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Citizenfour review – gripping Snowden documentary offers portrait of power, paranoia and one remarkable man
This documentary is about that very remarkable man, the former NSA intelligence analyst and whistleblower Edward Snowden, shown here speaking out personally for the first time about all the staggering things governments are doing to our privacy.
Fundamentally, privacy is being abolished – not eroded, not diminished, not encroached upon, but abolished. And being constructed in its place is a colossal digital new Stasi, driven by a creepy intoxication with what is now technically possible, combined with politicians’ age-old infatuation with bullying, snooping and creating mountains of bureaucratic prestige for themselves at the expense of the snooped-upon taxpayer.
Yet in spite of the evidence put in the public domain about this – due to Snowden’s considerable courage – there has been a bafflingly tepid response from the libertarian right, who have let themselves be bamboozled by the “terrorism” argument. There’s also been a worrying placidity from some progressive opinion-formers who appear to assume that social media means we have surrendered our right to privacy. But we haven’t.
Laura Poitras’s film shows the first extensive interviews with Edward Snowden, conducted in his hotel room in Hong Kong when he first revealed his information to reporter Glenn Greenwald: Snowden contacted him under the handle Citizenfour. Greenwald wrote about it for Salon, in his book No Place to Hide and for this newspaper. Snowden risked his neck, revealing that despite official statements to the contrary, the US and the UK were widely using their ability to eavesdrop upon every phone call, every email, every internet search, every keystroke. The pre-emptive mining of data has gone beyond suspicion of terrorist activity. As Snowden says: “We are building the biggest weapon for oppression in the history of mankind,” and a martial law for intercepting telecommunication is being created by stealth. This is despite the bland denials of every official up to and including President Obama, whose supercilious claim to have been investigating the issue before the Snowden revelations has been brutally exposed by this film.
Snowden himself seems notably calm and reasonable. Where Julian Assange is mercurial, Snowden is geeky and imperturbable, with a laid-back voice that sounds like that of Seth Rogen. Pressure that would have caused anyone else to crack seems to have have no real effect on Snowden, and he appears unemotional even as he reveals how he had to leave his partner, Lindsay Mills, in the dark. (She is now living with him in Russia, where he is in exile, a country whose own record on civil liberties provide a scalding irony.)
There are moments of white-knuckle paranoia. The interview is interrupted by a continuous alarm bell; Snowden calls down to reception, who tell him it’s a routine fire drill. Snowden is satisfied by the explanation, but disconnects the phone in case it is bugged. When he types key passwords into his laptop he covers his head and arms in a bizarre shroud, like an old-fashioned photographer, so he can’t be filmed. This is what he calls his “magic mantle of power”. It looks absurd, but it isn’t precisely melodramatic, and Snowden seems as if he both knows what he is doing and appreciates the absurdity of it all.
Meanwhile, governmental forces are ranged against him – and against ordinary citizens making a stand against snooping. Poitras shows us a scene from a US court case in which AT&T phone customers took action against having their affairs pried into. A sycophantic, bow-tied lawyer for the government tries to suggest that a court is not the proper place to discuss the matter. When a plain-speaking judge rebuked this weasel, I felt like cheering.
So what else can be done? There is a funny moment when Citizenfour shows how German chancellor Angela Merkel is far from amused at having her mobile phone conversations listened to by the NSA. It was an exquisite moment of diplomatic froideur and possibly did more to make Obama take this seriously than anything else.
Now activists are warning of “linkability”. In US cities, subway commuters are being asked to put their transit pass accounts on their actual credit cards. One card fits all, and also gives officialdom access to a whole lot more of your information. British cities are being encouraged to do the same thing with “contactless” cards. Maybe we all need to think again. Citizenfour is a gripping record of how our rulers are addicted to gaining more and more power and control over us – if we let them.
- The Guardian, Friday 23 May 2014 07.30 BST
At the outset of Glenn Greenwald’s communications with the „anonymous leaker“ later identified as 29-year-old former NSA employee Edward Snowden, Greenwald – a journalist, blogger and former lawyer – and the film-maker Laura Poitras, with whom he is collaborating, are told to use a PGP („pretty good privacy„) encryption package. Only then will materials be sent to him since, as Snowden puts it, encryption is „not just for spies and philanderers“. Eventually Greenwald receives word that a Federal Express package has been sent and will arrive in a couple of days. He doesn’t know what it will contain – a computer program or the secret and incriminating US government documents themselves – but nothing comes on the scheduled day of delivery. FedEx says that the package is being held in customs for „reasons unknown“. Ten days later it is finally delivered. „I tore open the envelope and found two USB thumb drives“ and instructions for using the programs, Greenwald writes.
