of all time.  This film presents that encounter as it happens, and the film’s tension and breathtaking speed of events make it something not to be missed.

There are at least three interesting perspectives about the Snowden events that are worthy of our further consideration:
  1. The precise nature of NSA surveillance activities: how they work and how they invade everyone’s privacy.
  2. The extent to which the US government compromised its own legal foundation, the US Constitution, and lied to the public about what it was doing.
  3. The lonely and heroic saga of Edward Snowden, himself, who risked his life to expose the truth.
Most accounts will cover all three perspectives but concentrate on one of them.  For Citizenfour the focus is on the third point – who was this Ed Snowden and what was he about?  And it turns out from watching this portrayal, as one might have suspected all along, that Snowden is a very human and interesting person.

There are other worthy presentations that fill in more of the detail concerning the above three perspectives:
  • For a more detailed coverage of just how surveillance activities, on the part of both the government and private corporations, are threatening our privacy (Perspective 1, above), I recommend Bruce Schneier’s book, Data and Goliath [1].
  • For more on how the US government and private corporations are evading the Constitutional protections (Perspective 2), see the two-part PBS documentary film United States of Secrets (Part One): The Program [2] and United States of Secrets (Part Two): Privacy Lost [3].
  • For more coverage on the fate of Edward Snowden (Perspective 3), in particular the events following those presented in Citizenfour, see the documentary Terminal F [4].
The above accounts are all good and recommended, but the best and most essential one is Citizenfour, and it has received emphatically positive reviews [5,6,7].  This is a film that everyone has to see.

The story of Citizenfour is presented in roughly four sections.  The first one provides some background on US NSA activities and how the film came to be made.  The following two sections, which are the meat of the film, cover Ed Snowden’s fugitive activities in Hong Kong, including his meeting with Laura Poitras and Glenn Greenwald.   The final section considers some of the larger implications and the ongoing issues of massive government surveillance.

1.  The US Government’s Increasing Surveillance. 
Laura Poitras was already working on a film about government surveillance when she first encountered the then-unknown security contractor, Edward Snowden.  This film project was to be the third part of a trilogy that would include her two earlier and highly-regarded documentaries,  My Country, My Country (2006), which is about Iraq under US occupation,  and The Oath (2010), which concerns two former bin Laden minions who were caught up in US legal machinations. Because these earlier films examined controversial aspects of US foreign policy (and related domestic policy), Poitras found herself subjected to lengthy searches every time she reentered the US, and she discovered that this was because she had been placed on a secret government watch list. To avoid this harassment, she had moved to a less oppressive locale, Berlin.

When in early 2013 Snowden first contacts Poitras with encrypted email messages, identifying himself only by his nom de guerre, "citizenfour”, he already knows that she is likely to be a trusted correspondent.  As he tells her in one of his early messages, he didn’t choose her for his connection, she chose herself by the professional path she had set for herself.

In any case this first part of the film contains material that Poitras had already compiled before she met Snowden.  It provides coverage of a senior NSA operative and ultimately whistle-blower, William Binney, who had developed key surveillance software for the NSA, but had resigned shortly after 911 when he learned that his own software was being used for illegal activities [8].  (For more extensive coverage of William Binney, see United States of Secrets (Part One): The Program). 

We also see NSA director Keith Alexander and US Director of National Intelligence James Clapper blatantly lying to Congress by denying that the federal government was spying on American citizens [9]. 

Then there’s coverage of a longstanding citizen’s lawsuit against the US government in connection with the 2006 revelation that the NSA was tapping AT&T’s lines in San Francisco.  At a court proceeding, US government attorneys claim it is legal to sidestep existing laws and the entire judicial process as long as they secretly inform Congress (some members) about what they are doing.

2.  Meeting with Ed Snowden

Finally, Snowden arranges for Poitras and Glenn Greenwald to secretly meet him at a hotel in Hong Kong on June 3, 2013, so that he can provide them with documentation concerning illegal NSA spying.  The intended publication outlet, The Guardian, also sends Ewen MacAskill to the meeting in order to vet this unknown whistle-blower (which he soon does).   

