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Sunday, November 2, 2014
Laura Poitras | Citizenfour
the rulers and the ruled
Laura Poitras Citizenfour / 2014
Certainly it was appropriate, if not intentional, that my friend Pablo and I saw Laura Poitras’ documentary, Citizenfour—a film about the dramatic behind the scenes moments of the earliest revelations of the US National Security Agency surveillance by Edward Snowden—on Halloween. For this film has to rank as one of the scariest scenarios ever depicted on film.
Despite the statements of numerous reviewers such as Ty Burr, who suggested in the Boston Globe, that no matter what your point a view, this is a film everyone should see, few people seem to be rushing to the theaters to see it—at least from the evidence of the small audience with whom we shared the experience and my nearly 3,000 silent (about this issue) friends on Facebook. I am worried, just as the original reports published in major newspapers and magazines such as The Guardian, The Washington Post, The New York Times, The New Yorker, Der Spiegel, etc.—which I detailed in My Year 2013: Murderers and Angels—that Snowden’s reports about the vast network of gathering of our personal information did not severely trouble the majority of Americans or even the populations of other countries. Perhaps the fact that government spokesmen continue to insist that their kind of “meta-gathering” can only expose an individual in detail if the authorities specific suspect terrorist acts, lulled most citizens into feeling they were somehow exempt from any meaningful surveillance.
From the very beginning, Poitras’ movie attempts to make clear just how mistaken is that view. First of all, as Snowden and others have made clear, the so-called security committee who must give permission for any authority seeking in-depth information about individuals, has seldom, if ever, turned down such a request. More importantly, however, is the mistaken idea that this vast meta-information (that superficially details no names or specific conversations) is of no concern to the common, law-abiding individual. For what determines who is of “interest” is established through almost never-ending series of inter-linking rings. For a moment, before I even get to the movie, let me take a moment to attempt to demonstrate—and this using only a very small amount of real information already collected—using myself as example.
Having already stored away all my e-mails and the names of those who have received those e-mails and the names of those who have sent me e-mails; having already swept up the vast troves of information I have written on my six blogs (each with hundreds of essays on film, theater, fiction, poetry, travel experiences and other events); having gotten hold of my current (as of today) 2,655 friends, most of whom I do not actually know, but with who am only too happy to share information about my publishing activities, and the reviews and commentaries I weekly create; knowing every credit card purchase I have made since around 2001; having stored away every trip, within the US and abroad, I’ve made in the past 13 years; and squirreled away every name, place, and word I have called up on my computers—and these, frankly, are just the tip of the iceberg in which my meta-data has frozen me—having taken in all this “meta-data,” one or two elements need only trigger the suspicion that something is wrong.
Perhaps one or more of my international friends (the international ones even less protected from US and British investigation than even I am) suddenly shows up a list of suspected terrorists or himself is accidentally or purposely linked up to another who is suspected of terrorism, or whose brother has gone off to Syria to fight, etc.? Then I, too, would automatically link up to these others.
Let us say, as I actually did in researching for his essay, I googled the names of William Binney, J. Kirk Wiebe, or Edward Loomis—all former whistleblowers against the CIA, FBI, and NSA. And then, even more suspiciously to those overseeing the gigantic holdings of the NSA and the British GCHQ, I have been recorded as having looked up information on that traitor (described so by numerous public officials) Edward Snowden and, perhaps just as incriminatingly, the reporters who first leaked and continue to disseminate his “illegal” documents, Laura Poitras and Glenn Greenwald! Simultaneously, Washington, D.C., the city in which I lived for 16 years, suddenly shows up in the inter-locking links, as does the former Soviet Union, which I visited, with the ROVA Saxophone Quartet in 1989. I may even have an FBI file, having attended events at both the White House and the Vice-President’s Mansion and having visited then Vice-President Mondale at his D.C. home during his run for the Presidency. Or perhaps one of my numerous overseas customers to whom I sent books, has a friend, who has a friend…. And what about all those trips to Germany throughout the 1990s?
Finally, there are my own numerous writings, posted so availably on my blog cites, including the piece I wrote in 2013 assailing the activities of the NSA, CIA, and FBI surveillance—not to mention all the volumes of My Year I have published and distributed. Given the vast amount of coincidental information I just revealed—a pin in the real mountain of possibly incriminating information held in those meta-data files—, it may be that even some of my readers might suddenly imagine me guilty of something. The fact that—although I have often questioned the decisions of my country’s leaders—I think of myself as a loyal American citizen who has voted in every election since I came of age, hardly matters! I am possibly guilty—given the vast amount of interconnections I have with other possibly guilty beings— simply through association—and so too, I am sorry to report, might be all those 2,655 Facebook friends! We all become more or less guilty in today’s interconnected world. If Hollywood can convince us that each of us has only “six degrees of separation” from a celebrity, how can we not—unless we live as hermits—be inextricably inter-connected with men and women who appear on paper to have possible links with terrorists. In the vast trove of “meta-data” in which those links sit, the daily likelihood that either an NSA computer operator or a misled individual elsewhere in the government employ might find too many links in what we think is the armor of our personal privacy is almost inevitable. On this day after Halloween, I can only assure you that, like Vincent Price intoned before many a horror film, you should be scared, very scared of the what you’re about to see—a future which, it is now apparent, has already arrived.
