Once in a great while a film of such importance appears that it changes forever all that has come before: Citizenfour is such a film.
We’re writing in a state of shock. Or perhaps PVTS – Post Viewing Traumatic Stress. Yes, like some of you, we’ve followed the NSA revelations a bit, alongside all the other news that clogs our arteries. But here it is, all laid out in front of our eyes, up-close and personal in the heroic figures of Edward Snowden, Laura Poitras, and Glenn Greenwald, with a supporting cast of William Binney, Jacob Applebaum, and the writers and editors at publications in Germany, England, Brazil and elsewhere who have tackled timely and local angles of this incredibly critical story.
It’s more than a “story.” It’s a do-or-die moment, and History commands us to reconceive how we’re going to live out the rest of our lives.
Author Naomi Klein, in her 2007 book The Shock Doctrine: The Rise of Disaster Capitalism, alerted us to the way 21st-century capitalism uses the confusion and immediate needs of a natural – or often man-made – disaster to remold society in a more capitalistic mode, to monetize and privatize the public inheritance of a nation for the benefit of the few. Since the year 2001, the National Security Agency has been playing out the principles of the doctrine by using 9/11 as a pretext for all its activities.
Amid the dense fog of fear, under the rubric of combating terrorism, the National Security State passed the Patriot Act, making inroads into our privacy as citizens that many legal scholars and activists consider profoundly unconstitutional. Despite numerous civil libertarian attempts to dial back its most offensive clauses, the Patriot Act has gone on to spawn a shockingly intricate, highly sophisticated and secret system of invasion into our private lives. The business and corporate community has been cowed into compliance, and now it is reaping its reward.
The National Security State flourishes under Barack Obama
Working “within the system” to return the United States to a semblance of constitutional norms has hit a brick wall. Our vaunted independent judiciary has been stonewalled into feckless impotency under the mantle of “national security.” Even when top NSA and other government officials such as James R. Clapper and Keith Alexander, bedecked in their medals and epaulets, openly, obviously lie under oath to Congressional committees, they walk away with impunity.
Whatever he might have led us to believe, whatever we might have projected onto him, the metastasis of the National Security State flourishes under Barack Obama. It has been observed that, more than all other presidents combined, Obama has used the Espionage Act, put into law during the WWI era to deal with spies, to charge present-day whistleblowers. The harshness of that act, and the secrecy it invokes, effectively allow no defense on any grounds.
Spying on Americans is not entirely new: Radicals of all stripes have known this for generations. What is new is that after 9/11 the spying applies to everyone, and not just in the U.S. but all over the world. At first we were led to believe that only people in regular contact with foreigners, especially in Islamic countries, were of government concern. That was the cover.
We know now that every phone call is recorded, all our computer data can be mined, every digital, radio, audio and analog communication is stored in an NSA data repository of massive “metadata” that paints a very large canvas. With the technological advances of recent years, especially the “linkability” that connects bank cards to credit cards to online accounts to checking accounts to toll road and public transportation passes to airline travel to fingerprints, the metadata collectors can establish with almost immaculate precision where you were, how you traveled, what you purchased, whom you talked to, whom you met, whom you emailed, what internet sites you visited, what bank deposits you made, what movies you rented, what library books you borrowed, what organizations you contribute to.
We now basically have martial law for the Internet. We have no effective checks and balances, no controls, no limits, no warrants, no oversight. It’s all permitted, and it’s all secret. “This is not science fiction: It’s happening right now,” Snowden says. “Things are going dark.”
Snowden is in a position to know, with his years of Privileged Access clearance at Booz Allen Hamilton, a $6 billion company under contract with the NSA. Estimates are that 70 percent of the “Deep State” budget is spent on such private contractors whose ties to the federal government are standard practice but kept well out of view. James Clapper, for instance, is a former Booz Allen executive.
A chilling effect on speech and action
Once upon a time, say Edward Snowden and a whole new cohort of Internet theorists, the internet was a platform for individuals to revel in the free exchange of ideas. Now, the awareness that all can be known to the government – and more and more to corporations that want to sell us ideas and things – is acting as a deterrent to freedom, a chilling effect on speech and action. Sadly, out of fear of the next terrorist attack, many Americans are willing to surrender their privacy and personal liberty, saying, “I’ve got nothing to hide, so I don’t mind if the government knows everything about me.”
