Film Review: Citizenfour (2014) by Laura Poitras

By Kyle Orton (@KyleWOrton) on February 6, 2015


Produced and directed by Laura Poitras, a Berlin-based, American-born producer and director, who has made numerous films attacking America’s foreign policy, Citizenfour rounds out a trilogy that started in 2006 with My Country, My Country about the U.S. regency in Iraq, and had its last instalment in 2010 with The Oath, a film that apparently follows two al-Qaeda members in Yemen and concludes they’re not such bad chaps.

The target this time for Poitras is the National Security Agency (NSA). Citizenfour is a documentary based on footage that Poitras gathered between June 1 and 15, 2013, in Hong Kong, where she apparently first met with Edward Snowden, who had stolen anything up to 1.7 million classified documents, and was distributing them to Glenn Greenwald, a blogger who had gained a large Left-wing and libertarian following who was then at The Guardian, and The Guardian‘s intelligence reporter, Ewen MacAskill. Greenwald published the first story on June 9, 2013. On June 23, Snowden goes to Moscow, where he waits at Sheremetyevo airport until Vladimir Putin grants him asylum on August 1.

By the account in the film, Snowden first reached out to Poitras in January 2013 via an encrypted web-chat, introducing himself as “Citizenfour”. Without knowing his identity, Poitras and Greenwald prepared to go to Hong Kong—and because of the seriousness of the matter for The Guardian, a senior journalist in MacAskill was sent along, too.

The footage gathered by Poitras of the foursome in a room at Mira Hotel does not make for a particularly entertaining film. Indeed, to be perfectly frank about it, the film is generally fantastically boring. There might be some who have a use for long, silent shots of Snowden sitting on a hotel bed, typing, and looking broody, or sitting on a hotel bed, typing, and looking broody in a bathrobe, or looking out of the hotel window, or shaving, or watching CNN, but I am not one of them. The rest of the film alternates between excruciating and hysterical. The conversations between Snowden, Greenwald, and MacAskill are very wooden and awkward. When Snowden and Greenwald get going on their moral and political justifications for what they are doing it gets to the edges of earth’s orbit. When Snowden blames everything from the fire-alarm to his non-payment of rent on the U.S. government, things get further still from Planet Earth.

One former intimate of Julian Assange, the WikiLeaks founder, described Assange’s security arrangements

[S]udden bursts of vigilance would vie with complete negligence. There was no real system of security or applied secrecy, not if you’ve read about how spy agencies operate. Julian would speak on open lines when he simply forgot to take care. The others kept the same mobiles for months. And none of them seemed to care about a running tape recorder.”

One got a sense of that with Snowden, here; the thoroughly paranoid mixed with the amateurish. All kinds of measures are taken with mobile telephones and laptops—and then Snowden suddenly remembers that the landline next to him could be a listening device. It’s almost as if Snowden didn’t know what he is talking about.

What Snowden does talk about is his evident desire for martyrdom. Snowden demands to be exposed as the leaker, saying, “Immediately nail me to the cross”. The language of crucifixion comes up repeatedly. “You’re not going to bully me into silence like you did to everybody else,” Snowden says in explaining why he was doing this to NSA. In Snowden lamenting how the Internet used to be “free” but now people even make jokes about their Google searches being tracked, I’m not the first to detect a “Geek Culture” aspect to the ethics guiding the Snowdenistas. (By the way, NSA and its partners are evidently very good at sifting out what’s dangerous from what’s not: as somebody who’s used Google for years to look up matters of jihadist ideology, terrorism, and even the procedure for mixing binary chemical weapons, I have not been disappeared just yet.) There is something of the superhero in the way Snowden sees himself: one man and his laptop, a lone voice for justice against a sullied world. Many people—especially boys—go through such a phase. Most of them also grow out of it and don’t play it out to the extent of absconding into the Kremlin’s arms with the most highly-guarded secrets about the security of the Western World.