Now we come to the most interesting part of the film.  We see everything through the eyes of Laura Poitras, who wields her camera inside the hotel room, while Greenwald and McAskill get to know Snowden and learn about what he has to say.  Poitras never lectures her viewers on the subject of privacy; her cinema-verite style keeps her in the background as the witness and allows Snowden and other key testifiers to speak for themselves.  And the pervasive feeling of paranoia induced by the film comes not from the cinematography (well-crafted though it is, including the editing and the sound track) but from the events presented [10].

Snowden emphasizes that he doesn’t want to expose everything he possesses to the public, as Wikileaks did with the information from Chelsea (Bradley) Manning, since some of the information he has could place current government operatives in jeopardy.  Instead, Snowden has chosen to turn over what he has to responsible journalists who can then determine for themselves what is appropriate to publish.  This, I believe, was a wise and carefully considered decision.

In fact Snowden, whose ostensible background as a 29-year-old high school dropout might suggest a callow dreamer, comes across throughout as a remarkably articulate and principled person.  Given the life-threatening risks he was taking and the extreme and unrelenting pressure that surrounded him, he struck me as generally calm, poised, and a thoroughgoing professional.  More than that, his demeanor and actions cast him as a true hero working selflessly for the common good.

Greenwald, too, seems at all times wise, well-spoken, and high-principled. He has almost as much screen time as Snowden and represents to a certain extent a secondary but important protagonist – the liberal-minded conscience that wants to assist the whistle-blower out on his own.  Knowing that the Snowden may be snatched at any moment, Greenwald immediately, begins getting his stories out in The Guardian about the NSA’s transgressions, which causes a sensation across world news media.

In the course of their conversations in the Hong Kong hotel room, a number of the NSA’s disturbing tools and programs are discussed, including Stellar Wind, PRISM, and XKeyscore.  XKeyscore is the front-end to a search system that can collect and search through both the content and the metadata associated with virtually all of everyone’s electronic interactions [11].  Snowden casually remarks that each XKeyscore module can listen in on one billion conversations simultaneously and process 125 GBytes per second.  He says there were 20 such Xkeyscore modules extent in 2011, ten of which were located within the US.  But he warned that given the expanding nature of the program there were probably many more than that even then in 2013.

Snowden also mentions that the TEMPORA program of the GCHQ (the UK’s intelligence agency) is even worse than what the NSA has.  It is the world’s first “full-take” surveillance instrument.

3.  Snowden’s Coming Out
With lurid NSA revelations appearing daily in The Guardian, the Washington Post, and other prominent news outlets, an aroused public wants to know where is this coming from.  From his first communications with Greenwald and Poitras, Snowden asserted that he didn’t want to be the focus of attention.  The newsworthy story should be the message and not the messenger.  So on on June 9, Snowden reveals himself.  The press immediately converges on Hong Kong in search of him. 

Now Snowden knows he has to get out, and with the assistance of human rights lawyers Jonathan Mann and Robert Tibbo, he asks for and gets refugee status from the United Nations.  But it is only a matter of a short time before the Hong Kong authorities will probably be forced to acquiesce to an extradition order from the US government. So Snowden says good-bye to Greenwald and Poitras, departs from his hotel, and goes underground. At this point our face-to-face exposure to Snowden has come to an end.

Meanwhile MacAskill and The Guardian staff back in London are shown going over the SNowden files that they have and redacting out those elements that should not be published.  But they do go ahead and report on the GCHQ’s controversial TEMPORA program. 

On June 21, the US government charges Snowden with three felonies, two of which are under the draconian Espionage Act of 1917, which was originally intended for wartime offenses but has been used in recent times to scare whistle-blowers.  This act, which can carry a penalty of death or 30 years of imprisonment for revealing secret information about US government activities, was used to prosecute Jonathon Pollard, who gave some US secrets to Israel, an ally, not an adversary of the US. 

