ESTIMATED READING TIME : 23 MINUTES
"In a time of universal deceit, telling the truth is a revolutionary act " - George Orwell
Citizenfour is the Academy Award winning documentary that chronicles whistleblower Edward Snowden's release of classified National Security Agency materials to journalist Glenn Greenwald and the ensuing NSA spying scandal. The film is directed by Laura Poitras and co-produced by Steven Soderbergh.
Edward Snowden, in case you don't know, was at the time of filming in 2013, a twenty nine year old U.S. citizen who worked as a system administrator for the National Security Agency under a sub-contract with the consulting firm Booz Allen Hamilton. It was at his job at the NSA that he surreptitiously obtained thousands of classified documents that exposed massive government spying and data collection programs. Once Snowden had taken possession of these documents, he then anonymously contacted director Poitras, and later journalist Glenn Greenwald, then of The Guardian newspaper, and set up a rendezvous in Hong Kong where he revealed the classified documents and explained their meaning and significance. The first face to face meeting took place on June 3, 2013 in Snowden's Hong Kong hotel room and the meetings continued for the next week. These meetings were filmed and make up a significant portion of Citizenfour.
In trying to disseminate the information he had gathered, Snowden had originally tried to reach out to Greenwald, but when they could not find a secure way to communicate, he contacted documentarian Laura Poitras, using the codename "Citizenfour" to protect his identity, hence the title of the film. Snowden couldn't have chosen a better film maker to document his story. I had not seen any of Poitras' work prior to Citizenfour. After seeing the film and being blown away by the sublime skills of the filmmaker, I eagerly searched out her earlier work. Both My Country, My Country (2006), about the first Iraqi election post-Saddam and The Oath (2011), about a pair of terrorists and their divergent paths, are remarkable documentaries and make up the powerful first two-thirds of what Poitras describes as her "post 9-11 trilogy" which she completes with Citizenfour.
Poitras, unlike many documentarians of our time, is notable in that she disappears behind the camera and never interjects her presence into the unfolding story. Her filmmaking confidence is highlighted by her lack of a need to direct action or explain circumstances. Poitras' minimalist presence creates documentaries that make the viewer feel like they themselves are behind the camera and, oddly enough, are eavesdropping and prying into the lives of the film's subjects. Even in Citizenfour, where she IS a part of the story, she never makes herself an obvious part of it, but rather treats herself as just another character in the unfolding drama.
Poitras masterfully creates an ominous sense of menace lurking throughout the story of Citizenfour. This foreboding sense of menace is palpable, as is the tension. The tension building was so effective that there were times in the film when Edward Snowden would walk over and stare out the window of his Hong Kong hotel room and I wanted to yell at him "get away from the god damn window!!" While Snowden's story naturally has tension and hidden menace within it, Poitras adroitly enhances them with her use of camera framing, color scheme and temperature, and Trent Reznor's moody and eerie soundtrack.
"Experience hath shewn, that even under the best forms of government those entrusted with power have, in time, and by slow operations, perverted it into tyranny." - Thomas Jefferson
Citizenfour also excels at conveying to the viewer how colossal and invasive the surveillance and spying programs the government employs truly are. As Snowden tells us in the film, every piece of communication or information traveling over the internet or by phone is collected by the intelligence community of either the United States or the United Kingdom. Internet history, Skype, Facebook, emails, texts and a whole host of other information, are all collected, spied on and tracked. That information, including physical location through the use of cell towers, can be used to show where you have been, who you have been with, what you have done and what you have talked about. This surveillance is done in close collaboration with the technology and telecom companies. And to be clear, this is not just "meta-data" as it has been portrayed elsewhere in the media, but rather, this surveillance and data collection scoops up content as well as meta-data, and not just of foreigners but of United States citizens.
The spying programs, with names like Tempora, Prism, Special Source Operations, Boundless Informant, Stellar Wind and X-Keyscore, may seem benign or passive yet they are anything but. The scope and scale of the spying is so invasive, the intelligence gathered so vast and the government ability to misuse that information so gargantuan, that it is inconceivable to even think of ever reigning the behemoth of the surveillance state back in line. As Snowden says in the film, "This is about state power versus people's ability to oppose that power." And that is why the state will never willingly relinquish this near-omnipotent spying power. History teaches us that once a state takes a power, it never peacefully gives that power up. It will use it's ever expanding power to insure its continued existence and dominion over those who would dare dream to oppose it. Governments and government power only expand, and never peacefully contract. This is the lesson that our founding fathers knew all too well, but it is one that our current society has forgotten in our distracted and disgraceful civic sloth.