Snowden announces at another moment:

I’m comfortable in my technical ability to protect [the documents]. I mean you could literally shoot me or torture me and I could not disclose the password if I wanted to. I have the sophistication to do that. There are some journalists who I think could do that. But there are a number who I think couldn’t.”

Again: aren’t we getting a little carried away?

Interestingly, this was Snowden explaining why he would not hand the documents over to a common database where The Guardian‘s journalists could then assess the documents on their own, without Snowden and Greenwald distributing them. By Snowden’s account, he didn’t want an “uncontrolled disclosure”; rather than just release them all or selectively release them himself, Snowden says he wanted to put the documents through journalists, so his own bias didn’t get in the way and the “public interest was being represented in the most responsible manner”! This is an incredible statement from a man sat in the province of the U.S.’s premier cyber-security adversary (China), who is just about to move to Moscow, and who has stolen and released secret documents. It means, in short, that Snowden believes the “public interest” is better known to a cabal of advocacy journalists and an IT technician than it is to an elected government.

Interspersed with the scenes at the hotel are Greenwald on news channels promoting the stories, Greenwald meeting his partner, David Miranda, at the Rio airport after Miranda has been detained in London, and Greenwald giving a speech at the Brazilian Senate. There are serious problems with all of these scenes.

When Greenwald appears after the first story, he is congratulated on his “scoop,” but that’s exactly what this isn’t. Greenwald did not uncover this by investigative work; Greenwald was given this because he was deemed ideologically sound. Snowden tells Greenwald, “Your principles on this I love, I can’t support them enough.” It’s possibly the central line in the film. These stories by Greenwald were effectively very elaborate press releases, with the agenda and message set by somebody else, relying on Greenwald’s political proclivities to tell the story they wanted, removing context—and facts—that would contradict a narrative that rather noticeably damaged the Western Alliance while helping certain hostile powers.

The detention of David Miranda at Heathrow under the Terrorism Act is an occasion for great self-pity by the participants, but it is hard to see what footing Miranda has to complain. Miranda was in possession of “an external hard drive containing 58,000 highly classified UK intelligence documents“. The grounds of his detention were that he was “carrying material, the release of which would endanger people’s lives,” and the “threat of disclosure” was being made in service of “a political or ideological case”. It comes down to Miranda demanding that he be left alone when shuttling stolen documents that can damage British security across British territory. Miranda has touchingly testified to the clear-eyed way he went into this on Greenwald’s behalf; he can’t then claim to be merely a spouse set-upon by some mafia-like British government. (Greenwald might have the ghost of a point when fuming against a country that “has no constitutional guarantee of a free press,” and asks rhetorically: “Is there anything more primitive and authoritarian than a fucking monarchy?” But there are worse forms of government—Russia, for example, or Brazil come to that.)

Greenwald’s speech at the Brazilian Senate provides a case-study in the unctuous way Greenwald has handled this story. Greenwald claims, for example, that NSA engages in industrial espionage. But this is a trick of language. NSA spies on companies like Gazprom, which is an instrument of Russian State power. There are Western intelligence agencies that do aggressive industrial espionage like France. The nearest the U.S. gets to industrial espionage is levelling the playing field: exposing European companies that win contracts by bribery so that American companies have a fair shot. This is of a piece, however, with Greenwald being shocked—shocked!—that NSA, a foreign intelligence service, can collect data on foreign nationals with “no special permissions at all,” and indeed that it collects as much as it can from as many places as it can.

There are two options here: (1) Either Greenwald is hopelessly naïve and does not understand that every other country on the planet behaves this way; or (2) Greenwald does understand this and still chose to present the United States as the font of evil. Either would disqualify Greenwald from the role of sole arbiter of what gets published and what doesn’t from documents an elected government has designated as secret.

Greenwald also makes the false talking-point about the court set up in accordance with the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act (FISA) always granting NSA what it wants internally to the United States. As explained by Edward Lucas, this is a wilful misrepresentation:

It is true that the FISA court turned down few requests from the NSA. But this does not prove that the court is toothless. It reflects the fact that the NSA itself vets its own requests to weed out those that are unlikely to gain approval.”