His account reminded me of the time, nearly a decade ago, when I was researching Britain’s road to war in Iraq, and went through a similar experience. I was waiting for an overnight FedEx envelope to reach me in New York, sent from my London chambers; it contained materials that might relate to deliberations between George Bush and Tony Blair (materials of the kind that seem to be holding up the Chilcot inquiry). A day passed, then another, then two more. Eventually, I was told I could pick up the envelope at a FedEx office, but warned that it had been tampered with, which turned out to something of an understatement: there was no envelope for me to tear open, as the tearing had already occurred and all the contents had been removed. FedEx offered no explanation.
As Greenwald notes, experiences such as this, which signal that you may be being watched, can have a chilling effect, but you just find other ways to carry on. FedEx (and its like) are avoided, and steps are taken to make sure that anything significant or sensitive is communicated by other means. In any event, and no doubt like many others, I proceed on the basis that all my communications – personal and professional – are capable of being monitored by numerous governments, including my own. Whether they are is another matter, as is the question of what happens with material obtained by such surveillance – a point that this book touches on but never really addresses. Greenwald’s argument is that it’s not so much what happens with the material that matters, but the mere fact of its being gathered. Even so, his point is a powerful one.
This is the great importance of the astonishing revelations made by Snowden, as facilitated by Greenwald and Poitras, with help from various news media, including the Guardian. Not only does it confirm what many have suspected – that surveillance is happening – but it also makes clear that it’s happening on an almost unimaginably vast scale. One might have expected a certain targeting of individuals and groups, but we now know that data is hoovered up indisciminately. We have learned that over the last decade the NSA has collected records on every phone call made by every American (it gathers the who, what and when of the calls, known as metadata, but not the content), as well as email data. We have learned that this happens with the cooperation of the private sector, with all that implies for their future as consorts in global surveillance. We have learned, too, that the NSA reviews the contents of the emails and internet communications of people outside the US, and has tapped the phones of foreign leaders (such as German chancellor Angel Merkel), and that it works with foreign intelligence services (including Britain’s GCHQ), so as to be able to get around domestic legal difficulties. Our suspicions have been confirmed that the use of global surveillance is not limited to the „war on terror“, but is marshalled towards the diplomatic and even economic advantage of the US, a point Greenwald teases out using the PowerPoint materials relied on by the agencies themselves. Such actions have been made possible thanks to creative and dodgy interpretations of legislation (not least the Patriot Act implemented just after 9/11). These activities began under President Bush, and they have been taken forward by President Obama. It would be a generous understatement to refer to British „cooperation“ in these matters, although Greenwald’s intended audience seems to be mostly in the US, and he goes light on the British until it comes to the treatment of his partner, David Miranda, who was detained in the UK under anti-terror legislation.
When the revelations first came out, in the summer of 2013, Snowden explained that he „had the capability without any warrant to search for, seize, and read your communications“. That meant „anyone’s communications at any time“, he added, justifying the public disclosure on the grounds that this „power to change people’s fates“ was „a serious violation of the law“. Snowden’s actions, and the claims he has made, have catalysed an important debate in the US, within Congress (where views have not necessarily followed party lines) and among academics and commentators. Views are polarised among reasonable individuals, such as New Yorker legal writer Jeff Toobin („no proof of any systematic, deliberate violations of law“), and the New York Review of Books’s David Cole („secret and legally dubious activities at home and abroad“), and in the US federal courts. In Britain, by contrast, the debate has been more limited, with most newspapers avoiding serious engagement and leaving the Guardian to address the detail, scale and significance of the revelations. Media enterprises that one might have expected to rail at the powers of Big Government have remained conspicuously restrained – behaviour that is likely, over the long term, to increase the power of the surveillance state over that of the individual. With the arrival of secret courts in Britain, drawing on the experience of the US, it feels as if we may be at a tipping point. Such reluctance on the part of our fourth estate has given the UK parliament a relatively free rein, leaving the Intelligence and Security Committee to plod along, a somewhat pitiful contrast to its US counterparts.
The big issue at stake here is privacy, and the relationship between the individual and the state, and it goes far beyond issues of legality (although Snowden’s fear of arrest, and perhaps also Greenwald’s, seems rather real). It is in the nature of government that information will be collected, and that some of it should remain confidential. „Privacy is a core condition of being a free person,“ Greenwald rightly proclaims, allowing us a realm „where we can act, think, speak, write, experiment and choose how to be away from the judgmental eyes of others“.
