Monday, September 28, 2015


In her Oscar-winning documentary Citizenfour, Laura Poitras exposes the extent and impact of our government’s domestic spying operations.  Her documentary focuses on Edward Snowden, and includes many of the things you’d expect to see in great filmmaking.  For example, there is the early congressional testimony of an NSA bureaucrat who repeatedly denied that the government intercepts our emails, phone calls, texts, and google searches.  But later, another NSA bureaucrat testified and tried to spin it: The NSA does not intercept such data “wittingly.”  It does so “inadvertently, perhaps,” but not “wittingly.”  (This type of statement makes the testimony of cigarette company executives — “I believe that nicotine is not addictive” — appear truthful by comparison.)

Poitras’ documentary also exposes the complicity of other governments in United States’ spy operations, including the world-wide detention and interrogation of even the friends of journalists who were investigating NSA-Gate.  Of course, after some foreign governments realized that they, too, were the targets of the NSA spy operation, their attitudes changed.  And the U.S. government’s boldness knew no bounds: it even had a double agent spying on the German government’s inquiry into the NSA’s original spying!  (If the documentary wasn’t so stylistically dark, tense, and eerie, this would have been comical.)

The film also exposed the complicity of giant corporations in the government’s domestic spy operations, the shameless arguments of government lawyers when attempting to crush civil rights plaintiffs, and even Obama’s pre- and post-election flip-flop on our civil rights.  Even more interesting, now-public government documents also substantiated the filmmaker’s claim that she was repeatedly stopped, searched, and interrogated for no reason — well, no reason other than she made films critical of the government.  (When making Citizenfour, she had to relocate out of country and increase security measures to protect her footage.)

But the best part of Citizenfour was how it explained the risks that Snowden and the journalists faced when exposing the NSA.  The danger was made palpable as the documentary painted a vivid picture of our government’s unlimited reach and power.  For example, at the beginning of the film, when Snowden wanted to establish a safe line of communication with the journalist, he wrote an email stating that she should create a “passphrase” with the assumption that, when attempting to crack it, the government is capable of “one trillion guesses per second.”  He also warned that his multiple, proposed security measures for communication were not “bulletproof,” but merely gave them “some breathing room.” 

The film also showed how President Obama was nothing more than an extension of George W. Bush with regard to our civil rights.  Before his election, Obama decried the type of lawless action engaged in by the NSA.  But after Snowden exposed “the greatest weapon for oppression in the history of man,” Obama’s attitude changed: “I don’t think Mr. Snowden is a patriot.”  Why not?  Because, Obama said, the American people would have preferred a “thoughtful, fact-based debate that would then lead us to a better place.”  (Aside from the question of how we could have a “fact-based debate” without Snowden first exposing those facts, this kind of political word vomit is why the three current frontrunners for the Republican presidential nomination are non-politicians.  That’s right, the American people would rather have a retried surgeon govern the country than any of the thirteen-or-so career politicians seeking the presidency.) 

The movie ends with Snowden in Russia, and a journalist telling him that his whistle-blowing will “embolden more to come forward.”  He then tells Snowden that he was recently contacted by another person who exposed yet another spy program administered by a “totally different part of the government.”  This particular program doesn’t just collect our communications; instead, it has 1.2 million people on an active government watch list.  After cryptically telling Snowden more details of the operation — mostly via several handwritten notes that the viewer cannot see — Snowden looks genuinely surprised, and responds: “That could raise the profile of this whole political situation of whistle-blowing to a whole new level.”

Let’s hope.  Until then, “Thank you, and be careful.”

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