To challenge the radical claim frequently made by defenders of the national security status quo that mass, suspicionless surveillance is justified by the threat of terrorism, Laura Poitras’ new documentary Citizenfour puts forth an equally ambitious argument: mass surveillance has almost nothing to do with terrorism.
Stay in the loop
Never miss the news and analysis you care about.
Citizenfour presents the intelligence apparatus’ capabilities through the eyes of whistleblowers and electronic privacy activists like Edward Snowden, Bill Binney, and Jacob Appelbaum, absent the omnipresent specter of terrorism the mainstream media won’t let us forget.
Government descriptions of the intelligence agencies’ (the NSA is just one of 17 US intelligence agencies) secret operating procedures do not make their way into the film, probably because they lack credibility, as demonstrated by past lies to Congress about domestic surveillance from General James Clapper, the director of National Intelligence, and General Keith Alexander, the former director of the NSA.
By rejecting the official framing of mass, suspicionless government surveillance, the film encourages viewers to acknowledge the likelihood that unchecked surveillance has effectively subverted our political democracy, if such a vague – and often misappropriated – term can be defined in plain language as consent of the governed, freedom of the press and the right to know just what the government is up to in our name, and meaningful checks and balances between the federal government’s three branches (after all, in these times the CIA can spy on the Senate with impunity).
The intelligence agencies evidently decided the best way to protect us was to become the most powerful exploiter of its vulnerabilities. …The decision’s staggering scope is matched only by its brazenly unaccountable, undemocratic nature.
While the construction of the mass surveillance system we currently live under might have begun in response to a terrorist threat, the threat does not – and never did – require that the electronic communications of all people on the planet be preemptively collected and stored so they can be searched retroactively.
Even the staunchest critics of government intelligence practices do not deny there are certain legitimate uses of surveillance, which might explain why Poitras does not mention them, let alone allow them to stand as some sort of justification for mass, suspicionless surveillance. Instead, “Citizenfour” depicts current intelligence practices as the confluence of the prevailing politics of fear and unaccountable government bureaucracy gone wrong.
Afforded a virtually impenetrable veil of secrecy, the intelligence agencies amassed historically unrivaled surveillance capabilities over the population it helps to govern simply because it could. Following 9/11, they exploited a recently created technology platform, the internet, that had not yet – and still has not – developed the means to protect the privacy of the communications and transfers of information it makes possible.
Looking at this platform – one that contains nearly all of our personal communications and proprietary economic information – the intelligence agencies evidently decided the best way to protect us was to become the most powerful exploiter of its vulnerabilities instead of attempting to ensure nobody could exploit it. The decision’s staggering scope is matched only by its brazenly unaccountable, undemocratic nature.
“Citizenfour” begins with text exposition, in classic Poitras style, that informs the viewer she had been placed on a secret government watch list in 2006 after she released a film, My Country, My Country, critical of the Iraq war. In total, she has been stopped at the US border roughly 40 times, and another 40 to 50 times at European transit points.
“For now, know that every border you cross, every purchase you make, every call you dial, every cell phone 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.”
The background is a chilling example of the potential for overt restriction of press freedom the national security state has at its disposal, a point hammered home by the journalist Jeremy Scahill later in the film, as he explains the precautions he has undertaken to maintain the confidentiality of a new government source.
The threat to press freedom is also demonstrated by other real-life examples like The New York Times national security reporter James Risen – who initially disclosed the NSA’s mass suspicionless phone wiretapping program in 2005 – being subpoenaed to testify in court at the trial of a suspected source, and the Department of Justice’s two-month surveillance of the Associated Press in connection with a whistleblower investigation. Both actions intimidate future whistleblowers, considering the government’s demonstrated intention to functionally eliminate the once sacrosanct principle of source confidentiality.
The film then quickly moves to explanation of the intelligence apparatus’ nearly unlimited reach. Minutes into the film, recalling her initial communications with Snowden, Poitras states in a voice-over, “For now, know that every border you cross, every purchase you make, every call you dial, every cell phone 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.”
Bill Binney, a former NSA cryptologist who resigned from the agency almost immediately after 9/11, appears to explain “Stellar Wind,” the NSA program directed indiscriminately at everyone – including Americans – around the world to mine data from virtually all electronic activity, including email and telephone communications, financial transactions and internet activity.
In a 2012 op-doc Poitras made for The New York Times, Binney argues that the program, which laid the groundwork for current NSA data-mining programs revealed by Snowden, like PRISM, violates numerous laws: the US Constitution, the Penn Registry Law, the Stored Communications Act, the Electronic Privacy Act, the Intelligence Acts of 1947 and 1978, and all of the FEC telecomm laws.