If the right of dissent, as one of the hallmarks of a free society, is so compromised, how shall concerned citizens react?
After two earlier documentary films, My Country, My Country on Iraq, and The Oath on Guantánamo, Citizenfour is the third in Laura Poitras’s trilogy on post-9/11 America. Under conditions of extreme internet security, using code names and encryption, Edward Snowden contacted her, and through her Glenn Greenwald, to share the mountain of secret NSA documents he had access to, and to set up a meeting. Act I of the film surveys the scope of the spying crisis, and shows how it came to be that the three of them, along with Ewen MacAskill of the Guardian, spent eight days talking and filming in a Hong Kong hotel room. That is Act II.
We get to know Edward Snowden rather well in 114 minutes. A boyish age 29 at the time of filming, with a sonorous baritone voice, he is a focused thinker, one could say a scholar-philosopher of the Internet Age, who speaks knowledgeably, clearly and precisely. He is thoughtful and kind, reflecting on the pain of exile and the loss of intimacy with family and loved ones. He doesn’t even seem to have much concern for what will happen to him personally, as he lives from day to day with a terrifying uncertainty of the future that few of us could tolerate.
At the same time he is – appropriately enough for the issues we are dealing with – a private man who doesn’t at all want this story to be about him. The media have put a wrongheaded focus on who reveals the excessive exercise of state power rather than who authorizes such illegality. He may well have had the Gary Webb story in mind. He wants the focus to remain always on the NSA and the vast gulf it has created between state power and the citizenry, between the elected and the electorate, which defines the time we live in.
Snowden’s coming forward goes much farther than meekly “speaking truth to power,” bearing witness to evil under perilous conditions. He is engaging in the direct action of whistleblowing, no matter the cost to himself, for the sake of higher ideals of intellectual freedom, justice in government, and privacy rights. He encourages others to speak out too. (As the satirical poster says, “If you see something, say something. Unless you’re Chelsea Manning.”) One of the final scenes in the film contains the revelation of a second whistleblower.
His attitude is (paraphrasing), “Here I am. I’m not afraid of you. You can’t bully me. I’m not going to skulk in the shadows. Even if you nail me to the cross, others will take my place.” He talks about the balance of power between the government and the people, and when that might start to shift back. He feels that the more public he and the journalists are, successively revealing truths about the NSA in story after story, the more protection they have in the public light. If the attention of the world is on these out-of-control government abuses, and the global demand for change grows exponentially, they will personally become less subject to U.S. prosecution. For a recent update on Edward Snowden today, click here.
It is easy to agree with one of Snowden’s lawyers who states that the motivation for the State to pursue his client is 95 percent political and only 5 percent legal. After all, there is not a single example of harm coming to anyone as a result of either the Chelsea Manning or Snowden leaks.
Act III of the film is, of course, going public with the story through articles by Glenn Greenwald in the London Guardian and Laura Poitras in the Washington Post, and the worldwide support they garnered. And we experience Snowden’s widely reported odyssey to his extended amnesty in Moscow where, passportless, he reconstructs his life. He continues to assist researchers and journalists in exposing various parts of the vast digital archive of secret documents that he liberated from the NSA’s dark cellars.
The great irony not just of the film but of this new Golden Age of Spying, is that all the information our government is collecting does not lead to greater national security. Do we really have a clue what to do about ISIS? Are we properly assessing the global effect of our massive extrajudicial drone activity, the targeted and not-so-targeted assassinations? Do we have any idea how our up to now unqualified support for the Israeli settlement project has made the U.S. the world’s bogeyman? Do we know or even care into whose hands our guns, missiles and tanks fall? Have we taken any pains whatsoever to update our image in Latin America, supporting coups here and there, and continuing with our dismal approach toward Cuba?
Have we taken stock of the global resentment toward our corporate government’s constant pushing of the fossil fuel economy and ubiquitous GMOs? We could go on. All the metadata in the world cannot save us from a corrupt politics. There are arguably more people in the world who hate the U.S. now than ever before.