Edward Snowden presciently says while in Hong Kong, that the media strategy against him will be to make him the story, in order to distract from the rampant government spying he has revealed. Snowden knows the playbook of the establishment and their lackeys in the media all too well. And sure enough, when Glenn Greenwald's story breaks and Snowden shares his identity, the usual suspects in the establishment press and government come out in droves with old rusty knives drawn. By employing the tactic of focusing on his personality, the government and its lapdogs in the press hope to obfuscate and undermine the legitimacy of the information he has exposed. The establishment is all too eager to make this an emotional issue and not a rational one. They do this by trying to convince us that Snowden is simply a narcissist out for attention, or a troubled man with a checkered past, or a loser with a history of failure behind him and last but not least, a traitor, who hates and betrayed his country.
Many Americans bought into these foolish narratives hook, line and sinker, and still do. I doubt many of those opposed to Snowden would sit down and watch Citizenfour since the media has already told them what to think about the man and the situation, which is a terrible shame. The film is a powerful antidote to the venomous disinformation and distractions spewing forth from the government and establishment media. In the film, Snowden comes across as a person who loves his country very much, but doesn't trust his government. To me, that is the mark of a civic-minded, sane, reasonable, rational and logical person. Snowden seems to be an intelligent, fiercely principled and genuinely decent person, which is in stark contrast to the shills in the government and establishment press who attack him and question his motives and integrity (in my opinion, anyone working in government or establishment media questioning the integrity of ANYONE, no matter what they are accused of doing, is the height of comedy).
"If Tyranny and Oppression come to this land, it will be in the guise of fighting a foreign enemy." - James Madison
The government claims that this vast amount of surveillance is necessary for national security and to stop terrorism. Snowden and Greenwald make a convincing case in the film that the spying isn't just for national security but also for political, industrial and economic reasons. For instance, the U.S. has spied on its allies, including but not limited to, officials and citizens from Germany, Brazil, France and Spain. It was even revealed that the NSA tapped German Chancellor Angela Merkel's phone for a full decade starting in 2002, even before she ever became Chancellor.
In regards to surveillance keeping us safe from terrorists, National Security Agency General Director Keith Alexander has claimed that 54 terror plots have been thwarted through these spying programs. Of course, a closer look at Alexander's claims proves them to be false, and at best, maybe one terror plot was discovered by this vast spying. Keith Alexander was lying with the 54 plots-stopped claim, but that shouldn't be a surprise, Keith Alexander is a liar, it's his job to lie. He has lied to congress and the American public, but he isn't alone, lying is par for the course for those in the government and the intelligence community when it comes to surveillance. So many intelligence agencies and officials lie about so many topics, one wonders why anyone besides their stenographers in the establishment press ever believes a word that comes out of their mouths.
"There is no crueler tyranny than that which is perpetuated under the shield of law and in the name of justice." - Charles de Montesquieu
Joining Alexander in lying to congress, which is a crime punishable with prison time by the way, is Director of National Intelligence James Clapper who lied to congress about surveillance. Will Alexander or Clapper be held to account for their criminal conduct? No, of course not. And neither will CIA director John Brennan, under whose leadership the Central Intelligence Agency spied upon the senate for having the temerity to actually investigate it. And neither will George W. Bush, Dick Cheney, Donald Rumsfeld and the rest of the Bush gang for ordering torture. And neither will Barrack Obama for ordering "extra-judicial killings" of American citizens. None of these people will be held to account because the law doesn't apply to people like them, only to people like us, proving America is no longer a nation of laws, just a nation with laws. When you hear those in power pontificate about "law and order", what they really mean is "ORDER and law". To those in power, laws are meant to not only keep other people in order, but to keep the order of things where they are the ones atop the hierarchy. In their minds, "Laws and punishment for thee, but not for me!!"
One final example of the two-tiered justice system for the elites is the recent case of General David Petreaus. Petreaus, if you remember, was the four-star darling of the neo-cons, the hawks and the mainstream media for his "surge" in Iraq, although his popularity probably had more to do with his "surge" in media glad handing and public posturing than in any battlefield success. Petreaus was then appointed the Director of the CIA, and proceeded to have an affair with his biographer with whom he shared troves of highly classified notebooks. For sharing classified materials, including the identity of agents, for no other reason than foreplay, Petreaus got a slap on the wrist in the form of losing his job but getting no jail time. But Edward Snowden reveals a massive government conspiracy of criminal spying on innocent American citizens and we get government officials openly talking about assassinating him or executing him. And people question why Snowden won't return to the U.S.?
