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CitizenFour: Documenting Edward Snowden's Pultizer-Prize-winning Act of Courage


October 21, 2014
Gar Smith / The Berkeley Daily Planet & A Special Message from Edward Snowden - Special to Environmentalists Against War

CITIZENFOUR is a real-life spy thriller featuring three charismatic and eloquent individuals driven by high moral purpose into a knife-ringed pit of high-stakes intrigue. The dialogue crackles like a Hollywood script in a story that unfolds like a John le Carre novel. Also: A special message from Edward Snowden on the 50th Anniversary of the Free Speech Movement at the University of California at Berkeley.

CitizenFour: Documenting Edward Snowden's
Pultizer-Prize-winning Act of Courage

Opens nationwide on October 24.
Review by Gar Smith / The Berkeley Daily Planet




CITIZENFOUR is a real-life spy thriller featuring three charismatic and eloquent individuals driven by high moral purpose into a knife-ringed pit of high-stakes intrigue. The dialogue crackles like a Hollywood script in a story that unfolds like a John le Carre novel.

Like journalist Laura Poitras (the film's Peabody award-winning, Oscar-nominated director), we don't actually see Edward Snowden until the film is well underway. He initially appears as a faceless message on a computer screen. His encrypted e-mail, signed "CITIZENFOUR," reaches out—very carefully—for a trustworthy media contact.

As Poitras reads in one of CITIZENFOUR's initial e-mails: "You are probably wondering why I chose you but the fact is you chose yourself." The writer is aware of Poitras' post-911 films on the Iraq war and the Guantanamo prison. He takes reports of subsequent government surveillance and harassment as proof Poitras is legit and can be trusted.

"Dear Laura," he writes. "For now, know that every border you cross, every purchase you make, every call you dial, every cellphone tower you pass, friend you keep, site you visit, and subject line you type, is in the hands of a system whose reach is unlimited but whose safeguards are not."

Poitras learns that the mysterious caller originally attempted to contact London Guardian reporter Glenn Greenwald but backed off when he failed to acquire a secure means of communication. After Poitras signals her interest, CITIZENFOUR explains that the information he is offering is so voluminous that no one reporter could process it. He suggests that Poitras contact Greenwald. "I ask only that you insure this information makes it home—to the American public. Thank you and be careful."

After making intricate travel plans, Poitras (in Berlin) and Greenwald (in Sao Paolo) fly to Hong Kong for a secret meeting with Snowden. The cagey whistleblower initially rejects the idea of having the media focus on his role or his back story. He wants the journalists to focus solely on the content of his disclosures.

Fortunately, Poitras convinces Snowden to let her bring her cameras along and he allows her to film the politically seismic events that transpire in the crowded hotel room over the next few days.

Given the stakes and potential repercussions (ranging from criminal charges and jail time to deadly "accidents" or outright assassination), it is extraordinary that such film footage exists, let alone has come to comprise a mainstream motion picture experience that can now be shared by audiences across United States and worldwide.

During their initial meeting, Snowden hints at the power the NSA has on its side. If you wish to establish a password code, he instructs, you need to bear in mind that NSA has electronic tools capable of generating "one-trillion-guesses-per-second."

Because it is a given that this film was shot covertly, every scene is shadowed by apprehension. The power and reach of Washington's surveillance empire remains a constant threat.

At one point, after finishing a call on the hotel phone near his bed, Snowden warns the filmmakers that, even while it is supposedly "off" and resting in its cradle, the phone is still capable of picking up the conversations of anyone the NSA chooses to target. Shortly after warning about the government's near-omniscient electronic abilities, Snowden and his guests are rattled when an electronic alarm shatters the silence of Snowden's room.

Everyone looks perplexed and concerned. Is this a signal? If so, what next? A SWAT team knocking down the doors? A Predator drone moving into position to take out Snowdon and the reporters with a Hellfire missile?

Snowden recalls, with longing, the early promise of the World Wide Web. "The Internet was once free," a place where children anywhere in the world could connect with kids in other countries and even send messages that could challenge world leaders. But now we live in a world where the NSA has the power to spy on all communications -- emails, phonecalls, website visits, travel destination, shopping habits, bank accounts. As Snowden points out, "when you know someone is listening, people began to self-police" what they are willing to say.

The NSA's spying "is a free-speech issue," Snowden insists, because how can you have freedom when the State has you under constant surveillance?

Scene by scene, CITIZENFOUR serves as a powerful, unique and gritty reminder about how extensive and encompassing domestic spying has become under presidents Bush and Obama.

The concern is underscored by footage showing the construction of the NSA's massive new concrete-walled headquarters near Bluffdale, Utah. The $2 billion Utah Data Center is a project of such huge and faceless proportions that it suggests the raising of Egypt's pyramids or the end-of-times building of Noah's Ark. With ten major command centers from Oahu to Fort Meade, Maryland, the NSA is the US-version of East Germany's Stasi "on steroids."

