In the face of an unsettling lack of substantial response from politicians and the general public, the goal of this year’s Academy Award winning documentary Citizenfour seems to be to serve as a subtle reminder of the uproar ignited by Edward Snowden and the disclosure of the National Security Agency surveillance practices two years ago. Without preaching ideology or providing a heavy handed condemnation of the current administration, filmmaker Laura Poitras maintains a broad accessibility that might better accomplish this goal. However, with award season behind us, attention on the issues Citizenfour revisits threatens to disappear from our conversation.
The film offers a unique opportunity to relive the shocking disclosures that sparked outrage amongst the American public and international community. We witness footage from those initial exchanges between Snowden, Poitras and Guardian journalist Glenn Greenwald, as they begin to delineate the wealth of information. This exchange led to the initial Guardian article that exposed the NSA practice of bulk metadata collection from Verizon. Metadata was described as “the number of both parties on a call, location data, call duration, unique identifiers, and the time and duration of all calls” and was collected indiscriminately from American and international citizens regardless of wrongdoing or probable cause. Further revelations sparked articles in the Washington Post and the Guardian which unveiled the PRISM program: A program that allowed unrestricted government access to the wealth of personal information on popular internet platforms such as Microsoft, Yahoo, Google, Facebook, PalTalk, Youtube, Skype, AOL and Apple.
Of course, none of this information is new, but by conveying these issues through the perspective of the journalists who were on the forefront of their discoveries, the film subtly reminds us that they are still frighteningly relevant.
From his initial introduction in the Guardian, interviews with various news outlets and acceptance of the Ridenhour Prize for Truth-Telling, we have slowly resolved a portrait of the man behind these disclosures. Edward Snowden has consistently stated that his motive was to provide transparency to what he perceived as severe violations to American liberties, so that the public could have an informed discussion on the society in which they want to live. This is a discussion he is willing to promote at the expense of his own personal freedom, as illustrated in this interview with the Nation:
But for me, the key—and I’ve said this from the beginning: it’s not about me. I don’t care if I get clemency. I don’t care what happens to me. I don’t care if I end up in jail or Guantánamo or whatever, kicked out of a plane with two gunshots in the face. I did what I did because I believe it is the right thing to do, and I will continue to do that.
Citizenfour substantiates the sincerity of these statements. We see that in the moments leading up to this act of civil disobedience, there are no indications of anti-Americanism, a desire for anarchy or even a narcissist seeking international stardom. There is just genuine concern for the American people and desire to preserve an environment for unrestricted intellectual exploration in the face of new technologies. Throughout the film, he consistently expresses his desire to avoid becoming the story and expresses his fear that efforts will be made to derail the conversation by shifting the focus on him.
But Citizenfour downplays the most haunting reality of this real life political thriller: That even as we approach the two year anniversary of these disclosures, there has been no meaningful reform or obvious change in transparency. President Obama was quick to vilify Snowden: An infuriating irony given that his disclosures revealed the dishonesty of top NSA officials, including James Clapper, who openly lied to Congress. Greenwald aptly describes the response of the Obama administration:
They vow changes to fix the system and ensure these problems never happen again. And they then set out, with their actions, to do exactly the opposite: to make the system prettier and more politically palatable with empty, cosmetic “reforms” so as to placate public anger while leaving the system fundamentally unchanged, even more immune than before to serious challenge.
Greenwald’s prediction of “cosmetic reform” was realized with the introduction of the USA Freedom Act. This piece of legislation was tasked with providing oversight to NSA surveillance, but was criticized by many privacy advocates and civil rights groups for containing too many glaring loopholes to be effective. Ultimately, the bill never even made it through the Senate. Since then, Obama has continued to cunningly echo the public concern without actually taking any executive actions to end these illicit activities. And now, with an impending expiration date to Section 215 of the Patriot Act this summer–the section that is used behind closed doors to justify these practices–they could come to their natural conclusion; but with a complete lack of transparency, and decisions being made in secret courts, what confidence can we really have that this expiration date will actually lead to an end of these unlawful practices?
It seems the best hope in pressuring a satisfactory political response lies in continuing the conversation and coming to a national consensus on the questions raised by Snowden. Do we want to live in a society where our government, in total disregard for our constitution, is allowed to collect indiscriminate bulk data of its citizens? Where the legitimacy of these actions is either unregulated or regulated through the rulings of secret courts based on secret interpretations of the law? How do we strike a balance between the viable role of surveillance technology in preserving our security, and maintaining the integrity of our collective values? And are we comfortable with the lack of accountability as top government officials break the law with impunity, while the man who exposes them is criminalized? Furthermore, Edward Snowden raises important questions on the nature of civil disobedience. He elegantly outlines these concerns in the previously cited Nation interview:
The state says: “Well, in order for it to be legitimate civil disobedience, you have to follow these rules.” They put us in “free-speech zones”; they say you can only do it at this time, and in this way, and you can’t interrupt the functioning of the government. They limit the impact that civil disobedience can achieve. We have to remember that civil disobedience must be disobedience if it’s to be effective. If we simply follow the rules that a state imposes upon us when that state is acting contrary to the public interest, we’re not actually improving anything. We’re not changing anything.
In completing the portrait of this conscientious dissenter and revisiting the uproar from those initial disclosures, Citizenfour may have briefly reignited these talking points, the spirit of civil disobedience and a desire for reform. But now that Poitras’ talk show circulation, the enthusiastic reviews and prestigious awards are behind us, the American peoples’ waning attention has been redirected to more palatable comforts. It seems like we have collectively shrugged our shoulders and conceded to the reality that there’s just no privacy anymore. Oh well! We’ll just have to hope that the inevitable future Edward Snowden biopic is more successful at rallying the masses to invest interest in their constitutional rights. And who knows? When it inevitably sweeps the Oscar nominations and wins Best Picture, maybe we can get Michelle Obama to present the award that year too.