‘At this stage I can offer nothing more than my word. I am a senior government employee in the intelligence community. I hope you understand that contacting you is extremely high risk … This will not be a waste of your time.’
Edward Snowden’s first contact with Laura Poitras
As most readers here likely already know, CITIZENFOUR is an important film by veteran documentary maker Laura Poitras about Edward Snowden and his world-shaking NSA surveillance revelations. In the same week that it was announced CITIZENFOUR has been nominated for an Oscar Academy Award in the Documentary Feature category, we were fortunate enough to have the opportunity to watch the movie at a local art-house cinema.
CITIZENFOUR tells the story of how NSA contractor Edward Snowden contacted Laura Poitras, who had already made a name for herself with hard hitting documentaries such as the Academy Award nominated My Country, My Country (about Iraq under U.S. occupation), and The Oath (about two Guantanamo Bay detainees).
Before contacting Poitras, Snowden attempted to tell his story to another important actor in this tale, Brazil-based Guardian reporter Glenn Greenwald, but Greenwald was unable to get to grips with the PGP encryption Snowden used to secure his communications.
The movie understandably focuses on the often nail-biting drama of Edward Snowden releasing (with the help of the Guardian newspaper) thousands of NSA documents to the press that he had secretly collected while working for the NSA, rather than on the technical details of those documents.
Much of the ‘action’ therefore takes place over an eight day period in which Snowden is holed up in a Hong Kong hotel room with Poitras, Greenwald, and Guardian correspondent Ewen MacAskill. Initial discussions about how to most effectively disseminate the information turn, as the revelations start to send shockwaves around the world, into tense conversations on whether Snowden should reveal his identity, and finally show the increasingly frantic efforts made to ensure Snowden’s safety.
What emerges is a surprisingly intimate portrait of a 29 year old man born to a military family in North Carolina, who grew up with moderately right-wing views, and who was proud of serving the US government as a senior NSA contractor, but who found himself increasingly appalled by the scale, capability, and total lack of oversight displayed by the United States National Security Agency (NSA) in its post 9/11 quest to spy on absolutely every individual in the world’s every phone call, text message, email, IM, web chat, and website visited.
Although he notes that the situation is even worse for non-US citizens, Snowden is concerned mainly with the NSA’s full-frontal assault on American democracy, something that as a very brave and principled patriot, he felt it necessary to do something about.
What is interesting is his desire to stay out of the limelight as much as possible, in order to ensure the story does not become about him rather than the information he is providing. At the same time, however, he understands that for his revelations to be considered credible, they cannot be from an anonymous source, and must have a face attached to them (he is also keen that innocent colleagues and friends are not implicated in his actions). Showing remarkable bravery in the face of the likely severe consequences, Snowden is therefore willing to publicly take responsibility for the leaks.
Self-effacing, often boyishly nervous, but always highly articulate, Snowden details to the journalists the in the hotel room scary aspects of NSA mass surveillance programs, his own paranoia infecting his audience, and resulting in a jumpy atmosphere that can almost be cut with a knife. Interspersed with this are clips of news reports and demands for explanations, as Snowdon’s revelations (and their import) rapidly become the most pressing news item in the world outside.
Perhaps the most striking of Snowden’s contentions is that NSA spying is not about surveillance and invasion of privacy, but about freedom (and the curtailment of that freedom). Free speech and the ability to converse with friends in private conversation are essential prerequisites to a free and democratic society, which is the reason they are always the first victims of repressive and totalitarian governments.
The rest of the film details the unprecedented growth the NSA and US government surveillance powers post 9/11, shows officials repeatedly lying about US government surveillance overreach, and follows the aftermath of the revelations, including Snowden’s escape from Hong Kong after being denied protection there, his eventually being granted temporary asylum in Russia (as a way to annoy the US), the Angela Merkel phone bugging scandal, further revelations about the extent to which NSA sidekick GCHQ spies almost unrestricted on the world’s communications backbone, and much more.
Here at BestVPN we have followed Snowden’s story with great interest ever since it first broke in June 2013. His revelations show how the US government, in particular (but are also relevant to almost all governments), is building a surveillance state of immense power and sophistication, without the knowledge, understanding, or consent of its citizens, and which gravely threatens the fundamental freedoms of every individual on the planet.
Although it is a story that we are now very familiar with, it is one the vast majority of people are largely in ignorance of. Hopefully this film, which successfully turns footage of people hanging around hotel rooms and hunching over computer keyboards into intense drama, will raise public awareness of these vital issues, and encourage a debate (at the very least) about the role of government, and the extent to which it should be allowed to destroy all notions of personal privacy (and liberty?) in the name of so-called ‘security’.