“United States of Secrets (Part One): The Program” - Michael Kirk (2014)

The US government’s current massive collection and monitoring of everyone’s communications, first revealed by whistle-blower Edward Snowden in June 2013,  is the subject of the fascinating two-part documentary, United States of Secrets.  Produced as part of the US Public Broadcasting Service‘s Frontline program and aired in May 2014,  the two parts are really two separate films:
They look behind the scenes at how the US government engages in massive, indiscriminate surveillance and how it has tried to suppress information from coming out about these activities.  The review presented here covers the first of the above two films, which specifically concerns the super-secret surveillance project that was known inside the US National Security Administration (NSA) as “The Program”.

As I have described earlier, there are at least three different and equally important angles from which we can view the amazing revelations of Edward Snowden:

  1. One angle is the story of how the lone 29-year-old Ed Snowden (a) managed to make a large number of secret documents about the NSA’s unlawful surveillance activities available to journalists (so that significant portions of these documents could be made available to the wider public) and (b) how Snowden managed to escape capture from his vindictive US government pursuers.  This is Snowden’s story, and it is well-covered in two recent documentary films: Citizenfour (2014), directed by Laura Poitras, and Terminal F/Chasing Edward Snowden (2015), directed by John Goetz and Poul-Erik Heilbuth.
  2. Another angle of the story concerns the very nature of mass surveillance and how massive collections and correlations of communication content and metadata pose a threat to privacy and the proper functioning of a free society.  This is briefly covered in all the films I have mentioned so far, but the interested reader might also wish to consult Bruce Schneier’s book, Data and Goliath, for more detailed discussion [1].
  3. A third angle on this overall theme concerns the efforts on the part of intelligence operatives and senior officials inside the US government to subvert legal safeguards in order to install what were essentially illegal surveillance activities.  This is what is primarily covered in the film under discussion here: United States of Secrets (Part One): The Program.
In order to appreciate this latter film, though, one needs to have some acquaintance with the tripartite structure of the US government.  The founders of the US republic who framed the US Constitution were inspired by 18th century French legal scholar Montesquieu to establish three quasi-independent branches of the new American government:
  • Legislative.  This is a parliamentary body of democratically elected representatives that establishes the laws of the country, allocates how taxed money is spent, and has the exclusive power of declaring war.
  • Executive.  This is headed by the President,  and it executes the laws that have been created by the Legislature.  The Executive branch essentially carries out the day-to-day administration of the government, including the operation of the military.  It can also prosecute law violators (through its Department of Justice) and establish foreign treaties (through its State Department).
  • Judicial. This branch interprets and adjudicates the degree to which the laws are in conformance with the Constitution. 
This structure is set up so that there are “checks and balances” across the three branches – each branch has some authority over the other two branches:
  • The Executive branch may veto laws.  It also appoints the justices of the Supreme Court (of the Judicial branch).
  • The Legislative branch may override Executive vetoes, may impeach the president, and must approve treaties and presidential appointments.
  • The Judicial branch can judge both laws created by the Legislative branch and actions undertaken by the Executive branch to be in violation of the Constitution (and hence unlawful).
So even though the US President has enormous powers, he or she must act in conformance with the oversight of the other two branches.  This is where United States of Secrets (Part One): The Program is interesting (although some of the subtleties of the US government’s tripartite checks and balances may be lost on some viewers).  Essentially, this film reveals how  two US presidents (George W. Bush and Barack Obama) tried to install activities that were seen by some people in the government to be in violation of US laws.  In particular, such actions were seen to be in violation of the 4th Amendment to the US Constitution (part of the Bill of Rights that dates back to 1791), which reads [2]:
“The right of the people to be secure in their persons, houses, papers, and effects, against unreasonable searches and seizures, shall not be violated, and no Warrants shall issue, but upon probable cause, supported by Oath or affirmation, and particularly describing the place to be searched, and the persons or things to be seized.”
In other words, it is illegal to conduct massive, indiscriminate surveillance. The government must secure specific warrants from the Judicial branch to carry out surveillance.  This Constitutional provision has been significantly modified by the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act of 1978 (FISA), which was an attempt to provide more Judicial and Congressional oversight of the Executive branch’s covert surveillance activities after US administrative government excesses during the Nixon administration came to light.  Since the 911 events, the FISA act, itself, has been modified several times.  An important  mechanism created by the FISA act is the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court (FISC), which hears evidence provided in secret by the Executive branch’s Department of Justice requesting FBI surveillance authorization.  The judges of the FISC are appointed by the Judicial branch (the US Chief Justice).  However, there is no adversarial debate before the FISC justice, so how can a balanced judgement be rendered [3]?  All in all, the FISA Court strikes me as a legal artifice to get around true Judicial oversight of the Executive branch.

