A Hero of Our Time
AMY GOODMAN: But why did he choose “Citizen Four”? What does it mean?
LAURA POITRAS: Yeah, yeah, that’s a good question. Actually, I made a trip to Moscow not that long ago, where I filmed part of the end of the film where he’s with his longtime partner Lindsay Mills. And I asked him, you know, because I didn’t actually ever know what it was, and he said, “Well, I’m not the first person who’s going to come forward and reveal information that the public should know, and I won’t be the last.” And so, that’s where it comes from.
This brief exchange between prominent left wing activist Amy Goodman and Laura Poitras unwittingly reveals a great deal about her film portrait of Edward Snowden. This government computer systems administrator is responsible for the single greatest leak of American Security secrets which he copied and gave to media outlets. Ms. Poitras, the film’s director, has a background documenting the fault lines of contemporary American life. She has examined race relations, LGBT acceptance, foreign policy blunders and the never ending civil liberties encroachments by an anxious post-911 US government. She is an obvious choice for a documentary about the most polarizing government employee since Alger Hiss. Ironically she was chosen… by Snowden himself. The film opens with a mysterious Citizenfour, later revealed to be Edward, connecting to her via coded email. He explains he is an insider who possesses reams of secret government information on nefarious spy programs. The narrative continues and another established civil liberties reporter, Glen Greenwald is also selected by Snowden to be a conduit for exposing the horrors of the US government’s reach into EVERYONE’S private lives. Poitras and Greenwald know this material is literally earth shattering. It can shake nation-state alliances in addition to the security of world leaders. They also know that it can burnish the reputations of the messengers. This type of scoop provides a ticket to the pantheon of Woodard and Bernstein journalist/heroes. The problem lies in that Snowden is aware that his status as keeper of the ring of knowledge inoculates him from serious scrutiny by the dynamic duo of righteous truth. The degree to which the filmmaker and the reporter fail to probe their golden goose is startling. Equally shocking is Snowden’s evidence of the US Government’s scorn for civil liberties. It is no wonder then that the filmmaker never bothers to reveal the origin of Snowden’s nom de guerre in the movie. Even more startling is Poitras’ off screen admission that she failed to raise the question until near the end of the film’s production, “I didn’t actually know what it was”.
This much is known and displayed in the film, high ranking US government officials publicly lied to Congress and hoodwinked the American public in regards to eavesdropping on everyone’s phone calls, internet usage and email. We can acknowledge that Mr. Snowden revealed a complete upending of our accepted notions of due process and rule of law. “Citizenfour” does an excellent job of excerpting the relevant Congressional Testimony and Court Cases. Certainly one of the highlights is a lawyer for the Justice Department casually explaining to a sitting Federal Judge that the Judiciary needs to step aside and relinquish their responsibilities so the National Security Agency can engage in whatever it deems necessary to protect the country. Unfortunately the startling revelations completely obscure an issue of central importance: who is Edward Snowden?
Snowden plays at being a simple man interested in“the people’s” best interest. Unfortunately his actions show narcissism. We meet our anti-hero in a hotel room in Hong Kong where, after feats of computer masking, he manages to arrange a face to face meeting with the filmmaker and two reporters, Greenwald and his fellow Guardian writer Ewen MacAskill. Once again Snowden is firmly in the driver’s seat. Hong Kong is an interesting choice as a place for a clandestine rendez-vous. The explanation given is that there is a haziness regarding legal jurisdiction and semi-autonomous Chinese Province would provide Snowden with sanctuary. It is also true, however, that Greenwald has a deep connection to Brazil, a country known for a reluctance to extradite foreign nationals. Britain spent decades trying to secure the capture of a noted multi-million dollar armed robber, Ronnie Biggs, to no avail. Greenwald has a Brazilian partner and, as shown in his testimony before the Brazilian Congress, speaks perfect Portuguese. It turns out that Snowden had a great deal of information regarding the NSA’s insatiable interest in private Brazilian emails and internet use, including members of the Government. Judging by their horrified looks at the hearing one would have thought securing asylum would be a given. In fact one wonders if they wouldn’t have offered him citizenship. Perhaps this wasn’t feasible due to Brazil’s not wanting to offend the U.S….. but why not Venezuela, a bastion of anti-US fervor? Or maybe Ecuador? This country has chosen to thumb their nose at Europe and America by hosting wiki-leaks founder Julian Assange in their embassy in London. The notion that the rule of law might somehow prevent the Chinese, who control Hong Kong, from seizing Snowden is odd. One might want to quiz the recent pro-Democracy protesters about Chinese deference to rule of law. It wouldn’t be possible to ask their spiritual progenitors from Tiananmen Square as they were all brained to death. Perhaps Hong Kong was a clever choice but not for the reasons given in this film. There is zero discussion of Snowden’s choice. This is the Edward Snowden show and he is in control of the interview.