Guidelines for who can be watched are lax, if they exist at all.
Shots of the Bluffdale, Utah, data storage facility, by far the largest of its kind in the world, are interspersed throughout the narrative with exposition from Binney and Jacob Appelbaum, the computer security researcher, journalist, and activist. In one scene, Appelbaum is shown explaining to Occupy Wall Street activists the concept of “linkability,” the intelligence practice of matching metadata from different types of transactions mined by different programs to piece together intimate details of an individual’s physical travel, personal and professional relationships and general electronic activity.
National security state defenders would claim metadata is far less intrusive than the content of conversations and that American metadata that is collected is “minimized,” but reporting by the Intercept and analysis from Just Security explains otherwise. Through front-end platforms like ICREACH, NSA analysts can search raw intelligence from the various databases to which the agency has access.
Only the content of American communications are minimized, meaning they could be found by a search, but their content could not be viewed. There are no such restrictions for metadata, even though the metadata for a telephone call would reveal at least the identity of both callers, both phone numbers and the location of both callers. Intelligence analysts could then search that metadata against information held in other databases, containing, say, metadata for financial transactions and the content of internet searches, to piece together the details of an individual’s daily life.
Guidelines for who can be watched are lax, if they exist at all. The NSA is spying on prominent Muslim-American leaders, and the second-highest concentration of people designated by the government as “known or suspected terrorists” is in Dearborn, Michigan, a city of 96,000 people that also happens to have the largest percentage of Arab-American residents in the country.
Intelligence agencies have also blatantly abused their powers in the recent past. The FBI and the NSA collaborated during the 1960s and 1970s to spy on “subversives” like Martin Luther King Jr., Vietnam War protesters and political socialists through programs such as COINTELPRO, Project MINARET, and Project SHAMROCK. If the past can act as a guide, we should expect civil servants to spy on “subversives” who might be a threat to their bosses’ political ideas.
This history appears to bear on Poitras’ cinematic choices. She presents Binney and Appelbaum before Snowden takes the screen, situating him within a tradition of whistleblowing and electronic privacy activism that has faced open government opposition. Binney details the obstacles facing whistleblowers, as he describes the FBI raid on his home – early-2000s NSA whistleblowers like Thomas Drake, Ed Loomis, and Kirk Wiebe and Diane Roark, a former House Select Committee on Intelligence staff member, also received violent visits from the FBI.
“Citizenfour” openly defies government accounts of the intelligence apparatus, especially those by President Obama and officials in his administration’s cabinet, a challenge aimed directly at the possibility of political democracy in this country.
A scene with international human rights lawyers explains the near impossibility of Snowden receiving a fair trial if he returned to the United States. In the scene, one lawyer describes the situation as 95 percent political and 5 percent legal, as he describes the significance of the Espionage Act of 1917, the law under which Snowden would be tried. The law treats any person who divulges classified documents as it would a spy attempting to sell secrets to a foreign government for personal profit. If tried under the law, Snowden would not be allowed to argue that his disclosures were made in the public interest. Even the limited reforms his disclosures have inspired could not stand as evidence of his acting in the public interest.
The film’s intensely adversarial disposition is a departure from the two previous entries into Poitras’ national security trilogy, as The New Yorker’s George Packer notes in his in-depth look at Poitras and Citizenfour. In My Country, My Country, Poitras gives plenty of screen time to UN election officials and the US military’s attempts to deliver safe elections to Iraq, accompanied by frequent assertions of the importance of the elections. Sure, Dr. Riyadh, the film’s protagonist, an Iraqi doctor and political candidate, openly mocks the notion of democratic elections in a war-torn country in the film’s opening scene. But the film does not question the very possibility of bringing democratic politics to another country through military invasion.
The Oath focuses on Abu Jandal, a former bodyguard to Osama Bin Ladin who was living freely in Yemen as a taxi driver, and his brother-in-law, Salim Hamdan, who was falsely imprisoned at Guantanamo Bay. Jandal’s character complicates the notion of jihad, since he is seen openly advocating jihad and war against Westerners in Muslim lands, but we are also told, near the end of the film, of the vast actionable intelligence against al-Qaeda he willingly divulged in an FBI interrogation in the immediate aftermath of 9/11.