Metadata collection was ultimately welcomed by the American corporate class as good for business. But now that it has become a worldwide scandal that the U.S. has not been able to bring to heel, not only our country but business itself has lost credibility. Who now trusts Facebook, Yahoo, Google, and all the other platforms, which have pretty much without exception caved in to federal demands to turn over their operating systems to the NSA?
As evidence emerges that the NSA has hacked into German PM Angela Merkel’s and Brazilian President Dilma Rousseff’s private cell phones, they are outraged. Scenes of Citizenfour shot in Rio, Brasília, Hong Kong, Moscow, Berlin, and Brussels show us that most of the world takes great offense to our actions. In fact, most of our spying has not been to protect the homeland anyway. Rather, such blatant intrusion is designed to gain corporate, business, economic and political competitive advantage for the U.S. And if the U.S. is setting an international precedent for systematic secret trespass into private communication, why can that model not be copied by other nations, which likely it already has been?
Respect for government plummets, confidence in business melts, international standing vanishes. The United States looks more and more like a dying empire, internally unable to provide for its own people, and thrashing about in its last sunburst of state power before losing the global sense of legitimacy upon which it all rests. Although many elements of the National Security State were already in place long before 9/11, these are the effects of George W. Bush’s overreaching response to it. Which, by the way, he could have prevented in the first place had he not recklessly ignored the listening systems we had at the time and responded to the strong predictions made in the months and weeks before 9/11 that terrorists were planning an air attack.
According to a discussion on the website tomdispatch.com, the executive branch did an investigation to see if any terrorist plots were intercepted by indiscriminate collection of metadata, and no evidence was found of any plots being discovered or averted, despite initial self-serving claims of 54 plots having been stopped.
If it is the nature of dictatorships to acquire information about their citizens, and to use it against them, what does that make the U.S. at this point?
The NSA and the National Security State have committed possibly irreparable damage to democracy itself, which depends on free speech and liberty of thought. Now citizens – and people around the world – are policing themselves in what they say, what they write, even making jokes about everyone being watched and listened in on. People have become cautious and circumspect. How do we carry on open, untrammeled discussion of anything of substance if it’s not protected speech, if it makes us vulnerable years from now when some enforcement agency might believe it has a case against us?
Do we all need, starting now, to encrypt every communication we make, to put all our cell phones and electronic devices in the refrigerator when we’re meeting, as a group of Snowden’s lawyers do? Considering the ability of the NSA to guess 1 trillion passwords per second, Snowden asserts that not even the most skilled encryption technicians are a match for such technological power.
The new whistleblowers of the future?
The credits for Citizenfour indicate support from German film funds, Sundance, the Rockefeller and MacArthur foundations, and other significant pillars of civilization and culture. Clearly a sector of the corporate and intellectual élite is beginning to peel off its loyalty to the security state as being antithetical to their interests in any democracy as we know it.
The film includes scenes of experts in data analysis who have turned against government and corporate malfeasance giving talks to large audiences of young techies and activists, some or even many of whom may become the new whistleblowers of the future if the State does not change course.
So, should we be afraid, very afraid? Do we shut down all communication with the world? Do we disengage from society, go off the grid if we care to maintain any remnant of the privacy we thought we had? How would we ever acquire the skills and resources to lead such a life of airtight encryption to foil the snoopers?
Snowden is clearly telling us: No, be bold and fight back with everything you’ve got, your very lives and treasure if it comes to that. Fittingly, Laura Poitras, who directed, filmed, and produced Citizenfour, dedicates it “to those who make great sacrifices to expose injustice.”
In the end, any viewer will have to ask, “What do I do now, knowing what I know?” The implication for organizers and activists, for the human race and for all creation, can only be to create a movement of resistance to the totalitarian state – and we would say to capitalism itself – so large, so wide, so deep, so public and open, and so embedded in every profession and public agency, that no amount of spying, infiltration and dirty tricks can stop it.
Over the last few years a number of issues have emerged of which it could be said, as Naomi Klein has recently about global warming, “This changes everything.” The overweening influence of corporate money and campaign donations in the most powerful nation on Earth is clearly another of those issues. The existential questions about democracy raised in Poitras’s new film comprise another. They are all connected, of course. How to pull together the grand coalition, the great unifying consensus, not just nationally but internationally, to bring about a new way of being on this planet, is the challenge of our time.
That is indeed the answer to this film’s question: What is a citizen for?