Doing justice to the Snowden case

Laura Poitras's documentary Citizenfour highlights the legal loopholes in international law that allow for electronic surveillance.
By: /
November 17, 2014
Edward Snowden Citizenfour still

Laura Poitras's documentary Citizenfour reveals itself to be as much about what causes an individual to risk everything as it is about the dystopian revelations the world has been reading about since the Guardian's Glenn Greenwald first published findings provided by former NSA contractor Edward Snowden in a Hong Kong hotel room in June 2013.

The films main themes however centre on the global issues exposed by Snowden’s revelations — whistleblowing, extradition, Internet censorship, international espionage, the politics of law (especially, the U.S. espionage act) and the redefinition of the nation state.

The story is framed along a complex paranoia-ridden path and climaxes with Snowden's aghast that there are more potent revelations yet to be disclosed, this time from another of Greenwald's as yet unidentified sources. The magnitude of Orwellian context up until this point is aided by on-screen appearances of privacy advocates William Binney and Jacob Applebaum.

By the end, the viewer is left wondering how the Internet age and the potential it promises can coexist with how government’s view it as a tool for keeping tabs on its citizens. As Snowden remarks, “it has now become an expectation that we're being watched."

As the film was released in cinemas recently, here are 10 take-aways:

  1. CITIZENFOUR IS NOT A STANDALONE DOCUMENTARY: As the third part in a trilogy about post 9/11 America, Poitras' Citizenfour captures in real time disclosures by former NSA contractor Edward Snowden to Glenn Greenwald and Ewan MacAskill and the international furor that ensued. Her two previous documentaries also document alleged abuses by the American government. My Country, My Country and The Oath received several awards.

  1. SNOWDEN DID NOT CHOOSE ASYLUM IN RUSSIA: Julian Assange makes a cameo appearance in the documentary explaining that Wikileaks helped get Snowden from Hong Kong to Russia, but not how. In the film, an unconvinced Snowden discusses leaving the Hong Kong hotel with Jonathan Man, a human rights lawyer while speaking to an unconvincing Robert Tibbo on the phone from the UNHCR. Sarah Harrison, editor at Wikileaks accompanied Snowden on the flight from Hong Kong to Russia and stayed with him in the transit zone while he applied for asylum to different 21 countries and afterwards in Russia for three months after he was granted asylum there. It later transpired that he plan had been to travel to Ecuador, where he had been granted asylum via Russia but by the time they reached the transit in Moscow airport, the U.S. had cancelled Snowden’s passport making any onward travel impossible without valid documents.

  1. THE NSA MAY NOT BE SPYING ON CANADA: A 2010 document revealed by Snowden lists the 193 foreign governments as well as factions, entities and political organization that the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court permitted the NSA to carry out surveillance on under section 702 of the FISA Amendments Act. Although Canada is one of four not on the list, its CSEC program is part of the Five Eyes alliance with the UK’s GCHQ, the Australian Signals Intelligence Directorate, New Zealand’s DSD and the NSA that allows these countries share “signals intelligence” amongst themselves. This alliance willfully shares information and it has been argued, allows citizen information to be unveiled and fed back to the host country, hence bypassing domestic privacy laws and by applying old laws to new technology, permits the collecting of data on a country’s own citizens. In other words, Canada is at the very least “incidentally” collecting data of its citizens and based on the Harper government’s doubling the CSEC’s funding and spending $1.2 billion on its new headquarters it is clear that surveillance is a priority for the current government.

  1. U.S. LEGISLATION PROTECTING WHISTLEBLOWERS REMAINS UNCLEAR: Eight months prior to Snowden’s leaking of classified information to Greenwald and co., President Obama extended whistleblower protections to employees of America’s intelligence agencies. As Snowden has pointed out, however, it remains unclear if Presidential Policy Directive 19 (PPD-19) covers government contractors as well as employees and as Snowden was an employee of Booz Allen Hamilton as opposed to the NSA he could have been charged with a felony if he used official, “proper channels” to vent his concerns.

  1. THERE ARE LAWS AGAINST INTERNATIONAL ESPIONAGE: The UN claims that the 1946 Convention on the Privileges and Immunities of the UN, the 1947 agreement between the UN and the US and the 1961 Vienna Convention on Diplomatic Relations means that acts of espionage on it is illegal. Snowden’s leaked documents revealed that the NSA successfully cracked the encryption guarding the UN internal videoconferencing system in 2012. It was also revealed that Angela Merkel, the German Chancellor, had her phone tapped by the U.S. agency.

  1. THERE ARE LOOPHOLES IN INTERNATIONAL TREATIES: The High Court in Ireland recently found Facebook to be in compliance with the Safe Harbor Treaty. The Safe Harbor agreement essentially allows the NSA to gather EU citizen’s personal user information from tech corporations like Microsoft, Google and Facebook without violating EU data protection laws as long as certain criteria are met. So even though the tech companies are in compliance with laws like SHT and the Patriot Act, it has become apparent they are violating individuals’ privacy rights through legal loopholes. The revelations have left EU countries scrambling for new data protection laws.

  1. ESPIONAGE IS NOT PART OF INTERNATIONAL LAW: Most countries have laws on domestic espionage within their own jurisdiction but no international law exists stopping a country from spying on another. The Geneva Convention only applies in times of armed conflict and it only refers to the non-entitlement of spies as prisoners of war.

  1. FAIR TRIAL UNDER THE U.S. ESPIONAGE ACT IS QUESTIONABLE: Before Obama's administration there were a total of three prosecutions of leakers under the Espionage Act. During his presidency there are now seven prosecutions. As a scene with Snowden's pro bono lawyers in Citizenfour explains, the statute eliminates any defense Snowden could make concerning the argument that his disclosures had served the common good: “So it’s I would say illustrative that the President would choose to say someone should face the music when he knows the music is a show trial.”

  1. THE MODERN STATE IS UNDEFINABLE: Citizenfour conjures the modern state as inconspicuous and abstract entity but with vast resources available to it. Greenwald's parting revelation in the documentary that 1.2 million people are on the U.S. Governments watch-list highlights this and we become aware that we’ve only started to realize the extent of the US government and its allies data collection program.

  1. OBAMA SUPPORTERS CAN BE CRITICAL, TOO: As Michael Cieply points out, several of the companies behind Citizenfour are led by some of Obama's close political allies, including Harvery Weinstein, Jeff Skoll and Richard Plepler. The film also credits the McArthur Foundation, the Rockefeller Foundation and an anonymous woman as funders.