“Terminal F/Chasing Edward Snowden” - John Goetz and Poul-Erik Heilbuth (2015)

The systematic and unlawful invasion of privacy undertaken by the US National Security Agency (NSA) that was revealed by Edward Snowden has been the subject of a number of film presentations. One of these, a succinct coverage of the particular events surrounding Snowden’s activities in Hong Kong and his subsequent escape to Russia, is the documentary Terminal F/Chasing Edward Snowden (aka Terminal F).  This 58-minute Danish-German production evidently made for television was directed by John Goetz and Poul-Erik Heilbuth, and it has a Danish title of "Snowdens Store Flugt", which means  “Snowden’s Great Escape” in English.  

Since the focus of this film is more on what happened to Edward Snowden after he made his earthshaking revelations, it serves as a useful companion piece and sequel to Laura Poitras’s Citizenfour (2014), which centred around Snowden’s original meeting in Hong Kong with journalists Glenn Greenwald, Ewen MacAskill, and Poitras.  Of course, both films provide an overview of the Snowden saga and can be seen alone, but I think seeing them in sequence has merits.  Qualitatively, the two films are rather different, since Citizenfour captures the here-and-now feeling of Snowden in the very act of first communicating what he has to offer, while Terminal F is a necessarily more retrospective account, in the fashion of most documentary films.  (For more coverage concerning the NSA background to Snowden's revelations, I recommend the two PBS-produced documentaries United States of Secrets (Part One): The Program (2014) and United States of Secrets (Part Two): Privacy Lost (2014).

Although Terminal F lacks Citizenfour’s history-in-the-making immediacy, it does have its own unique virtue of presenting Snowden’s story from two contrasting angles: that of the prey and that of the hunter.   The form of the hunter, of course, is taken by the often shadowy and punitive offices of the US government.

The film largely consists of interviews with a number of the key players in this story, and these interviews have been skilfully edited and interlaced together in order to tell the story without too much narration from the filmmakers.  These key players interviewed are

  • Edward Snowden, who is shown in Moscow, reflecting on the events that have led him there.
  • People supporting Snowden
    • Lonnie Snowden, the father of Edward Snowden.
    • Robert Tibbo, a human rights lawyer.
  • The Guardian journalists who went to Hong Kong to get the story out
    • Glenn Greenwald, the lawyer and journalist who went to Hong Kong to interview Snowden on behalf of The Guardian.
    • Ewen MacAskill, a senior journalist for The Guardian specializing in defence and intelligence.
  • The opposing perspective on Snowden
    • Michael Hayden, a retired US Air Force general who was NSA director from 1999-2005 and CIA director from 2006-2009.  He provides the government’s view of Snowden: that he is a coward and a traitor to his country.
  • The Wikileaks people who engineered Snowden’s great escape to Russia.
    • Julian Assange, the Wikileaks founder who while seeking to avoid extradition and prosecution is confined to the Ecuadoran embassy in London.
    • Sarah Harrison, a British journalist and close Assange advisor who played a key role in helping Snowden get out.
The story of Terminal F passes through three acts. And even from the early states of the film, there is an interestingly crafted artificial dialogue between Snowden and Michael Hayden concerning the motivation and justification of what Snowden has done to reveal the NSA’s activities. 

1. Snowdens’ Encounter with The Guardian Journalists in Hong Kong.
The first section details how Glenn Greenwald and Ewen MacAskill of The Guardian came to Hong Kong in early June 2013 and immediately began publishing stories about what Snowden has revealed. .

When Snowden’s activities are revealed, as planned, on June 9th, it seems that the whole world starts looking for him, and he has to go underground for his own safety.  As Robert Tibbo remarks at one point, there was definite evidence that Snowden’s life was definitely in danger.

2.  Getting out of Hong Kong
Three days after Snowden goes underground, Sarah Harrison arrives in Hong Kong to take charge of the Wikileaks’ attempts to rescue him.  There is extensive testimony from Harrison, and she comes across as a remarkable person.  Snowden calls her “one of the most incredibly great women I know”.  He also expresses his gratitude for what Wikileaks ultimately did – they were the only organization that took action to protect him, as opposed just being interested in his story.  (In a brief comment on that issue, MacAskill agonizes over the fact that The Guardian probably could have done more to help Snowden.)
Snowden was reluctant to leave Hong Kong, but Wikileaks warned him that he had no choice.  Wikileaks buys more than a dozen tickets out of Hong Kong in order to confuse the US pursuers.  But a key factor in Snowden’s ultimately successful escape was that the US pursuers made two important mistakes that delayed their attempts to extradite Snowden.  They mistakenly entered the wrong middle name on the Snowden extradition order, and they failed to cancel Snowden’s passport until after he had passed through the airline gate and taken off with Harrison for Moscow.

3.  Snowden in Moscow
Without a valid passport, Snowden, always accompanied by Harrison, is confined for 40 days to a small room with no window and no shower in Terminal F of the Moscow airport.  During this period the Russian government offers Snowden a deal if he will work with their own intelligence bureau, but Snowden refuses.