The viewer is left with a humanized account of fundamentalist jihadists, yet the notion that they are legitimate military opponents and that the “War on Terror” is a legitimate endeavor are left unexplored. Perhaps the choices Poitras makes in Citizenfour are affected by the palpable failure of the previous works to influence popular opinion on the chosen subjects, the Iraq War and Guantanamo imprisonment. The Iraq War continues to rage to this day, with well over 150,000 dead Iraqi civilians. And indefinite Guantanamo imprisonment continues with force-feedings and all.
Mass, suspicionless surveillance is not about terrorism.
Citizenfour openly defies government accounts of the intelligence apparatus, especially those by President Obama and officials in his administration’s cabinet, a challenge aimed directly at the possibility of political democracy in this country. Packer, along with many of the establishment media figures who typically defend the national security state, sees the current situation differently.
Their arguments take three forms: First, they contend foreign intelligence practices do not bear on our political democracy, and Snowden’s inclusion of files documenting such practices proves his motives are impure in some way; second, mass, suspicionless surveillance entails some sort of balance between constitutionally guaranteed privacies and legitimate security concerns; third, there is no evidence of government surveillance abuse, so assertions of the likelihood of abuse reveal only the paranoia of those who make them.
First, the intelligence apparatus’ stated mission is foreign intelligence, but that does not mean it has an unlimited mandate. Article Six of the Constitution establishes the laws and treaties of the United States as supreme law of the land. Article 17 of the United Nations International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights states, “no one shall be subjected to arbitrary or unlawful interference with his or her privacy, family, home and correspondence, nor to unlawful attacks on his or her honour or reputation.”
Absent checks on organizations lacking transparency, we are left with only blind trust that politicians and civil servants will not exercise the power available to them.
A recent report released by the Ben Emmerson, the UN’s special rapporteur on counterterrorism, asserts US intelligence practices likely subvert that right to privacy. Even more important to our democracy is an informed political discourse, which is made difficult on foreign policy matters due to intelligence secrecy. In cases such as the Iraq War, such secrecy tangibly imperils our democracy.
Intelligence secrecy also allows politicians to trump-up foreign security concerns that often dominate the “security” discourse at the expense of other plain-language security concerns in many Americans’ lives like home foreclosure, student and consumer debt, over-policing, unemployment and underemployment, wage theft, and income inequality and all of its attendant questions. (Is it possible for democratic political processes to produce an outcome where 60 percent of the population owns only 2 percent of its wealth? A question for another time.)
Second, the “middle ground” balance between security and privacy is nothing but a prized shibboleth of the self-anointed national security “experts” and their government sources. Intelligence gathering on terrorism suspects, as defined by the time-honored standard of probable cause, was adequate for our country’s entire history until the passage of the Patriot Act. There’s no reason it can’t be again when the emergency law is finally laid to rest. Mass, suspicionless surveillance is not about terrorism. Neither is Citizenfour.
Third, the absence of specific evidence of abuse is explained, at least in part, by the secret nature of the national security state as a whole – the government-classified 77 million documents in 2010. As previously stated, prominent Muslim-American leaders are deemed legitimate targets for surveillance, as are large Arab-American populations like that of Dearborn, Michigan. And we must not forget past extensive abuse, which was unearthed largely by the Church Committee, the last attempt to make public any kind of comprehensive account of the intelligence apparatus.
Absent checks on organizations lacking transparency, we are left with only blind trust that politicians and civil servants will not exercise the power available to them, presumably due to their resolute moral fiber or the goodness in their hearts, qualities never associated with politicians. Codified restraints are law. To “trust” officials to operate without them – and to not operate in their own self-interests – is lawlessness. Yet this is the essence of the national security state defenders’ proposition.
When they brand Poitras and her colleagues at the Intercept advocates, not journalists, they accept the assumptions embodied by those who spy while rejecting those of the spied upon. They believe that the government, absent any proof of their good intentions or legal framework defining their actions, will not spy on us. Yet they express disbelief when people who worked for intelligence agencies claim past abilities to spy on everyone, claims that are backed up by internal documents outlining broad operational procedures. Their preferred biases are understandable, as they face no risk of being spied on. After all, they share the same political beliefs of those in power.
Poitras’ film identifies mass, suspicionless surveillance as it is defined by internal NSA documents, while telling the story of how we, the people, are lucky to have even learned the limited information we have to date. Poitras does not respond to the establishment’s narrow “security” framework, because it has repeatedly demonstrated its indifference toward any discussion that dares to occur outside of it.
The film’s ending, essentially a call for more whistleblowers to come forward, is fitting. Needed change will not come from the establishment figures whose public analysis the film ignores. The film directs its story at us, the spied upon, the only people capable of taking back the power we have relinquished.