The film as presented is largely a textual narrative account that is told by some of the key participants, both significant insiders and reporters.  Among the government operatives who are given ample testimonial opportunities are
  • Alberto Gonzales, a former Attorney General;
  • Michael Hayden, a former director of both the NSA and the CIA;
  • NSA security specialists William Binney, Thomas Drake, Edward Loomis, and Kirk Wiebe, all of whom came to doubt the legality of what their own organization was doing,
  • Administrative lawyers Jack Goldsmith and Thomas Mann;
  • Diane Roark, a Congressional attorney in charge of oversight of the NSA
Key reporters involved in getting the original story out and who testify here include
  • Barton Gellman of The Washington Post
  • Glenn Greenwald, Ewen MacAskill, and Luke Harding of The Guardian
  • Jane Mayer of The New Yorker
  • Siobhan Gorman of The Baltimore Sun
  • James Risen, Eric Lichtblau, and Bill Keller of The New York Times
  • Interestingly, documentary filmmaker Laura Poitras, who was a key figure in the original interactions with Snowden, is not shown in the United States of Secrets films, nor did she appear in Terminal F.  This seems to be in keeping with Poitras’s cinema verite aesthetics, according to which the reporter’s subjective persona is removed so that the objective reality of what is portrayed can come forth.
All this textual testimony is artfully mixed with evocative imagery in order to lessen the repetitiveness of a “talking head” presentation.

The story of United States of Secrets (Part One): The Program has four threads to it as it gives an account of NSA surveillance overreach.

1.  The Outer Story – Edward Snowden’s Revelations
The film’s first ten minutes or so detail how, starting in December 2012, NSA security contractor Ed Snowden initially contacted Glenn Greenwald, and then Laura Poitras and Barton Gellman in his hopes of secretly leaking the NSA’s wrongdoings. Poitras, Greenwald, and MacAskill went ahead and secretly met with Snowden in Hong Kong in June 2013; and the big news story came out.

The rest of the film is essentially a flashback account of the events that led up to Snowden’s revelations.

2.  Concern Inside the NSA
A signal event, of course, was what happened on September 11, 2001 (911), which sent the US intelligence community into a state of shock.  Veteran NSA cryptologists Binney, Loomis, and Wiebe felt that an existing NSA program that they had worked on known as ThinThread could have been used to gather foreign intelligence that might have helped to head off the 911 attacks.  ThinThread had built-in anonymizing provisions that protected privacy, so they felt it adhered to US laws.  Shortly after 911, though, they learned that a new NSA project had been launched, which they were not a part of, that was variously called “Stellar Wind” and “The Program”.  This new program used ThinThread at its core  – but with its privacy protections stripped out.  When their internal protests were ignored, they all resigned from the NSA in October 2001.

William Binney approached Congressional attorney Diane Roark about “The Program”, and she was appalled by what she heard.  Roark goes in protest to Michael Hayden, who assures her that “The Program” is legal because it has been authorized by Presidential fiat.  Legislative oversight of the Executive branch was dismissed out of hand.

Another key figure, Thomas Drake, was a newer NSA employee who came on the scene just after 911.  He was also upset when he learned about “The Program”, but he was rebuffed when he expressed his concerns. When he writes a letter to NSA director Keith Alexander about it, he finds himself stripped of his authority and left as just a placeholder. 

3. Concern Inside the Department of Justice
Meanwhile there are people inside the Department of Justice (DOJ) worried about the legality of “The Program”.  Although they and other legal professionals work inside the Executive branch, they are specialists in defending the legality of Executive branch activities.  Here the story casts its focus on Thomas Tamm, who was working with the FISA court, and his discovery that “The Program” was spying without first securing FISA warrants.