The US FBI tries to get Snowden’s father, Lonnie, to go to Moscow and lure him back to the United States.  But there’s a catch.  Lonnie Snowden says that they tell him, “you understand that once we get there, we’re going to need to check your son out to make sure he’s OK medically”.  Yeah right.  That is not the kind of friend you can trust. 

Snowden proceeds to lodge asylum requests with 21 European countries, but they are all denied or ignored, presumably in response to US pressuring.  Venezuela and Bolivia do offer asylum to Snowden, but there seems to be no way for him to get there. 

One possibility seems to present itself when Bolivian president Evo Morales arrives in Moscow on his presidential aircraft to attend a conference for gas-exporting countries.  Presidential aircraft enjoy international protection and immunity, but when Morales attempts to return home, his plane (without the suspected Snowden onboard) is forced to land in Austria after France, Spain, and Italy deny it access to their airspace (again presumably at the behest of the US authorities).

In the end the US government fails to capture Snowden, but it remains uncompromising.  We are left at the end with the strident phrase from Senator Dianne Feinstein, “I want to see him caught . . . and brought back for trial!” [1].

In Terminal F the personal character of Edward Snowden is much less in focus than in Citizenfour.  Here in Terminal F, in fact, Snowden is not seen so much as a master of his fate and is seen more as a quarry on his own that is hunted by some organizations and aided by others.  In other words in this film, we see things from the outside.  Nevertheless, one of the most interesting aspects of the film is the manufactured debate between Michael Hayden (representing the US intelligence community and its concern for security) and Ed Snowden (representing the concern for privacy rights).  Thus both sides were given ample opportunity to present their cases.

Hayden’s position is straightforward, and he expresses smug contempt for what Snowden did and his attempts to escape punishment.  At one point Hayden complains that Snowden had the hubris to take action as just one man in opposition to the entire US intelligence community of 100,000 people.  (It is difficult to ascertain just how big is the US intelligence community, but we can be assured that it is huge [2].)

To be sure, any government does have its own rights to privacy.  For one thing, governments  hold records of their citizens and employees, the exposure of which would constitute a violation of their own privacy.  And governments engage in interactions with their societies that should sometimes be held confidence.  In addition, Snowden did break the rules of his employment, although  he also strove to restrict his revelations to unlawful NSA policies and to avoid putting individual government operators at risk. 

However and on the other side of the ledger, there are larger issues and themes that should be included when considering the relative merit of Snowden’s actions.  For example Alfred North Whitehead, in his Adventures of Ideas, emphasized just how long it took for the original ideas of human rights to come to full realization [3].  He traces its first stages, starting from the Platonic doctrine of the human soul, and how those ideas were then assimilated into the early Christian religion.  Then, after many wrong turns and dead ends, they slowly came to further fruition in the form 18th century democratic republics in the United States and France.  But even in the 19th century slavery was still widespread – a phenomenon that was in direct contradiction to the original Platonic and Christian notions about the fundamental and primordial value of the human soul. The Abolitionists that arose in that period were like Snowden – they were in opposition to the commonly accepted, but immoral, slavery practice of their communities.  They were the outsiders, the whistle-blowers. They consulted their own souls and realized that slavery was not only intolerable, but that it was entirely irreconcilable with the basic principles by which they were supposed to live.  They acted on those principles, and today we hallow what they did.  Their actions, in the view of Whitehead, led to the full realization of the democratic principles which had been initiated in Greece more than two thousand years earlier. 

Along similar lines, and after Whitehead’s time, were the American student antiwar activists in the late 1960s.   With a then expanding university population, many older Americans at that time dismissed university protests as the outcome of lazy, self-indulgent young people obsessed with sex, drugs, and rock-and-roll. But as Yale psychology professor Kenneth Kenniston demonstrated even in that period, the student protest population came from the higher levels of academic performance [4,5,6]. These were the students who had properly absorbed the cultural heritage of Western civilization that they had been taught and had come to criticize in light of those principles what their own government was doing in connection with the Viet Nam War.  Again, the higher principles of our inherited culture guided the consciences of those who chose to express their disagreement in civil disobedience. 

This is what Edward Snowden has had the courage to do, and we should be thankful for his personal sacrifice.  He has exposed serious threats to our free society that require immediate reformatory measures.  Let us hope that he, like the earlier Abolitionists and the antiwar activists, will set us on the proper path.

  1. Jeremy Herb and Justin Sink, “Sen. Feinstein calls Snowden's NSA leaks an 'act of treason'”, The Hill, (6 October 2013).
  2. Michael German, “The US Intelligence Community Is Bigger Than Ever, But Is It Worth the Cost?”, “Defense One”, (6 February 2015), Atlantic Media, Washington D. C. 
  3. Alfred North Whitehead, Adventures of IdeasThe Free Press, New York, (1933).
  4. Kenneth Keniston, Young Radicals: Notes on Committed Youth, Harcourt (1968).
  5. Kenneth Keniston, The Uncommitted: Alienated Youth in American Society, Laurel 1970).
  6. Kenneth Keniston, Youth and Dissent: The Rise of a New Opposition, Harcourt Brace Javonovich (1971).

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