To show how divisive are issues of patriotism such as this in the US, note that even Seymour Hersch, who made his name by revealing US military atrocities in Viet Nam, staunchly applauded the 30-year prison sentence that Pollard received in 1985 [12,13].  Regrettably professed liberals like President Barack Obama and candidate Hilary Clinton have called for full prosecution of Snowden under the Espionage Act [14]. 

On June 23, 2015, Wikileaks organized Snowden’s escape from Hong Kong.

4. The Aftermath
Snowden makes it by plane to Moscow, but he is stranded inside the airport terminal when it is discovered that his US passport has been canceled.  After 40 days in the Moscow airport transit room with no windows and no shower, he was finally granted a one-year visitor’s visa for political asylum in Russia, where he was eventually joined by his longtime girlfriend Lindsay Mills.

The remainder of the film shows some reactions to Snowden’s revelations about the NSA.  In September 2013 the EU in Brussels began to investigate NSA surveillance. One of those shown testifying is Ladar Levison, who founded Lavabit, an encrypted Webmail service that provided secure (from surveillance) email service and was used by Edward Snowden.  When the US FBI ordered him (a) to secretly turn over all his data and (b) to keep it secret that he had done so, he felt he had no choice other than to shut down his business.  He remarks to the EU assembly:
“It’s supposed to be difficult to invade someone’s privacy. . . . because of how intrusive it is. . . . because of how disruptive it is.  If we don’t have our right to privacy, how do we have a free and open discussion? What good is the right to free speech if it’s not protected? . . .  in the sense that you can’t have a private discussion about somebody else about something you disagree with. . .  Think about that.”

And William Binney, testifying at to the German Parliament in Berlin, declares, 
“I see this (massive surveillance) as the most major threat to our democracies all around the world.” 
At the close of the film, Greenwald and Snowden are shown discussing new surveillance revelations about a different government operation from a new, unnamed source. For this one, the chain of authorization is shown to go all the way up to “POTUS” [15]. 

This film concerns the fundamental issue of privacy, and it seems that many people are unaware of just how crucial it is to basic human existence. Some people feel they just have to resign themselves to the modern era of “big data” and become accustomed to a world with no privacy. They have given up the fight. Moreover, much of the serious discussion about privacy takes place on the legal plane of laws and rights – how essential, they ask, is the right to privacy and how should it be registered into law?  So many people think the whole thing is largely a techinical legal issue. True, privacy is more or less enshrined as the 4th Amendment to the US Constitution, but some legal scholars have even admitted and argued that there is no singly comprehensible and coherent right to privacy [16]:
“According to one well known argument there is no right to privacy and there is nothing special about privacy, because any interest protected as private can be equally well explained and protected by other interests or rights, most notably rights to property and bodily security (Thomson, 1975)”
But the true and significant nature of privacy lies at a more fundamental plane of human existence than the legal plane.  It gets down to the very nature of the human self.  As academic philosopher Michael P. Lynch has on more than one occasion observed:
“a capacity for privacy is a necessary condition of autonomous personhood.” [17]

“So whether or not the concept of information privacy – like that of a human right – is a creation of the modern age, the source of its value lies at the intersection of autonomy and personhood itself. “ [18]
Privacy is essential to the realization of the human self.  And in fact I am in line with Danish philosopher Dan Zahavi’s view that there are two equally fundamental and complementary notions of the self [19]:
  • One notion is the intrinsic sense of mine-ness that characterizes everyone’s experience.  This mine-ness is not an object that can be scrutinized; it is like the camera perspective of the “invisible witness” that characterizes our experiences of film.
  • The other notion concerns the continual mental construction of our experiences into narratives that we store in our memories. The construction of these narratives are partially under our control, and out of them emerges our narrative-based understanding of ourselves.
It is this second aspect of the self that is under existential threat.  Consider that in the course of our interactions with the world – our operations of agency – a fundamental aspect of this agency is to be able to send a message with respect to a specific context that is not (and can never truly be) fully articulated. We are counting on that context not to be further articulated. Thus we, as agents, are always sending messages with respect to narratives that are largely of our own construction.  And as Zahavi points out, these narratives are a fundamental aspect of the agent.  They represent its very nature. 

