Laura Poitras’ new documentary about mega-leaker Edward Snowden, “Citizenfour,” makes no pretense at being evenhanded. It’s a polemic against the National Security Agency’s effort to spy on people in the United States and around the world — innocent, guilty, or simply suspect — all in the name of national security.
Snowden, a former government contractor who famously stole and delivered information to the press about the NSA’s spying efforts, is portrayed as an intellectually thoughtful hero (albeit young and often naïve).
Poitras shot her documentary in a grainy, verite style and it has the pace and feel of a John le Carre novel. That’s because Poitras wants us to believe that the real life story of U.S. mass surveillance is as incredible and gripping as a well- told thriller. The twist, of course, is that the tale is true. Thus, the outrage.
Like so much of le Carre’s work, Poitras’ film doesn’t have a tidy or satisfying conclusion. The ostensible good guys in her story — Snowden and, later on, the journalists who help him get his message out — are left in limbo. Snowden still lives in exile in Russia, and Poitras herself is unwilling for a time to return to the United States because of concerns about her own freedom. Snowden, Poitras and others continue to fight, despite the odds that the bad guys in “Citizenfour” — national security authorities and espionage agencies — will prevail because the system that would otherwise hold them in check has been seriously compromised.
If you don’t agree with Poitras’ politics and point of view in “Citizenfour,” you’re not alone. Michael Cohen at the Daily Beast is (rightfully) concerned that she and fellow reporter Glenn Greenwald work from the assumption that the government’s actions have black and white parameters, and thus mine the Snowden data to support that story. (Of course, Poitras has been spied on, and she says that she was followed while working in Hong Kong, so for her the politics are also deeply personal.)
“Citizenfour” leaves little room for a more nuanced look that takes into account the reality that countries around the world are using cyber espionage (and increasingly cyber warfare) to wage an unseen and seemingly never-ending war.
Concerns like Cohen’s, however valid, don’t make Poitras’ film any less significant. “Citizenfour” may spark the same kind of outrage about the surveillance state that Matt Taibbi’s Rolling Stone article about (the “vampire squid”) Goldman Sachs and Michael Lewis’ book about the mortgage market, “The Big Short,” sparked about the financial crisis several years ago. Lots of solid, nuanced and hard-won reporting from other media surrounded the financial meltdown — and Taibbi and Lewis’ work relied on all of that reporting. But Taibbi and Lewis used rhetorical, narrative power to define the financial crisis in ways that gave the event meaning and clarity for a broader audience.
Poitras’ documentary is considered a likely Oscar winner by some observers and while nothing has arisen proving that the NSA has used data it has collected to harm innocent citizens, the threats created by unfettered data collection are what animate “Citizenfour.”
By Snowden’s reckoning, a huge database that can be used to monitor our communiqués is potentially a “weapon of oppression.” Even some of Snowden and Poitras’ critics largely agree that this threat to our privacy and freedoms should be taken seriously.
The roots of this issue run deep and extend, of course, well beyond the NSA. Concerns about online privacy ramped up in the late ‘90s as the Internet’s popularity and accessibility boomed, and heightened further when we began voluntarily ceding ever greater quantities of our personal data to telco and data giants such as Verizon, Facebook, Google and Apple.
The initial bargain — our data fed to advertisers in exchange for the ability to live online lives — has in some ways been a Faustian one. We voluntarily made surveillance easier and made it a key part of the Internet’s business model, conditioning ourselves to become more comfortable with that reality along the way. The NSA’s desire to use the intimacy and reach of the Internet to monitor our communications more aggressively in the wake of the 9/11 attacks is of a fit with all of this. The revelations in the million or so documents that Snowden released have shown how effectively the government has pursued its goals. We now seem ill equipped to know exactly how to respond to that.
“Citizenfour” is useful, in that it may help some of us define our feelings and judgments about government surveillance. It’s also a problematic work, in that effective narrative (whether in the hands of a Poitras or a Taibbi) can elevate emotional truths at the expense of nuance and complexity.
Even if the government’s “weapon of oppression” has yet to harm any innocents, the NSA has tried to obfuscate the true reach of its surveillance programs and, according to “Citizenfour,” may have lied to Congress when asked about those practices. (Clips of former NSA director General Keith Alexander testifying before Congress provide some of the film’s most infuriating moments.)
The rationale for the NSA’s covert, sweeping approach is a mystery. The White House has acknowledged that most of the bulk phone records collected covertly by the NSA “could readily have been obtained in a timely manner using conventional . . . orders.”
And the very promise of mass data collection — that we can draw conclusions from links between data sets — goes only so far. As Poitras reminds “Citizenfour’s” audience, such so-called metadata always tells a story, but that story’s not always true, so establishing its value requires an appreciation of context and other factors.
But, as I noted above, the espionage game is global, and every country is playing it. The U.S. has to be in that game, which “Citizenfour” doesn’t acknowledge at all. Establishing that reality might allow for a more sophisticated analysis of how we want our own spy agencies to act.
Snowden seems to have an appreciation for some of these dynamics and he’s a fascinating character, but we never come to fully understand him. Poitras has more access to his thoughts and actions than almost any other journalist, but her picture of his motives remains incomplete. He wants to be known as the source of the NSA leaks, while also claiming that he doesn’t want to become the focus of the story once his identity is revealed. Even the most casual observer knows that both of those things can’t co-exist.
Snowden never gives a fully satisfying reason for why he was so adamant about taking credit for the leaks. He was only 29 when he came forward, and he’s of a generation that likes to talk about the importance of transparency. Visibility will mean that there are no secrets, Snowden says, without, apparently, hearing echoes of the NSA’s defenders in his statement - or without realizing that a world entirely without secrets may be unappealing.
Even so, it’s now impossible to ignore “Citizenfour’s” most important question: What happens when, as Snowden puts it, the “people’s ability to meaningfully oppose” the government’s willingness to take advantage of our newly connected world is secretly taken away? Or as Jacob Appelbaum, a security researcher who helped develop the anonymous Internet network Tor, also says in the film. “What we used to call liberty and freedom we now call privacy. And now people are saying privacy is dead.”
Katie Benner is a Bloomberg View columnist who writes about technology, innovation, and the cult and culture of Silicon Valley.
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