Citizen Four, Edward Snowden and the Whistleblower Identity
The most uncanny aspect of “Citizen Four,” the Laura Poitras film which won the Academy Award for Best Documentary this week, is the time shift. You are there, in the hotel room, as Edward Snowden releases his story in real time, and moves out of anonymity into the international spotlight, even though the events shown onscreen took place a year earlier. The point of view, the tension, the you-are-there is so palpable, you forget this already took place in the news cycle.
“Citizen Four” is a thriller story writ large. Even though you know the outcome: that Snowden managed to get to safety in an undisclosed location in Russia, was not picked up by the CIA or the FBI despite his branding as a traitor by the United States government. It evokes nail-biting, edge-of-the-seat attentiveness in the telling.
Whatever your opinion about the man, Edward Snowden, he and his story delivery collaborators have raised some of the most dynamic dialogues of our era about the extent and ramifications of mass surveillance. The film depicts an earnest citizen faced with a difficult decision: to remain nose-to-the-grindstone, continue to pick up his paycheck, or disclose sensitive documents to a select cadre of journalists and disrupt his future.
What is unusual about this story is that Snowden sought out Director Laura Poitras due to her previous body of work, which includes “My Country, My Country” (2006), about Iraq under U.S. occupation; and “The Oath” (2010), about two men affiliated with Osama bin Laden, one of whom is the first defendant to be tried in the U.S. military tribunals established by the United States Department of Defense.
Snowden took a risk reaching out to a stranger, but chose trust due to her track record as a storyteller and free speech advocate. She is turn delivered his request as the anonymous “Citizen Four” to “ensure this information makes it home to the American public.” Clearly, she did even more than that. She controlled a narrative that could have been utterly spun into black and white enemy terrain. The film presents Edward Snowden, the human being, holed up in a Hong Kong hotel, who believes what he is doing is the right thing, full knowing he may end up in prison or worse.
Just a few years earlier, Chelsea Manning landed in lifetime solitary confinement following the release of the Collateral Damage video files to Wikileaks. Alex Gibney’s 2013 documentary, “We Steal Secrets: The Story of WikiLeaks,” features interviews with Chelsea (then Bradley) Manning, but the main focus is on the emergence of Julian Assange as the face of the open source portal. Assange refused to be interviewed for the film, so the filmmaker relied on archival and news footage to tell the story. We are given a glimpse of Manning but she is largely overshadowed by the charismatic and problematic figure of Assange, himself branded a traitor by the U.S. government, now living in the Chilean Embassy in London, as he rises from Melbourne hacker to international icon after he supplying the Guardian, the New York Times and Der Spiegel with thousands of classified documents about US military operations in Iraq and Afghanistan.
In “Citizen Four,” with a direct address level of intimacy, Laura Poitras delivers a portrait of a young man pursuing his conscience despite personal risk, in real time. In collaboration with the international journalist Glen Greenwald, Poitras carefully documents the release of the story even though doing so risked their implication in a national security breach. (Both Poitras and Greenwald have been repeatedly detained at international borders and now carry encrypted files and well as extensive backups to protect their work from confiscation.)
Here is an excerpt from her Oscar acceptance speech:
The disclosures that Edward Snowden reveals don’t only expose a threat to our privacy but to our democracy itself. When the most important decisions being made affecting all of us are made in secret, we lose our ability to check the powers that control. Thank you to Edward Snowden for his courage, and for the many other whistleblowers. And I share this with Glenn Greenwald and other journalists who are exposing truth.
This week, Poitras, Greenwald and Snowden hosted a AUA (Ask Us Anything) thread on Reddit to answer questions in the wake of their Oscar win. Snowden currently lives under protection in Moscow, where he frequently participates in virtual interviews, including last years robotic appearance at TedTalks, “How to Take Back the Internet.”
What are your thoughts on Snowden’s risk-taking in exposing this story, even though it may mean a permanent loss of personal freedom? What of his role as a now-virtual voice in the international dialogues about government surveillance, free speech and the future of power in the hands of the many, or the hands of the few?