Sunday, December 14, 2014

Citizen Screwed

Today's film, Laura Poitras's Citizenfour.

Citizenfour  is a documentary about Edward Snowden's release of classified information relating to massive electronic surveillance of foreign nationals and US citizens by the National Security Agency. Snowden's information was given to the Guardian's Glenn Greenwald, who released the information in a series of articles in June of 2013. The initial articles talked about the NSA's illegal surveillance of American Citizens' cell phone data; subsequent articles revealed an almost unfathomably vast capturing of electronic data from phones and internet.

Snowden was a data analyst on contract for the Virginia-based defense intelligence company Booz Allen Hamilton, and he had top security clearances. His work revealed what he saw as a shocking and illegal overreach of US intelligence gathering, and he made the decision to leak the information to the press. Upon the release of his identity, the US Government quickly leveled three felony charges of espionage and theft of government property, and Snowden fled an extradition order in Hong Kong and is currently in temporary asylum in Russia.

As we might have expected, the government agencies involved first denied categorically that the intelligence was being collected and then, after Snowden's revelations, denied any wrongdoing and went after the messenger. Investigations were promptly launched not to see who authorized the illegal overreaches, but to apprehend who was responsible for the leak. President Obama himself, who campaigned in 2008 on returning the rule of law to government activity, criticized Snowden's actions and denied that there was an ongoing surveillance of American citizens (apparently tapping German Chancellor Angela Merkel's cell phone was OK), and the charges against Snowden still stand. The governments of several other nations--among them, Great Britain, Germany, and Sweden--were shown to have been complicit with the NSA in spying on their own citizens, and a couple have threatened harsh legal action to any news outlet that prints the information.

Not surprisingly, what one thinks of Edward Snowden depends on one's politics. Conservatives tend to see him as a traitor who is undermining our attempts to keep ourselves safe, and liberals see him as a whistleblower who is uncovering a pit of lawless rot in our government. My own views will be already clear, but I confess I was a little of two minds before seeing the film. Intelligence is always, it seems, a cat-and-mouse game, with increasing ingenuity in uncovering secrets being matched by ever-increasing secrecy. Neither side is likely to stand still--nor would it seem prudent to do so. It's easy to imagine how the internet and electronic communications can enable terrorists and those bent on malfeasance to coordinate in secret and to work up plans that traditional law enforcement may not be equipped to handle. And I also think that the ability to do harm is not tantamount to actually doing harm. The US government, for example, has had the ability to obliterate its own population with nuclear weapons for decades, but we trust that it will not do so. (Certainly, we don't seem to devote any energy to opposing this possibility.) Likewise--though perhaps it's not equivalent--the collecting of all available data about a person is not the same thing as using that data against them. It certainly opens up the possibility of using that data thus. Snowden argues that knowing your government is looking over your shoulder at every moment inhibits your ability to speak freely. But only, I might argue, if that collected personal data is ever used against citizens.

But on the contrary, I have to believe that the whole process needs to be unambiguously subject to the rule of law. Our legal system should be up to the task of regulating these processes--just as I believe that those accused of terrorism should be able to face our legal system and not be held and worked over outside the protections of the rule of law. Certainly, having the government do whatever it wants without telling anybody--or while lying baldly to its citizens--is not the solution.

What I was not really aware of before Citizenfour was the scope and scale of the NSA's intelligence-gathering activities. Most people can imagine a set of circumstances that they feel warrant increased governmental scrutiny of a person or a group, but I suspect most regular, law-abiding citizens also have an expectation of privacy. Citizenfour makes it pretty clear that there's no such thing in the modern world as privacy between a government and its citizens. Certainly not in the US. I did not expect this--which probably shows how cursory was my review of this story as it was breaking 18 months ago.

I believe Snowden's claim that he was motivated by patriotism and a sense of moral outrage. What could he possibly gain by his disclosures, especially when weighed against what he would almost certainly have to pay for them? He makes it very clear in these interviews that he's aware of how the US government will respond to his leaks, and he says he's quite willing to go to jail if that's how the story unfolds. He subsequently spent 40 days in the Moscow airport awaiting a more permanent disposition, and even now his status is temporary. My understanding is that no other governments are willing to anger the US by offering Snowden asylum (our relations with Russia already suck, so they're not risking much by putting him up).

In any case, Citizenfour does not take sides nor draw any conclusions for us. It really just documents the events as they unfold, with Snowden and Glenn Greenwald in a hotel room in Hong Kong discussing what is in Snowden's trove and how it should be released. It really comes off more as John Le Carré novel than a bland documentary. This despite there being almost no production niceties; we just move scene to scene with occasional text cards. It's a very lean offering, but compelling just the same.

Regardless of what one thinks of Edward Snowden--and if you're like me you maybe understand less than you think you do--I urge anyone to see Citizenfour. It chronicles an actual historical event, and it gives us a great deal to think about--and debate.

Grade: A


Vancouver Voyeur said...

I hadn't heard anything about this documentary. Thanks for the review. Where did you see it? Is it available on-line?

William Stachour said...

It was available, surprisingly, at our local small-town WI theater. It'll be online shortly, I suspect.

Vancouver Voyeur said...