When reaching out to journalists prior to leaving the NSA along with gigabytes of secret documentation, Edward Snowden signed off his emails as ‘CitizenFour’. It’s also the name chosen by Laura Poitras for the third film in her post-9/11 surveillance trilogy.
We are building the greatest weapon for oppression in the history of man, yet [NSA] directors exempt themselves from accountability. NSA director Keith Alexander lied to congress, which I can prove.
Poitras and Glenn Greenwald travelled out to Hong Kong to meet Edward Snowden and start unpacking the stories he wanted to reveal. Snowden comes across a level-headed IT professional with very realistic expectations about how his decision would affect and limit his future life. He’s dressed smartly, with clean fingernails, and had planned ahead for his first encounter with Poitras telling her to approach the man outside the hotel restaurant playing with a Rubik’s cube.
I’m more willing to risk imprisonment … than I am the curtailment of my intellectual freedom and those around me.
With a camera set up in the corner of the fugitive’s hotel room, the footage is raw and shows a calm and patient Snowden explaining the context and significance of the material he had stolen to the journalists who are still grasping around to figure out how best to report the stories they have been entrusted with. Highly articulate and speaking without hesitation, Snowden was driven by the need for the scale of US surveillance to be shared with the public, and for the reporting not be dominated by human interest in him: “I’m not the story here”.
Just shy of two hours long, CitizenFour is unrushed and continuously showed Snowden being very hands off, leaving decisions on what and how to report the material to the journalists he had befriended to avoid his own “bias”. He didn’t seek any protection as a source, suggesting that they “paint the target on my back” if necessary to ensure that his innocent colleagues and associates did not come under suspicion.
There’s a funny moment when a new face arrived in Snowden’s room. Guardian reporter Ewen MacAskill had been sent over to Hong Kong to cover the story. A few minutes into the conversation MacAskill stops and asks “What’s your name?” Such was the secrecy around the Snowden revelations that he’d travelled thousands of miles with no background on the subject or story.
The film also shows Snowden counselling the journalists on how to keep the material safe when they leave him. Soon after disappearing under a sheet to type in a long password, Snowden and the reporters present, are troubled when the hotel fire alarm sounds.
At the point in the film that GCHQ’s TEMPORA project was first mentioned and explained, there was an audible intake of breath around the QFT audience as people in the audience grasped the scale of the full-content scanning involved.
Little by little, the two newspapers involved reported different aspects of the story, eventually revealing Edward Snowden’s identity to the world and releasing video footage of an interview. At that point the film veered towards Gogglebox as we watched the subject move around his small hotel room, shaving and doing his emails while listening to American and BBC World news reports about him and his disclosures. The irony setting was cranked up to full as we listened to Piers Morgan on CNN asking about the US Government breaching citizens’ privacy at the same time so many questions remain unanswered about UK press voicemail tapping.
The Hong Kong footage is interspersed with testimony from former NSA technical director William Binney, material from US court cases, senior NSA staff answering questions from US politicians, and dialogue between Berlin-based Poitras and Greenwald in Rio after they had to cut ties with Snowden. Appropriately – given the subjects discussed – a copy of Cory Doctorow’s novel Homeland lies on Snowden’s bed as he packs his bags to leave the hotel.
When fleeing from Hawaii to Hong Kong, Snowden left his vacationing girlfriend a note to say he was away with work. During the film we see that they are still in touch electronically. In the week the revelations start to be published in the Washington Post and Guardian newspapers, Snowden discovers that his bank account is no longer paying their rent and construction trucks are all over his street. “I wonder what they’re looking for?” he quips.
He leaves Hong Kong with the assistance of Wikileaks and Julian Assange, and after spending forty days in Moscow Sheremetyevo Airport’s transit area, Snowden is granted a one year visa (now extended by a further three years) to stay in Russia. Having been prepared to lose contact with family and friends, it’s moving to watch one scene near the end, shot at night outside a house. Through the window we can see Snowden inside cooking dinner with his girlfriend Lindsay Mills (who can enter Russia on a tourist visa).
Edward Snowden knowingly went to great lengths to collect information and was purposeful in its disclosure. Some call him a whistleblower, exposing government lies and abuses; others see him as a terrorist, disloyal to his country. No matter your opinion, it is clear that his actions have opened up a debate. (Though the lack of political comment in Dublin after it was revealed UK’s GCHQ taps undersea cables coming in and out of Ireland suggests that water charging is more shocking than international espionage.)
As the film ends, it is clear that Snowden won’t be the last to share information with journalists about government actions. In a bizarre scene that is half spoken and half scribbled on paper, Greenwald and Snowden are reunited in Moscow and it is clear that the next whistleblower is already in play.
Over the last eighteen months I’ve been relatively unsurprised at the ‘Snowden’ revelations that governments are snooping so heavily on each other’s citizens. Maybe twenty years in the IT industry working for a telco has worn me down, but the technical complexity has clearly been within the grasp of well-funded intelligence organisations for many years, even if the ethical and oversight frameworks have lagged behind.
Laura Poitras’ film CitizenFour succeeds in humanising the whistleblower and avoids over-dramatisation, leaving the secrets he was blabbing to speak for themselves. Local audiences may leave the QFT asking questions about the level of surveillance in Northern Ireland over the last thirty or forty years, and the lack of any local accountability for regional operations by the MI5 base inside Holywood’s Palace Barracks.
CitizenFour is a film well worth seeing. Queen’s Film Theatre’s second screen was full last night for the film’s first screening in Northern Ireland at the close of the Human Rights Festival. You can catch CitizenFour again on Monday night (15 December) at 6.30pm. Some tickets are still available. (Channel 4 have bought the UK television rights but have not announced a date for broadcast.)