Snowden’s revelations challenge us to reflect on the ideal balance between the power of the state to know and the right of the individual to go about her or his business unencumbered, and this in turn raises fundamental questions about the power of the media, on which Greenwald has strong views, usually (but not always) fairly articulated. He makes the case for Snowden, and it’s a compelling one. One concern with WikiLeaks acting independently was the apparently random nature of its disclosures, without any obvious filtering on the basis of public interest or the possible exposure to risk of certain individuals. What is striking about this story, and the complex interplay between Snowden, Greenwald, Poitras and the Guardian, is that the approach was different, as the justification for the leaks seems to have been at the forefront of all their minds. In his recent book Secrets and Leaks Rahul Sagar identified a set of necessary conditions for leaks. Is there clear evidence of abuse of authority? Will the release threaten public safety? Is the scale of the release limited? Many people, though not all, see these as having been met in the Snowden case.
Britain needs a proper debate about the power of the state to collect information of the kind that Snowden has told us about, including its purpose and limits. The technological revolution of the past two decades has left UK law stranded, with parliament seemingly unable (and perhaps unwilling) to get a proper grip on the legal framework that is needed to restrain our political governors and the intelligence services, not least in their dance with the US. „The greatest threat is that we shall become like those who seek to destroy us“, the legendary US diplomat George Kennan warned in 1947. In response, revelations can be made, Greenwald’s book published, and a Pulitzer prize awarded. Long may it go on.
Much has been written about the NSA’s omnivorous appetite for personal data — much of it by Greenwald for the Guardian and other outlets. In his new book, however, he offers a revealing and disturbing overview, illustrated by dozens of reproduced secret documents, of just how far the NSA has gone to achieve Alexander’s vision of collecting and knowing it all. Relying on newly disclosed and already disclosed documents, Greenwald shows that the scope of the NSA’s surveillance not only exceeds our imagination but the agency’s capacity even to store, much less analyze, it all.
In a one-month period last year, for example, a single unit of the NSA, the Global Access Operations unit, collected data on more than 97 billion e-mails and 124 billion phone calls from around the world; more than 3 billion of those calls and e-mails were collected as they passed through the United States. As of 2012, the agency was processing more than 20 billion telecommunications per day. In a single month in 2011, the NSA collected 71 million calls and e-mails from Poland alone — not a major hub of terrorist activity, the last I checked. The NSA has admitted that “it collects far more content than is routinely useful to analysts.” These numbers call to mind Sen. Everett Dirksen’s quip about government spending: “A billion here, a billion there, and pretty soon you’re talking about real money.”
The NSA achieves these ends by working hand in hand with private telecommunications and Internet service providers. One NSA document describes an unnamed corporate partner as “aggressively involved in shaping traffic to run signals of interest past our monitors” and reports that in a single month, this top-secret, public-private partnership yielded more than 6 billion records of telephone calls and Internet activity. Under another program revealed here, the NSA intercepts routers, servers and other network equipment being shipped overseas; installs back-door surveillance bugs; rewraps the packages with factory seals; and sends them on their way, thereby ensuring that the agency will have clandestine access to all information that passes through them.
Other documents describe X-KEYSCORE, the NSA’s most powerful tool, which, as its name implies, enables the agency to track every keystroke on a computer, permitting the agency to monitor in real time all of a user’s e-mail, social-media and Web-browsing activity. In a single month in 2012, X-KEYSCORE collected 41 billion records for one NSA unit. Greenwald contends that this is the program Snowden was referring to when he said that, with an e-mail address, he could tap into any American’s communications. (The NSA has accused Snowden of exaggerating, but the documents suggest that he may be right.)
Some of Greenwald’s most disturbing disclosures concern not the NSA but its British counterpart, the Government Communications Headquarters (GCHQ). His documents reveal that the GCHQ engages in “online covert action” against loosely defined “hacktivists” designed to disrupt, degrade and discredit their online presence. Taking a page from COINTELPRO, the FBI’s 1960s campaign against U.S. radicals, the GCHQ’s tactics include luring targets to sexually compromising Web sites, posting false blogs and launching other “info ops to damage reputations.”
Other revelations are less surprising, although Greenwald tends to deliver them as if they were all equally scandalous. He reports, for example, that the NSA cooperates with other countries’ spy agencies, even as they spy on us and we on them. Is anyone other than Greenwald “shocked, shocked” by this news? He notes that the NSA collects data not only for counterterrorism purposes but for economic and diplomatic advantage. Again, did anyone think otherwise? Since 1978, the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act has expressly authorized the collection of “foreign intelligence information,” defined to include any information about a foreign power or territory that “relates to . . . the conduct of the foreign affairs of the United States.” Surely oil supplies and trade negotiations are as relevant to our foreign affairs as terrorism is. And it hardly follows that, as Greenwald claims, “stopping terror is clearly a pretext” for the NSA.