So now we come to the ending. Were it not so tedious it might be quite funny. William Binney and Jeremy Scahill have been shoe-horned in to voice their support for the cause, and then it is back to the hotel room for Snowden and Greenwald to pass written notes between themselves to avoid bugs and the cameras that they themselves have arranged to be in place. The upshot of this tête-à-tête is a furtive suggestion that there is a second person within NSA revealing U.S. national security secrets. The most dangerous part of this is the threat that this means another film is coming.

It’s quite obvious, even within the film’s hermetic narrative, that something is not quite right—and I don’t just mean the fact that by seven minutes in the United States is accused of imposing martial law on cyber-space. Sticking to the Official Narrative, when Julian Assange appears on-screen he says that Snowden was trapped in the airport in Moscow because the U.S. revoked Snowden’s passport as he was passing through on his way to Latin America. We know that isn’t true—because WikiLeaks told us so. WikiLeaks told Snowden to go to Russia from Hong Kong: he was never headed anywhere else.

In the Snowden saga, WikiLeaks is rather left out of accounts by the Snowdenistas, but WikiLeaks and its surrogates like Jacob Applebaum and Sarah Harrison, who looked awfully like a handler to the cynical among us once Snowden was in Moscow (Assange is quoted saying: “one of our people is accompanying him”), surrounded Snowden at every stage. Indeed, it seems likely that Snowden was in contact with Applebaum before he was in contact with Poitras in January 2013. Lucas suggested that Snowden had been “bounced” by WikiLeaks to Moscow, and that seems to me plausible: Snowden had lost control of his destiny some time before he wound up in his open-prison in Moscow.

Snowden is known to have reached out to Greenwald in December 2012, at which point he was already stealing documents, and by Greenwald’s own admission Snowden took the Booz Hamilton job in March 2013 with the express intent of stealing certain documents. These facts did not make it into the final cut of Citizenfour.

At one point an ACLU lawyer says that the 1917 Espionage Act would “treat [Snowden] as a spy”. It makes a case for seeing this rather crusty statute as not so bad after all. Snowden claims he does not want to be the story, but the problem is that he is the story. The leaks that reveal that Western foreign intelligence is doing foreign intelligence and that, with rare exceptions, the oversight bureaucracy is working, are not a story—and not even The Guardian has been able to protract this after so many of its early “scoops” fell apart on examination.

It matters, however, that the Snowden Operation has damaged U.S.-German relations—including a story that NSA had targeted Chancellor Angela Merkel’s telephone, which transpired to be Russian disinformation. It matters that Snowden’s revelations damaged Australia-Indonesia counter-terrorism cooperation. It matters that Snowden’s revelations allowed Putin to blind NATO as he moved into Ukraine. When you start adding up the concrete effects of the Snowden Operation—and discounting unfalsifiable claims like “it started a debate”—what you find is a consistent pattern of serving long-standing Kremlin interests, and damaging Western security. That is why even a well-made film would not have made NSA the central feature in this story. The only remaining question is, and has been for some time, “When did Snowden go over to the Russians?

4 thoughts on “Film Review: Citizenfour (2014) by Laura Poitras

  1. Pingback: Citizenfour: An Analysis | Conquest of the Useless

  2. Bonnie Geller

    I think it is hilarious since the US has been spying on allies for years and then gets really, really upset if someone dares spy on them. Outraged when Mossad has spies to catch terrorists,, outraged when Russia and Chinese are spying on them and then they spy on Merkel and other world leaders who are supposed to be allies, as well as China and Russia?

    1. KyleWOrton

      There’s every difference between a hostile intelligence service and a friendly one, and FYI the U.S. never spied on Merkel’s phone, but either Russia or China did just attack Merkel’s Bundestag computer ….

  3. Pingback: Film Review: Snowden (2016) | The Syrian Intifada

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