The bulk of the film takes place in charmless upscale Hong Kong hotel room which overlooks a even more dreary array of glass box skyscrapers. Snowden himself blends in with the scenery. He sits on his bed with a couple of days of beard stubble banging away on a laptop. He has the appearance of a graduate student pulling all-nighters to finish a project but without any real nervousness about its completion. The calmness stems from the fact that he is clearly the boss, at least in this setting. He seems very pleased by the attention and smiles as the reporters hang on his every word regarding the scope of NSA’s ability to watch and snoop. He points to the phone and says they can hear you regardless of whether it’s hung up. He lectures them on the importance constantly changing one’s computer and phone cards. Oddly this fear of the boundless power of the NSA seems to be restricted to electronic devices. Snowden spends a great deal of time staring out a large hotel window making him a literal target. It’s difficult to understand as he is in the process of betraying the US’s most guarded spy secrets. It speaks to hubris. Maybe he’s not as clever as he believes. The choice of Citizenfour as a moniker shows this wiz kid’s lack of imagination. He might have taken Pussy Riots cue and thought of Citizensixtynine as a way of sending an irreverent message, or even better, a nod to Joe Heller - Citizentwentytwo. It is a tribute to Poitras’ skill as a filmmaker that the movie is watchable. The driving force, however, is the magnitude of his revelations rather than the man himself.
Snowden ducks personal questions by saying that he finds it troubling that so much of the media is focused on personalities rather than “real” stories. The anti-hero wants the message to be delivered without clouding the issues with his own superfluous story. Then why not take the approach of “Deep Throat” and be completely anonymous? Certainly the reporters and the filmmaker would have been on board as they willingly acquiesce to all other demands. This issue is never addressed although Poitras gives hints that Snowden is vain. Not since John Edwards was caught on camera preening his hairdo have audiences witnessed such an over the top male grooming ritual. When the cat is out of the bag and our hero must face the world - he’s takes a long break in front of the mirror in the hotel room. There is an earlier scene when, after a few hours of taping he realizes he has bed head and retreats to fetch a comb and water. The clash between not wanting to be part of the story and being overly concerned about his physical appearance is nonsensical. His vanity, however, is surpassed by the odd leaps of logic when he justifies his actions.
Snowden alleges that he is a martyr for the cause of securing civil liberties. He wants his selfless actions to be a springboard of conversation about the need to reign in the NSA. He knows he must pay a price but it’s worth it, as leaking this classified information is the only road to overthrowing our morally bankrupt leadership. He is the Martin Luther King Jr. of civil liberties rather than civil rights. Dr. King wrote his letter from a Birmingham Jail and cheated death many times before finally facing the assassin’s bullet. Snowden records his interview in an upscale hotel with room service and hair gel. Where is his touted sacrifice? He ends the film re-united with his blond girlfriend making salad and drinking wine in a yuppie Moscow apartment. The filmmaker and reporters seem oblivious to the cushiness of his march to Selma. Snowden makes it very very clear he is not returning to the United States. This Dr. King is dismayed that those police dogs bite and the guns are real. There is a long scene in which a group of established international lawyers fly to Moscow and meet the besieged freedom fighter who is marooned in the Moscow airport. Those bastards at foggy bottom have canceled his passport and Mr. Putin refuses him formal entry to mother Russia. The legal eagles explain the impossibility of his return to the homeland. The Justice department is charging him with an obscure WW I law which makes his actions indefensible. In other words if he returns he will face certain conviction. This seems to come as a surprise to Snowden which begs a number of questions. If exposing the hypocrisy of the legal framework of a corrupt system is the point of his actions then how would a public trial hinder the cause? Shouldn’t this be the centerpiece of a master plan to expose the injustice. Rosa Parks never said “I don’t want to sit in the white section cause I’ll get arrested and end up in jail”. Then again Rosa Parks was a real hero. Mr. Snowden is something else.