"Speak the truth but leave immediately after" - Slovenian Proverb
Another favorite distractionary tactic by the establishment is to imply Snowden is a spy or a coward for not returning to the U.S. to face the charges pending against him. President Obama, Hillary Clinton and others have said that Snowden should have just gone through the chain of command at the NSA with his concerns and he would have gotten whistleblower protections by doing so. This is false. First, because Snowden says he did bring his concerns to his superiors and was either ignored or told to keep quiet. And secondly, because Snowden was under a sub-contract, and not an employee of the federal government, meaning he was not eligible for whistleblower status.
The other issue regarding Snowden and getting a fair trial, is that due to the law used against him, he cannot defend himself by claiming the government was committing crimes. The law, the Espionage Act, was originally meant to be used against spies, but in recent years has been used to prosecute people who have withheld information or shared information with the media. In fact, Obama has used the Espionage Act more than twice as much as all the other presidents in history…combined. What makes this all the more despicable is that Obama has used the act against whistleblowers and not spies. So much for Obama's pre-election pledge to be more transparent. It is obvious that Snowden could not get a "fair trial" under the law used to charge him, he could only give the government the opportunity for a show trial.
And as for the "spying" allegations, there is no credible evidence whatsoever that Snowden has turned over any classified information to any foreign government, including the Russians and Chinese.
"Truth is treason in an empire of lies" - Ron Paul
On Saturday, July, 20, 2013, British intelligence officials stormed The Guardian newspaper in London and demanded that the hard drives which contained the Snowden material on them be destroyed. In an act of monumental cowardice, The Guardian submitted to the request and destroyed the hard drives in front of the impatient intelligence officials. The Guardian explained the reasoning behind their acquiescence was because of a "threat of legal action by the government". Oh no, NOT THAT!! Why not let the legal process play out? Why not force the government to actually have to prove their case in court. Even if you lose the case and have to destroy the hard drives, you still maintain your adversarial relationship with government and, more importantly, the public's trust in your journalism.
The Guardian aren't the only ones the intelligence community has bullied. Glenn Greenwald's partner, David Miranda, was detained using an anti-terrorism law at Heathrow airport by British Intelligence for nine hours and was not allowed any legal representation. Even upon Miranda's release, British officials refused to return seized possessions, including his laptop, cellphone and USB sticks.
Citizenfour director, Laura Poitras, was repeatedly held by U.S. custom officials after her film My Country, My Country came out in 2006. During the filming and editing of Citizenfour she moved to Germany in order to escape the strong arm tactic of the intelligence community.
The treatment of Miranda, Greenwald and Poitras has paled in comparison to the whistleblowers who have stayed in America and faced trial. For example, torture is a crime according to U.S. law, but the only person prosecuted in regards to torture is the whistleblower who confirmed it, John Kiriakou, who spent nearly two years in federal prison. Other whistleblowers have been arrested and charged too, like Thomas Drake and Bradley Manning (who was sentenced to 35 years in prison and later became Chelsea Manning) as two examples, while none of the crimes and war crimes they exposed were ever prosecuted. And just note that Kiriakou, Drake and Manning were all charged under the aforementioned Espionage Act.
"All tyranny needs to gain a foothold is for people of good conscience to remain silent." - Edmund Burke
In the United States, "Good Citizens" allowing the police or intelligence agencies to spy upon them is anathema. To be not only a good citizen, but a patriot, one MUST resist government intrusions. This isn't optional, it is required. According to the Declaration of Independence, it is their duty, "when a long train of abuses and usurpations, pursuing invariably the same Object evinces a design to reduce them under absolute Despotism, it is their right, it is their duty, to throw off such government". To use a more recent quote, from V for Vendetta, "People shouldn't fear their government, governments should fear their people".
There are those who tremble at the sight of every jihadi video and threat, and run to government to protect them from the boogie man of the day, be it God-fanatic terrorists or back in the day, God-less communists. These people should understand one thing, government is not here to protect them, it is here to protect itself.
The reality behind this instinct to defer to authority is one that has been deeply ingrained in us as children. Children rely on authority, in the form of their parents, to keep them safe, fed and alive. That hard wiring of the brain during its development in infancy, is a difficult thing for people to overcome even once they have grow up. Stanley Milgram, a psychologist at Yale University, did some famous studies on the psychology of obedience in 1963. In a nutshell, Milgram's experiment tested whether regular people, when prompted by an authority figure, would give electric shocks to other people in the context of a test if they gave the wrong answer to a question. Milgram's basic conclusion states, "Ordinary people are likely to follow orders given by an authority figure, even to the extent of killing an innocent human being. Obedience to authority is ingrained in us all from the way we were brought up. People tend to obey orders from other people if they recognize their authority as morally right and/or legally based. This response to legitimate authority is learned in a variety of situations, for example in the family, school and workplace."