Of course, many of you might well argue, that is just my—and a few other individuals’—paranoia. As Snowden hints, such paranoia in fact is the only protection against the loss of the liberties we still have. Once ensconced in his Hong Kong hotel room, Snowden quickly detaches a cord which might have permitted any from listening hear in through the telephone. When he changes passwords on his computer he covers himself with a towel, jokingly describing his “magic veil,” calling up Wagner(?)
Through the course of a few quickly sketched earlier scenes, Poitras begins her compelling narrative by trying to demonstrate just what I have—perhaps more clumsily—outlined above. The authorities know everything about all of us, and their way of making this information useful—indeed their only possible justification for having obtained all of this information about every individual in the United States and even more people abroad—is to connect the dots, to find links between individuals wherever they appear. If enough of them appear…well, that’s what gets you on a watch list, to which, at film’s end, Greenwald hints millions of Americans already have been appended.
Most of the figures involved in this movie had already run afoul of U.S. government laws and agencies before the events in the film had even begun. William Binney was arrested at gunpoint in his own home after he had leaked information on the NSA and its adoption of the extraordinarily expensive meta-data Trailblazer gathering program that so appalled Snowden, and soon after Binney was driven out of the business he and his partners were attempting to develop for his sophisticated computer programs that more selectively intercepted sensitive data, without intruding upon individual rights. Laura Poitras, whose documentary works had been critical of American governmental positions, was so regularly stopped and searched at airports, often for hours at a time, that she moved to Berlin to escape U.S. government harassment. Glenn Greenwald moved to Brazil because the U.S. Defense of Marriage Act would not allow his Brazilian-born companion, David Miranda, to receive a visa allowing him to live in the United States.
And before Snowden, Poitras makes clear, the NSA and other information-gathering agencies had already come under suspicion. People like Binney, who worked for the NSA as a major computer cryptologist under Bush, had already come forward warning not simply about the fact that such organizations were gathering so much information, but that through the Trailblazer (the system these organizations ultimately chose over Binney’s own ThinThread system) collections of personal information were missing real connections, lost in the dense forest of their meta-data, including linking-up the perpetrators of the events that occurred on September 11, 2001.
I wish Poitras might have had more time to make these pre-Snowden issues more clear, but, as a good documentarian, she recognizes that the real drama of her work lays in her presentation of the startling Snowden revelations. And once the film hones in on the mysterious citizenfour, who seems to invade her computer without warning, the movie nearly burns across the screen with its intensity. Citizenfour, the code name Snowden had chosen for himself, explains that he has not selected her, but that she, given her previous documentaries on Iraq and the Guantanamo prison, had selected herself.
After what appears to be only a few introductory messages, with Citizenfour’s insistence that she get an encryption device and his suggestion that she may want to hook up with reporter Greenwald, we suddenly come face to face with the likeably handsome young man with whom we are now so acquainted. But this, we immediately realize, is the real thing, Snowden trapped in his Hong Kong hotel room on the very first day of June 3, 2013, with Poitras and Greenwald already poised to go, even if not really quite comprehending everything that had just been handed over to them.
They ask a few introductory questions both about Snowden and about the meaning of the near-encyclopedic evidence he has handed over. But what is perhaps more interesting, is the questions they don’t ask (or asked, perhaps, off camera). Having already done so much research on these issues, maybe they were simply not as startled as the audience inevitably is, suddenly desperate to try to comprehend just how Snowden has been able to retrieve all this information, even given his high-priority position which later government authorities attempted to deflate and play-down. How did Snowden, who had obviously passed a wide range of investigatory tests to gain his level of clearance, hidden his growing discontent in his job? Although we now know that he claims to have expressed his rising disgust of what he thought were illegal actions by the U.S. government, the writers and director of this film, do not seem to wonder how such a grand disillusionment by a man whose entire family were committed to government service came about? How could such an apparent believer, an almost nerd-like government servant, suddenly grow so brave as to take upon himself one of the most burdensome revelations of all time? Clearly it can only have boiled up within him over long, long hours of watching, linking, thinking, connecting the dots…. If nothing else, Snowden demonstrates himself in the few interviews of this film as an enormously intelligent, self-aware individual willing to lose his life or, at the least, most of her personal freedoms, if he can help to sustain his citizen friends’ personal liberties. As citizen four, he clearly identifies himself as one of us.