There can be no doubt that Mr. Snowden’s most publicly overt crime is giving President Putin the ability to play the role of a magnanimous statesman. The Russian leader extends a visa to our self-less civil libertarian. Putin also gives the girlfriend permission for a conjugal visit. Once again the apartment and the food looked better than Robben Island. Prior to the closing sequence, in which the re-united couple seem as they are expecting to be joined by the cast of Friends, there is a sequence in which Greenwald and Snowden meet in Moscow. Greenwald is inappropriately boisterous and triumphant. He jokes around with Snowden in a nicely furnished room with St. Basil’s Cathedral visible out the window. Greenwald carefully feeds Snowdown pieces of paper gleefully indicating which reporters are running with various explosive stories which sprung from Snowden’s trove of secrets. It is too dangerous to speak this information out loud - not sure if they fear the Europeans or the Americans. They do not appear to be bothered by the Russians. Greenwald fervently writes thing down and allows Snowden to read. Our anti-hero, repeats the off-key emotional reactions exhibited in Hong Kong. He is forcibly giddy at the revelation that Obama is ordering drone strikes on the Middle East through bases in Germany. Poitras focuses her lens on the bits of paper which Greenwald has torn up… just enough. The conceit is that they must be careful about revealing that they know of this secret war lest Washington or Berlin seek retribution before the public is informed via the news sources. Fair enough. But why no questions about our anti-heroes present circumstance? Is Putin shielding Snowden simply to spite the West or is it something else? What are specifics of his journey to Moscow? In April 2014 Snowden appeared at a news conference and queried Putin about domestic spying in Russia. (Note: the English transcript of the exchange is taken from the simultaneous translation provided by the Russian news channel)
SNOWDEN: “I’ve seen little public discussion about Russia’s policies on mass surveillance so I’d like to ask you: does Russia intercept, store, or analyze, in any way, the communications of millions of individuals? And do you believe that simply increasing the effectiveness of intelligence or law enforcement can justify placing societies, rather than subjects, under surveillance?”
PUTIN: “Mr. Snowden, you are a former agent — a spy — I used to be working for an intelligence service, we are going to talk one professional language…First of all our intelligence efforts are strictly regulated by our law so how special forces can use this kind of special equipment… they have to get a court permission to stalk a particular person. We don’t have a mass system of such interception. Of course we know that criminals and terrorists use technology for their criminal acts, and of course special services have to use technical means to respond to their crimes, including those of terrorist natures; of course we do some efforts like that, but we do not have a mass scale, uncontrollable efforts like that. I hope we don’t do that, and we don’t have as much money as they have in the States, and we don’t have these technical devices that they do in the States… Our Special (security) services, thank God, are under strictly controlled by the society and the law and regulated by the law.