Milgram's work is in many ways relevant to this issue in that it shows people's strong, unconscious tendency towards obedience to authority. Milgram's experiments in obedience help us to understand the deep seeded psychological need some of us have to defer to authority and why some may reflexively defend government spying and decry Snowden for revealing it.
Another psychologist, Abraham Maslow, came up with the "hierarchy of needs" theory in 1943. This theory states that people are motivated by the impulse to fulfill an unmet fundamental need. In Maslow's theory, he created a hierarchy of five needs, and one of the most important foundational needs is "safety". According to Maslow, people are motivated to satisfy their need for "safety". This "need for safety", or more accurately stated in relation to our topic, this "need for a feeling of being safe", may be another one of the psychological reasons for people to be so obedient to authority when it comes to surveillance.
In previous posts I have written about social psychologist Jonathan Haidt's excellent book The Righteous Mind: Why Good People are Divided by Politics and Religion, which may also shed some light on the "obedience to authority" issue as well. In the book, Haidt hypothesizes that people can be divided in their political thought due to differing moral priorities. A few examples of the moral priority categories Haidt describes are Authority, Liberty and Fairness. So according to Haidt's approach, some people may have Authority as a greater moral priority than Fairness or Liberty. If someone is hard wired that way, it is easier to understand why they would find Snowden contemptible because he challenged and usurped authority and undermined the hierarchy. And, of course, the opposite is true as well, if someone has Liberty or Fairness as higher on their moral priorities than they would be less inclined to see anything wrong with Snowden revealing incriminating evidence against those in authority.
In addition to Milgram's, Maslow's and Haidt's work, our old friend cognitive dissonance rears its head once again when we look at the obvious contradictory thought involved in the war on terror and civil liberties. Cognitive dissonance, if you'll recall from previous posts, is defined as "psychological conflict resulting from incongruous beliefs and attitudes held simultaneously" . The contradiction, or "incongruous attitude", at the heart of the war on terror is that people in power tell us that we must give up some rights, liberties and freedoms in order to protect ourselves from terrorists...who want to take away our rights, liberties and freedoms. We are told "they" (the terrorists) hate us for our freedoms, and in order to counter their attack upon our freedoms, we must reduce those freedoms. On its face this idea is absurd, to preempt a tyranny we fear so much with our own self-imposed tyranny. In order for this illogical premise to survive even the most basic scrutiny of reason, one must either contort oneself with extraordinary dexterity in order to create a willful blindness to it, or be under the unconscious sway of both cognitive dissonance and the psychological need for security in the form of Maslow/Milgram's work we touched upon previously. As a culture, it seems we would rather follow our more primitive impulses, and embrace authority and self deception in the search for that feeling of being safe, rather than the more psychologically difficult yet more evolved task of looking at these issues with the rational mind rather than the emotional one.
"It takes two to lie. One to lie and one to listen " - Homer Simpson
There are also those people who defend the NSA by saying "if you aren't doing anything wrong, then you have nothing to worry about". This whistling past the graveyard is little more than a short cut to thinking. Spying isn't about what you may or may not be doing wrong. Spying is about control. Spying is about defanging, declawing and defeating any and all dissent and protest. Government tyranny sees no political ideology or party. Surveillance kicked into high gear under Bush and it has gotten even worse under Obama. According to the material Snowden released, The U.S. government has over 1.2 million people on its watch list. I would be willing to bet that that government watch list includes a considerable number of people from "Occupy Wall Street" AND the "Tea Party". And if pro-spying citizens think they are safe by being "good government bullshitters"*, guess again. As history shows us, the playing field will shift, it always does, and they will eventually be on the wrong side of the goal posts.
An important thing to remember is that the intelligence community is not an elected branch of government. But they are very capable and more than willing to spy upon our elected representatives, who, of course, are outraged when it happened to them, but not so much when it happened to us. I am speaking about both my former congresswoman, Jane Harman, and my current senator Dianne Feinstein. Both of whom have spent their political careers as little more than shills for the intelligence community, but who were incensed when they learned they were on the receiving end of the surveillance they so supported when it was directed at regular citizens. In Harman's case (linked above), she showed tremendous political and moral flexibility by aiding and abetting not only the criminality of the U.S. intel community but also the Israeli intelligence community.