Surveillance alters the narrative contexts of our messages. For example some interactions are intended to be private and intimate between a select group of agents. If the context is changed and intimacy is destroyed, the narrative is changed – and thus the agent’s autonomy (our autonomy) is altered.  This alters and diminishes the agent, itself. If we, as agents, are heavily surveilled, and detailed information about everything we do is made available to others, then we find ourselves unwillingly cast into narratives not of our own making or over which we can have no influence.  We become pawns in the chess games of others not of our own choosing.  This represents an existential threat to personhood and signifies the dissolution of a free society. This is what the US intelligence community is aiming to do [20].  (Whether or not you believe the intelligence community is guided by “shock doctrine” tactics, it was not surprising that it immediately attempted to exploit the recent terrorist massacres in Paris by calling for further unrestricted powers of mass surveillance [21]).

This is what alarmed Snowden and should alarm the rest of us, too.

  1. Bruce Schneier, Data and Goliath, (2015). W. W. Norton & Co., NY.
  2. United States of Secrets (Part One): The Program, directed by Michael Kirk (2014), Frontline, (13 May 2014), PBS.
  3. United States of Secrets (Part Two): Privacy Lost, directed by Martin Smith (2014), Frontline, (20 May 2014), PBS.
  4. Terminal F/Chasing Edward Snowden, directed by John Goetz and Poul-Erik Heilbuth (2015).
  5. Peter Bradshaw, “Citizenfour Review – Gripping Snowden Documentary Offers Portrait of Power, Paranoia and One Remarkable Man”, The Guardian, (16 October 2014).
  6. Steve Dollar, “Poitras, Who Earned Snowden’s Trust, Reaches Biggest Audience with ‘Citizenfour’”, The Washington Post, (18 October 2014).
  7. Godfrey Cheshire, “Citizenfour”, Rogerebert.com, (24 October 2014).  Of all reviews I have read Cheshire's reactions correspond most closely with mine.
  8. See Jane Mayer, “The Secret Sharer”, The New Yorker, (23 May 2011), which covers the story of another NSA whistle-blower, Thomas Drake, but which also includes information on Binney.
  9.  At least Clapper lamely tried to qualify his statement by saying that the US government doesn’t do such spying “wittingly”.
  10. George Packer, “The Holder of Secrets”, The New Yorker, (20 October 2014).
  11. Glenn Greenwald, “XKeyscore: NSA tool collects 'nearly everything a user does on the internet'”, The Guardian, (31 July 2013).
  12. Seymour Hersh, "The Traitor", The New Yorker (18 January 1999), archived from the original on 2008-01-21,12.    
  13. On 20 November 2015, upon the completion of his 30-year prison term, Jonathon Pollard was released on parole.  The terms of his parole blocked his desire to relocate to Israel and his access to the Internet.  See: Jessica Glenza and Peter Beaum, “Spy Jonathan Pollard Freed after 30 Years but Still a Thorn in Us-israeli Ties”, The Guardian, (20 November 2015).
  14. John Cassidy, “Hillary Clinton Is Wrong About Edward Snowden”, The New Yorker, (14 October 2015).
  15. “President Of The United States”
  16. Judith DeCew, “Privacy”, Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy, (9 August 2013). 
  17. Michael P. Lynch, “Privacy and the Threat to the Self”, The New York Times (22/6/2013). 
  18. Michael P. Lynch, “The Philosophy of Privacy: Why Surveillance Reduces Us to Objects”, The Guardian, (7 May 2015).    
  19. Dan Zahavi, “The Time of the Self”, Grazer Philosophische Studien 84 (1):143-159 (2012).
  20. Antony Loewenstein, “The Ultimate Goal of the NSA is Total Population Control”, The Guardian, (11 July 2014).
  21. The Editorial Board, “Mass Surveillance Isn’t the Answer to Fighting Terrorism”, The New York Times, (17 November 2015).

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