Snowden’s response to Putin’s answer goes un-recorded but our anti-hero’s willingness to participate in Putin’s propaganda blitz is duly noted. To be fair this exchange might have occurred after “Citizenfour” was completed and therefore would be impossible to integrate with the material. However this cannot excuse the film’s lack of probing of Snowden’s relationship with this anti-Western strong man and begs questions regarding Snowden’s motivations. Was this really about shining a light on the NSA upending the Constitution or did our anti-hero have another agenda? Mr. Putin rightly calls Snowden a former spy, a label that is never applied by Poitras, Greenwald or MacAskill. This is significant in that they accept Snowden’s account as being a private contractor who was appropriated by the NSA. There are numerous reports that he worked directly for the CIA and was stationed in Geneva prior to his stint as a high ranking computer analyst. Furthermore a cursory view of Snowden’s biography in Wikipedia reveals things that certainly would have helped to inform the “Citizenfour” narrative. It turns out his grandfather is a Coast Guard rear admiral who became a high ranking FBI official. His sister is a lawyer who works for the Federal Judicial Center, a government agency in charge supervising operations of the Federal Court system, where Snowden’s mother is an employee. Snowden states in an interview “Everyone in my family has worked for the Federal Government in one way or another, I expected to pursue the same path”. This family network might have something to do with his meteoric rise, especially considering his unimpressive academic credentials. Edward Snowden fails to possess a BA. In fact he never graduated highschool. He received a GED and had unfinished stints at a community college and an online masters degree program. What are we to make of Snowden’s knowledge of Japanese and Chinese? How does a peripatetic high school drop out end up, before the age of 30, as a high ranking system’s administrator for American’s most powerful security agency? Most importantly, why do the filmmaker and reporter refuse to pursue this line of inquiry?
Is Snowden merely an honest broker who was frustrated by government overreach or does his background speak to motivations rooted in something far more complicated? Perhaps those frequent window gazing trips speak to a sense of invisibility rooted in knowing his bases are covered. It is always difficult to judge the appropriateness of people’s actions while under stress. That said, Snowden’s verbal rumination on the plight of his girlfriend and family were off key in the same manner as his trips to the window. One doesn’t feel the deep loss of a significant other but rather the guilt of putting a loved one through a difficult time. He doesn’t appear genuinely sad. Was the reunion in Moscow inconceivable as he fretted with Greewald et al in the hotel in Hong Kong? There is one mention of the effects on his government employed family members. He will never be able to see them again. This might be a relief to some but the disingenuousness of his affect reveals someone merely speaking the words. It is neither happy or sad. It is the equivalent of his constant nervous giggling. At times he appeared to be a giddy boy in the midst of winning a really special video game. Perhaps the most startling omission is the absence of talk about the co-workers and people on the front lines. There is no discussion about whether his actions injured loyal American agents or their allies. It is bad that Poitras et al never asked the question but even more disturbing is the notion that Snowden never considered it.
Poitris wants to represent Snowden as civic minded and without ulterior concerns. In order to safeguard his sanctity all queries about his personal life and his motives are verboten. Unfortunately the facts fail to support the hagiography. We can be grateful to Snowden for sparking this conversation in the way that Joseph Vallichi’s revelations gave birth to the public understanding of the mob. This gangster’s testimony gave birth to the term “costa nostra” and gave mainstream America an vivid understanding of the threat of organized crime. Vallichi and Snowden were integral to their organizations. Being expert tour guides in a sausage factory is not the same thing as being being a honest citizen.
Governments, especially liberal democracies, are uncomfortable with publicly acknowledging the actions of clandestine security services. These agencies rely on violence, lying, cheating, stealing, eavesdropping and committing murder while avoiding the judiciary at all costs. This is the price countries pay for being credible nation states. This unseemly activity is placed under the harmless moniker of “statecraft”. What are the limits of safeguarding our perceived national interests? Congress attempted to address the issue the NSA collection of bulk data with The USA Freedom Act of 2014. It passed in the House but failed in the Senate. Any bill that is supported by both Sen. Ted Cruz and Sen. Bernie Sanders and opposed by Sen. Mark Rubio and Rep. Peter Welch shows a broad degree of opinion about what are acceptable practices. Not everyone in the US Government shares Vice President Cheney’s view that security requirements supersede due process. In addition no one in the US Government sees abandoning the dark side spying, whether against friends or enemies. This film never plumbs the depths of the argument. It presents straw men to be ridiculed or honored with the appropriate approbation or praise. Snowden is a good selfless man who risked a great deal to bring the awful truth to a somnolent American public. The Obama administration is mired in the poisonous anti-terror paranoia of the post-911 era. Congress is feckless in safeguarding our liberties.