Some disclosures raise more questions about Greenwald’s judgment than about the NSA’s activities. One document, for example, identifies the specific methods used to bug 24 named foreign embassies. The document reveals top-secret methods and targets, and its disclosure is likely to undermine legitimate intelligence-gathering and cause serious diplomatic problems. Yet it is difficult to see what possible value it adds to the public debate. It is one thing to disclose secret government practices that raise serious moral, political and constitutional concerns — as many of Snowden’s disclosures have done. But bugging foreign embassies is at the core of foreign intelligence, and there is nothing illegal or particularly surprising about the fact that we do it.
Greenwald does not always recognize the difference between justified and unjustified disclosures. And that’s too bad, as Snowden placed his trust in Greenwald to make such calls.
Greenwald’s descriptions of NSA programs can also be misleading. He never mentions, for example, that there are significant “back-end” limits on how the agency can search and use much of the data it collects. These limitations constitute the core of the NSA’s defenses of its programs. While I don’t find those defenses entirely convincing, a serious effort to grapple with the issue would not simply ignore them.
The force of Greenwald’s argument is sometimes undermined by his hyperbolic style and more-radical-than-thou attitude. He depicts the NSA, for example, as part of a grand scheme by elites to control the masses, of a piece with what he sees as “the response to the Occupy movement . . . to crush it with force, through tear gas, pepper spray, and prosecution.” Really? Maybe I’m imagining things, but I recall seeing Occupy demonstrations for months on end throughout the country, including in the nation’s capital.
And he asserts that “both the United States and the United Kingdom have made clear that there are no limits — ethical, legal, or political — that they will observe when they claim to be acting in the name of ‘terrorism.’ ” Has he read the substantial debates in Britain over preventive detention, control orders, complicity in torture and the like? Has he seen the Obama administration’s brief to the U.S. Court of Appeals for the D.C. Circuit insisting that the laws of war must limit detention authority at Guantanamo and urging the court to reverse a statement to the contrary? Or President Obama’s orders barring the use of enhanced interrogation techniques? Such overstatement weakens Greenwald’s credibility, which is unfortunate, because much of what he has to say is extremely valuable.
Part of the problem is that Greenwald sees the world in black and white. As he puts it, “There are, broadly speaking, two choices: obedience to institutional authority or radical dissent from it.” For him there is apparently nothing in between. Anyone who does not share his radical dissent is, therefore, a tool for the political elite. When the New Yorker’s Hendrik Hertzberg and The Washington Post’s Ruth Marcus question the significance of metadata collection, Greenwald concludes that “journalists who devote their careers to venerating the country’s most powerful official — the president . . . and defending his political party rarely, if ever, risk alienating those in power.” I, too, think Hertzberg and Marcus fail to adequately appreciate the dangers of metadata collection, but one need only read a random sample of their hard-hitting columns to see that they are hardly averse to alienating those in power.
Similarly, Greenwald blasts the “establishment media” for consulting with the government about disclosing secret information and accuses them of wanting only to make the government look good. But then how does one explain the disclosures of the Pentagon Papers, Watergate, Abu Ghraib, the CIA’s black sites and torture program, renditions to torture, the NSA’s warrantless wiretapping, the New York Police Department’s spying on Muslims and the drone program? Most of what we know about the government’s most troubling national security measures comes from what Greenwald dismisses as “the establishment media.”
This is an important and illuminating book. It would have been more important and illuminating were Greenwald able to acknowledge that the choices we face about regulating surveillance in the modern age are difficult and that there are no simple answers. (He notably suggests virtually nothing in the way of positive reforms, sticking instead to criticism.)
Snowden handed Greenwald the story of a lifetime. NSA coverage based on the leaked material resulted in The Washington Post and the Guardian winning Pulitzer Prizes for public service this year. Greenwald has done the world a service by helping to explain the significance of the disclosures for everyone’s privacy. He has helped spark a much-needed national and worldwide debate about how to preserve privacy when we do so much online, and when the NSA and others have the technological means to track virtually all we do there. But his book would have been more persuasive had he confronted what is difficult about the issue and not simply been satisfied with lobbing grenades at all who are less radical than he is.
Cole is the Hon. George Mitchell professor in law and public policy at Georgetown University Law Center and is the legal affairs correspondent for the Nation.