"I have sworn upon the altar of God, eternal hostility against every form of tyranny over the mind of man." - Thomas Jefferson
The intelligence community now has the capability to bully and blackmail elected officials who try to exercise their Constitutional role of governmental oversight. How can a democracy flourish when there is an unelected, unaccountable, extremely powerful group (the intelligence community) running roughshod over the Constitution which is meant to keep them in check? Technology has outpaced the ability for oversight of the use of that technology. Corruption, the human impulse for power and self preservation in government officials, make a "just trust us" approach to government powers in general, and surveillance powers in particular, an obvious act of futility, if not outright insanity.
With an overly muscular and aggressive intelligence community and a neutered congress with no interest in oversight and a subserviently compliant establishment press, we are left with government only as an act of theater. In the final analysis, we only have the appearance of a democratic republic but not the actual practice of one.
If, as a citizen, your instinctive response is to always and every time defer to authority and mindlessly "OBEY", then you are one of those fools who have given up liberty for security, and you deserve, and will get, neither. One should never confuse their government for their country as so many often do. "A waving flag is a blindfold for the fool." - Me
"Truth is such a rare thing, it is delightful to tell it" - Emily Dickinson
Some call Edward Snowden a traitor, others a hero. Some call him a leaker, others a whistleblower. Regardless of what you call him, thanks to Edward Snowden, willful ignorance and blindness is no longer an option in regard to government surveillance. Our republic can survive another heinous terrorist attack, no matter how awful, but it cannot and will not survive the obliteration of the liberties and freedoms upon which it was built. Sadly, if the United States government continues to trample the most basic principles upon which it was founded, it does not deserve to survive, and it most assuredly will not. Snowden's decision to bring to light the crimes of the government was a last ditch effort to save the republic from itself.
In the United States of America we now have "First Amendment Zones" where protestors are 'allowed' to voice their dissent away from eyes and ears of their political representatives and fellow citizens. Government officials openly break the law by lying to congress and face no punishment. The Intelligence community spies on American citizens and other branches of government and no one is held to account. Civil liberties, which our Constitution tells us are granted by God, are now little more than a nuisance and punch line to those who have sworn to defend them. We have an executive who uses imperial powers in the form of extra-judicial killings of American citizens. Not only have we tortured and killed people in our charge, we openly celebrate the torture and the war criminals who committed it.
Everything chronicled in the previous paragraph and in the film Citizenfour, from the spying to the lying to the lack of legal accountability, sounds like something that would happen in some backwoods banana republic or a despotic, tyrannical dictatorship. Which brings us to the only rational conclusion possible once we study all of the facts presented to us, and that is that those who still think the United States of America is a force for moral good in the world, a "shining city on a hill", have lost their mind or moral compass or, very likely, both. One must disabuse oneself of the notion that the United States of America is anything other than, at best, an amoral imperial kleptocratic aristocracy/oligarchy or, at worst, a mentally deranged, immoral, evil empire. To think anything else in the face of the current reality is an act of extraordinary self delusion, albeit an unconsciously self preserving one in terms of psychological health. The hard, brutal truth is that America is not a "shining city on a hill" anymore, it is a plague spreading its imperial disease across the globe, suffocating freedom and liberty in its wake.
"If you want a picture of the future, imagine a boot stamping on a human face - forever " - George Orwell
In conclusion, Citizenfour is an extraordinary documentary well worth your time. It would also be worth the effort to watch Laura Poitras' other films My Country, My Country and The Oath. As great a film as Citizenfour is, one can't help but feel overwhelmed by the stark and bleak reality of the dystopian world it reveals to us. The government spying leviathan will not return to its lair in the deep and its slumber any time soon. It is wide awake, voraciously hungry and here to stay. Americans, and the rest of the world, must try to navigate this perilous world under the surveillance beast's watchful eye. We will be at its cold, bureaucratic mercy for the foreseeable future. As George Orwell presciently said, "If you want a picture of the future, imagine a boot stamping on a human face - forever ". Thanks to our insidious intelligence community, and their chicken-shit apologists in the form of weak kneed politicians, access addicted establishment 'journalists' and a pliable electorate populated by feeble-minded dupes and dopes, we better get very used to the taste of boot leather. We are going to be having more than our fill of it in the years and decades to come.
For further reading on the history of all things Edward Snowden and NSA spying. Please check out The Guardian, which has a full primer on the NSA spying including the actual files that are here and Glenn Greenwald's Guardian work here . Also check out Glenn Greenwald's new website The Intercept.
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