William Binney, the senior crypto-mathematician entrusted with setting up the NSA's worldwide eavesdropping network, has also gone public with his concerns. "They violated the Constitution setting it up," Binney told Wired magazine. "But they didn't care. They were going to do it anyway, and they were going to crucify anyone who stood in the way."

Binney quit the agency to warn the public and politicians that NSA's Stellar Wind program was bigger than anyone suspected—and extended to interception of domestic phone calls and email. From the start, the program was capable of capturing 320 million calls a day -- approximately 73 to 80 percent of the total amount of the NSA's global intercepts.

Late in the film, Greenwald shares some unexpected information. It appears that Snowden's revelations have inspired another insider to leak highly classified information.

Because they know their words may be overheard and recorded, Greenwald and Snowden are compelled to "converse" by exchanging words and phrases scribbled on pieces of notebook paper.

Glancing at one of Greenwald's notes, Snowden is clearly astonished by what the new source has begun to reveal. More than anyone else on Earth, Snowden understands the dangers this new source will soon be facing.

The note-passing scene makes for high drama as the disclosures (and the fear of being overheard by NSA bugs) literally leave both men "speechless." The scene may also trigger flop-sweat paranoia in the audience when it becomes apparent that some of the words written on those pieces of paper briefly come into focus as they are passed back and forth.

You can't help but think: "NSA must already have a copy of this documentary." You want to yell at the screen: "Turn off the damn cameras before the NSA has a chance to hit the pause button and command a screen grab!" Couldn't the disclosure of the information on those notepads potentially trigger one or more mysterious deaths at various locations around the world? One sheet left on a table, clearly bears the code word "Jabber."

Obviously, the filmmakers are meticulously careful bunch. One can only conclude that the information—for whatever reason—is no longer of any strategic value. But still, the extraordinary scene captured in that hotel room in Hong Kong ends with Greenwald carefully collecting and tearing every page into tiny one-inch square bits.

There are many moments in CITIIZENFOUR that linger in the mind. Here is one.

About midway in Poitras' film, Snowden pauses in front of a bathroom mirror and attempts to change his appearance before leaving the safety of his hotel. He shaves his cheeks and grabs some gel to slick down his hair. Suddenly, instead of looking like a stubble-faced post-teen computer nerd, he takes on the suave appearance of a younger Matthew McConaughey.

As Snowden turns toward the camera, we see a modest and honest individual whose moral charisma is matched by physical charisma. You would entrust your car, your home, your child -- heck, your country! -- to this man.

Let's hear it: "Snowden for President!" (If you're looking for a candidate who's the farthest thing from a "Washington insider," Snowden's the guy.)



Edward Snowden's Message to Berkeley
On the 50th Anniversary of the Free Speech Movement




On October 1, Free Speech day in California, former National Security Agency subcontractor-turned-whistleblower Edward Snowden sent the following message to veterans of Berkeley's Free Speech Movement. It was read aloud on the Savio Steps by FSM vet Jack Radey during a rally marking the 50th anniversary of the day students surrounded a police car to prevent the arrest of a political activist who had been tabling for the Congress of Racial Equality.

Thank you for inviting me to speak to you today, as we recognize the 50th Anniversary of the Free Speech Movement.

Berkeley's unparalleled traditions of student activism and community engagement have been both a challenge and in inspiration to human rights movements worldwide. They compel us to imagine the world that we want to live in and to stand up for it -- and they show us that with vision and persistence, we can change the world. I am honored to join with you today to celebrate that tradition.

The threats to free expression in the United States and around the world today are vast and complex. In order to better understand and combat these new threats, we must look back on the great victories of the Free Speech Movement and its part in the people's movements that created checks on government power at that time.

Many of these checks, unfortunately, have now been almost completely eroded. The extraordinary mass surveillance and censorship capabilities and unprecedented government secrecy require us, once again, to take urgent action to preserve our free societies.

This is the challenge of our generation.

While new technologies have introduced extraordinary opportunities for free expression and communication around the globe, governments have, in secret, worked against these forces to reengineer these new capabilities as tools of mass surveillance and oppression.

Surveillance, without regard to the rule of law or our basic human dignity, creates societies that fear free expression and dissent, the very values that have made America strong. When we know we're being watched, we impose restraints on our behavior -- even clearly innocent activities -- just as surely as if we were ordered to do so.

On this campus in 1964, Mario Savio said, "There is a time when the operation of the machine becomes so odious, makes you so sick at heart, that you can't take part." Over the past fifteen months, people around the world have spoken out and continue to stand up against the forces of censorship and surveillance. Together, we will restore the public's seat at the table of government.

Posted in accordance with Title 17, Section 107, US Code, for noncommercial, educational purposes.

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