Also James Comey, who was working as a key assistant to Attorney General John Ashcroft, came to believe that “The Program’s” activities were illegal.  Comey, and then Ashcroft, refused to give their DOJ authorization for continuance of “The Program”.  So Vice President Dick Cheney then convinced President George W. Bush to simply authorize “The Program” without DOJ approval.  Bush even went on TV and misrepresented its activities, assuring the public that the government always gets warrants before spying.  When this happened, many top-level DOJ staff members threatened to resign (including Goldsmith and Comey).  To head off a pubic-relations disaster, Michael Hayden managed to talk a FISA justice into giving her authorization to “The Program”.

Thomas Tamm meanwhile anonymously contacts The New York Times about what is going on.   When The New York Times warns the government that they are about to publish on this issue, Bush and Hayden summon publisher Arthur Sulzberger and executive editor Bill Keller and threaten them.  They cave in and withdraw the story [4].

However, New York Times journalist James Risen decides to go ahead and publish what he knows independently in a book.  So, after a lengthy delay, the waffling New York Times does go ahead and publish some revelatory material authored by Risen and Lichtblau.  Again there is a public uproar, and George Bush goes on TV and admits that “The Program” exists and that it is needed.  But he still effectively misrepresented what was going on by making no reference to “The Program’s” mass, indiscriminate collection of domestic data.

About this time Thomas Drake leaked some unclassified information to the Baltimore Sun.  So Dick Cheney finally ordered the FBI to crack down on suspected leakers.  In 2007 the FBI, with guns menacingly drawn, conducted early morning raids on the homes of Binney, Wiebe, Loomis, and even Diane Roark.  They confiscated their computers and personal documents. 

Shortly thereafter Drake wass also raided by a dozen FBI agents.  Although they could not prove that he leaked any classified material, they ded find a classified document on his computer and proceedws to charge with him a felony under the Espionage Act with a potential jail term of 35 years [5]. 

4.  The Continuation Under Obama
The election of Barack Obama in 2008 gives the ThinThread team (Binney, Wiebe, Loomis, Roark, and Drake) some hope.  But, disturbingly, even before the Presidential election, Senator Obama chose to vote for alterations to the FISA law authorizing additional government surveillance powers.  And once in office, Obama’s legal team, led by Eric Holder, investigated those earlier punitive FBI leak-snuffing investigations, but has done nothing to stop the prosecutions.

It is later discovered that the document found on Drake’s computer was classified secret only after the FBI raided his home.  This idea of arresting a person first and then looking around for a reason to place criminal charges is something we hear about in autocracies like China [6] and Iran, but not commonly in countries that are supposed to recognize freedom or privacy.  The government’s case against Drake eventually fell apart (but only after the three-year legal ordeal  damaged Drake’s personal life and left him impoverished).  After all this he is eventually ruled only to pay a $25 fine and perform a year of community service.

Unfortunately, encouraging people to be afraid of potential terrorist acts so that they will endorse punitive wars and acquiesce to the diminution of their rights seems to be the favored political tactic these days [7].  An apocalypse is always claimed to be just around the corner, and the "Commander-in-Chief", leading the Executive branch, increasingly claims unrestricted powers to invade your privacy in order to "protect the American people".  And in support of this trend, almost everyone seems to concede that there must be a strict tradeoff between liberty and security.  The more you have of one, they say, the less you can have of the other.  But such a claim is not always borne out by the facts.  Consider the fact that China, Russia, and Iran are all autocracies with severe limitations on personal freedom and privacy – and they are all still frequently beset with terrorist acts.

Meanwhile “The Program” continues to grow, and the "checks and balances" continue to shrink.  It doesn’t have to be that way, but United States of Secrets (Part One): The Program shows how we are allowing it to go on.

  1. Bruce Schneier, Data and Goliath, (2015), W. W. Norton & Company.
  2. The U.S. Constitution.
  3. Stepen Braun, "Former Judge Admits Flaws in Secret Court", Yahoo News, (9 July 2013).
  4. Edward Snowden was allegedly mistrustful of The New York Times; and given Bill Keller’s past support of US military intervention, it is not surprising that Snowden passed over Keller’s paper and chose The Guardian and The Washington Post to be his conduits to the public.
  5. Jane Mayer, “The Secret Sharer”, The New Yorker, (23 May 2011).
  6. Perry Link, “China: Inventing a Crime”, The New York Review of Books, (9 February 2015).
  7. Glenn Greenwald, “For Terrorist Fearmongers, It’s Always the Scariest Time Ever”, The Intercept, (2 June 2015).

“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).

Laura Poitras

Films of Laura Poitras:

“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).