By GAETANA CALDWELL-SMITH
It is chilling to know for a fact that since 9/11/2001, the U.S National Security Agency, NSA, has been tracking phone calls from ATT and Verizon, and also bank activity, internet searches, and all social media sites used by every person in America. It also tracks our credit card purchases—on the internet or from brick and mortar stores. This information was revealed by Edward Snowden to filmmaker, documentarian Laura Poitras and journalist Glenn Greenwald at a clandestine meeting in a Hong Kong hotel room over a period of eight days in May 2013. How Greenwald was going to write it up is a huge part of Laura Poitras’s important and shocking documentary film, “Citizen Four.”
Snowden was a young contract employee for the consulting firm Booze Allen Hamilton in their Hawaii offices. They lent his services to the NSA as a systems administrator/consultant. Snowden at first thought it was important to look for data disclosing terrorist plots from militant groups like al-Queda. But soon, while advising superiors at the NSA on methods of developing security systems against hackers, he discovered files on its domestic spying activities against U.S. citizens.
Subsequently, Snowden downloaded into his computer many thousands of implicating files. (He had unlimited access and the highest security clearance because of his expertise.) Then, knowing of Poitras’ revelatory documentary films, specifically one about whistleblower William Binney, he began e-mailing her using the code name Citizen Four, and hinting at what he had in his possession.
Snowden also came to know Poitras from an article written about her by the British Guardian’s investigative journalist Glenn Greenwald, in which she said to him that she was a “government target.” Snowden had previously tried to interest Greenwald, but Greenwald never followed through since he felt Snowden’s method of encrypting e-mail too annoying. But he changed his mind after Snowden connected with Poitras.
Writer Barton Gellman, then a journalist at the Washington Post, became involved in May 2013, when the Post declined to “guarantee publication within 72 hours of all the Power Point slides that Snowden had leaked exposing the PRISM electronic data mining program [which searched Google and Yahoo] and would eventually lead to a code allowing Snowden to later prove that he was the source.”
In the film Snowden tells Poitras that he knew the wiretapping was wrong and unconstitutional—an infringement on individual privacy. He wanted this to be known publicly, but realized that how to do it would be tricky. He has said that he abides by the U.S. Constitution’s Fourth and Fifth Amendments: “I have no intention of hiding who I am because I know I have done nothing wrong.” He also discovered that U.S. intelligence’s MUSCULAR system tapped into the undersea cable.
Poitras’s film opens with a black screen with Snowden’s keystrokes appearing as though he’s typing his queries to her in real time. Her answers appear below his messages in the same way. After confirming his identity and involving Greenwald, the three agree to meet at a secure location in a Hong Kong hotel, in May 2013.
The film was shot almost entirely in Snowden’s small, no-frills room, where everything is white: the bedding, walls, carpets, and window covering. So it was a color shock when Snowden covered his head and laptop with a red cowl (he works propped up on his bed) so the camera couldn’t capture his keystrokes.
Scenes of the Hong Kong skyline and other outdoor sites give the audience a break from the room’s claustrophobic atmosphere. At one point, the fire alarm goes off. Paranoid, the three suspect that they’re being monitored. The alarm sounds off-and-on three or four times. They conclude that it’s a test and call the front desk to confirm that this is the case. It is, and only then do they relax.
Snowden explains and demonstrates on his laptop how he accessed the information, much of which is conveyed using tech-talk. To one unfamiliar with the jargon, it is extremely difficult to follow, let alone understand. At one point, Snowden insists that Poitras’s film not be about him but what his files reveal about the NSA secret, domestic and international (in cahoots with the UK) spying activities. For example, his files reveal that the NSA had spied on Germany’s Angela Merkel since 2002.
Poitras includes film footage of the courtroom scene in the Ninth Circuit Court in San Francisco when ATT was sued for spying on its customers’ phone calls (discovered by an ATT employee.) The people won the suit. She also includes footage of former Director of National Intelligence James Clapper’s testimony before the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence, in which he denied that NSA collects data on millions or hundreds of millions of Americans. When pressed, Clapper added: “Not wittingly, there are cases where they could inadvertently, perhaps, collect, but not wittingly.”
Poitras shows a clip of Wikileaks founder Julian Assange trying to arrange asylum for Snowden in various countries after threats surfaced from the U.S. government to Snowden’s life and liberty should he return voluntarily. However, the U.S. revoked his passport.
Edward Snowden ended up in Moscow after spending close to three months in limbo in the Moscow airport. He was first granted a one-year stay, which was then renewed for three years. There, in January 2014, he was asked during an interview why he decided to blow the whistle. Snowden replied: “Sort of the breaking point was seeing Clapper directly lie under oath to Congress … that really meant for me there was no going back.”
By his own words, backed up by extensive research, Snowden has not released his appropriated files by transfer or USB flash drives to any foreign governments. He wanted only that the public be made aware of the matter through the media, reportage, and publication of the files.
One critic has asked that if Snowden is willing to accept the consequences of his actions, i.e., jail time, why is he hiding out in Moscow? When you have members of the U.S. Congress labeling him a traitor, and Senator Diane Feinstein all but calling for his head, does he or anyone believe he will get a fair trial? And notable government figures as disparate as Ron Paul and Bernie Sanders, plus the editorial boards of the Washington Post and the Guardian, wonder why the NSA is not on trial for the illegal wiretapping that Snowden has proven in spades.
When the film ended, we in the audience erupted with applause. Someone shouted, “We are all on the list.” Another said, “Okay, so now what do we do?” As the credits rolled and the lights came up, a voice was heard to say, “Revolution!” If we weren’t on the list before, we certainly are now.