There are moments in which either he or Poitras, in her cinematic presentation of him, suggest a bit of preening—and, self-admittedly, he is proud to having to play the role he has chosen—demonstrating a tendency to cast him a bit like a romantically-driven James Dean. But the minute we might suspect any self-jockeying, he makes it clear that he is fearful that when he is discovered to be the leaker his personal self may overwhelm the information he is trying to convey, a danger he is determined to alleviate. Yet he is torn, since he also hopes to bear the burden of his “crime” alone and, in admitting his actions, encourage others to behave similarly.
After seeing Snowden, in the flesh, so to speak, pondering the effects of all he wrought, I’m willing to agree with what Godfrey Cheshire has written in a review on Roger Ebert’s old blog:
No doubt the movie will inspire various reactions. For
myself, I take the guy at face value. He seems eminently
sane and decent, a good guy, smart, articulate, good-
humored and, given the circumstances he’s brought upon
himself, incredibly courageous.
I might go even further in describing this man, who at such an early age, is willingly ready to give up his own life for the cause of personal liberty, as a new kind of hero.
Greenwald, himself, might make the subject of a great movie, as the multi-lingual writer so quickly assimilates the mountains of information, and, almost before they have even begun talking, has already written six articles ready to published by The Guardian. Had he and Poitras not been willing to take on the task that Snowden seems to have perceived they were capable of, Snowden, like Chelsea (formerly Bradley) Manning, would be holed away in some prison cell without us even knowing it. And thank god for the media editors who saw the importance of what they were writing!
So compelling is Snowden’s and Greenwald’s personalities that when the film later focuses on important larger events, taking the implications of what they revealed out of their capable hands and putting it into the minds and voices of the international community where they had hoped the dialogue would continue, we feel slightly cheated, perhaps even afraid that the temporary hoopla may suddenly die down again (as I feel it already has) without anything having been truly accomplished. Binney arrives in Germany to testify before the German Parliament, but upon the discovery (not entirely explained) of a double-spy within the German government, the testimonies are suddenly cancelled.
In Brussels, Greenwald and others speak quite brilliantly of the issues, one spokesman proclaiming that, having abandoned our personal liberties, we now live in a world where former democracies, whose leaders once perceived themselves as officials elected by their constituents, now see themselves as the rulers over those they rule; another speaker parsed the important difference between a loss of privacy and the loss of freedom, arguing that we have now confused the freedoms we have lost with the issue of privacy, the larger issue being of far more importance .
Lawyers preparing their defense of Snowden discuss the absurdity of the American government’s decision to charge him under the 1917 Espionage Act, wherein he can tried for each document he passed on with a punishment of each instance of 10 years imprisonment; Snowden, accordingly, might then be tried on hundreds of such charges. And any fair-minded being can only appreciate those lawyers’ honest assessment that the government’s determination to go after Snowden has 95% to do with politics and only 5% to do with law.
Yes we miss the intensity, surety, and even faith of Snowden’s wide-open American face, and the studied pondering determination of Greenwald’s frowns.
Obama’s suggestions that Snowden should have spoken about his reservations to his superiors, are so preposterously absurd that it almost hurts anyone, like me, who voted for him, to look the man in the face. And, ultimately, I can only ask what happened to Obama, who before the election was so determined to oppose the kind of massive surveillance Bush had set in place, challenging the notion that after 9/11 Americans inevitably had to give up so many important liberties, and yet, who after the election, presumably after being briefed by military, CIA, NSA, and FBI representatives, so inexplicably changed his position, suddenly attacking honest men who reveal the exploits of those ever-growing organizations and going after whistleblowers even more avidly than Bush?
No matter how much the American President gives lip service to Snowden’s revelations creating a healthy dialogue about those issues, we have to recognize that, like some dictator, refusing to abandon his information-gathering forces, he remains determined to punish Snowden and anyone else who steps even slightly out of line. Did Obama learn something so terrible in those early conversations between his information-gathering community representatives that put him on a despot’s path? How can other Democrats like Diane Feinstein continue to support him so relentlessly? What do these individuals know that we cannot. Or is it just fear. Fear, if that’s what it is, can only lead us to a hate so strong that we are willing to give up our liberties. Everyman becomes a murderer once again.
After Greenwald’s Snowden reports, for example, as Greenwald’s companion Miranda had flown to Germany in order to bring Greenwald a file from Poitras, he was stopped in Heathrow Airport by the London Metropolitan Police and held for nine hours, while his laptop and other items were seized. Greenwald succinctly described the act as being "clearly intended to send a message of intimidation to those of us who have been reporting on the NSA and GCHQ.” Snowden remains trapped in Moscow, joined, fortunately, by his female companion with whom he had been living before he chose to reveal his files.
Fortunately, Poitras’ important document holds out some hope. As the final, nearly unspoken, conversation makes clear, some very important individual has joined the struggle, just as Snowden predicted, to become another head in the hydra battling those among us who have long given up on protecting our personal freedoms.
I wait for that day of revelation! But still I remain very frightened. Will they (whatever they who claim, as representatives of the Kafka-like ruler’s over those they insist they rule) come to my door to name me as a danger to the world in which I live and love?
Los Angeles, November 1, 2014