The ACLU of Massachusetts hosted a pre-release screening of the new Oliver Stone biopic SNOWDEN last night in downtown Boston. It’s an entertaining film that will inform future generations of NSA whistleblower Edward Snowden’s sacrifice from the perspective of someone who views him as a courageous patriot. In a world wherein Hollywood, more than journalism, shapes perceptions of major historical events (a fact that doesn’t escape the CIA and Pentagon), the film comes as a relief. At least the freedom-loving side of the Snowden saga has been told, and in a compelling, celebrity-laced, fast-moving, expensive (and therefore highly watchable) thriller.
But while the film promotes a vital uber narrative about patriotism, sacrifice, dissent, and freedom, the scenes that struck me as the most important were not about Edward Snowden, per se, but rather about how the US government and its employees can (and apparently do) use the information they hoover up about billions of people every day to manipulate and control individual people. And where blackmail won’t work, there are opportunities to get more creative.
Folks in the United States often say they don’t worry about NSA spying because they aren’t doing anything interesting or ‘wrong.’ Snowden’s snappy retort to this claim is that saying you don’t care about your privacy because you’re doing nothing wrong is like saying you don’t care about freedom of speech because you have nothing to say. In other words, he’s calling bullshit: everyone has something to hide, just like everyone has something to say.
***Warning: Spoilers below.***
In the film, this axiom is articulated by showing, not telling, and it’s incredibly effective. In one disturbing scene, Snowden has been dispatched to work for the CIA in Geneva, helping field officers with their digital security operations. The young computer whiz, who had years earlier attempted to join the military special forces before he broke both of his legs and received an honorable discharge, wants to get his hands dirty. Regrettably, he gets exactly that.
His first field assignment is to attend a fancy diplomat-set party to find a banker he can turn into a CIA asset. With the help of his girlfriend—who turns out to be a much better spy than Snowden—he befriends a Pakistani banker. But he’s not sure how to turn his friendship into the informant relationship his CIA superiors seek. Simple, a colleague tells him: Find the banker’s pressure point, and then press on it. Snowden takes this advice to heart and asks a buddy in NSA to use the agency’s ‘full-take’ intelligence databases to look for something nefarious on the banker. Nothing turns up at first. The banker is a clean guy with seemingly no embarrassing secrets. But information is power—even if the information doesn’t reveal an affair, bodies in the basement, or a weird porn fetish—and as Snowden will soon learn, there are other ways to use information to control people besides blackmailing them.
Eventually, as they peruse the NSA’s XKEYSCORE database, reading the private correspondence of the banker’s friends and family, Snowden and the NSA voyeur strike upon something. The banker’s teenaged daughter is in love with a young Turkish man who is in Geneva without papers, the spies learn after reading her private Facebook messages. Snowden has found his pressure point. He passes the information along to his CIA colleague.
In the next scene, Snowden, the banker, and the CIA colleague are in a strip club. The CIA guy has plied the banker with seemingly endless drinks, and he’s wasted. He’s also upset, because his daughter has just tried to kill herself. She went over the edge when her teenaged lover was deported by the Swiss government. The implication is clear: The information Snowden provided about the banker’s daughter prompted the CIA to get the young man and his mother deported. There’s even a vague suggestion that the CIA provided the drugs the young woman nearly overdosed on.
The three men leave the strip club, the banker stumbling. The CIA officer takes the banker’s keys, and finds his car. The plan is simple, he tells Snowden, leaving the drunk banker propped up against a wall: The banker will get into his car to drive away, and you’ll call the police to report a drunk driver. He’ll face serious charges, and we will come to his rescue. Then we will control him, and we’ll have what we wanted from the beginning: access to his bank, the bank’s clients, and information about possible Saudi funding of terrorism. Snowden is horrified by the entire thing, and tries to intervene to stop the man from getting into his car so drunk. But it’s far too late for that. His CIA colleague tells him to grow up or find another line of work.
The banker, one of billions of people under the NSA’s microscope, didn’t do anything wrong. His daughter didn’t do anything wrong when she fell in love with a young Turkish immigrant. Her young boyfriend didn’t do anything wrong when he arrived in Geneva with his mother without papers. Nonetheless, using information about something as innocent as teenaged love, the CIA was able to manipulate the banker and his family like they were marionettes on strings. A teenager almost died, a family was ripped from their home, a father humiliated. Information, the scene shows us, is power.
This week, Edward Snowden, the ACLU, Amnesty International and other groups will call on President Obama to pardon the NSA whistleblower. We should all be grateful to Snowden for his sacrifice. But if Obama pardons him, it won’t set only one man free. It will send a powerful message that the dream of democracy for which Edward Snowden gave up his life, his career, his home, and his freedom isn’t just a fantasy—we can make it real. The CIA and NSA won’t like it if President Obama lets Ed come home, but that’s just the point: They shouldn’t be in charge. And bucking their demands when it comes to their former colleague Snowden’s future may be the most promising sign yet that their power isn’t, as Oliver Stone’s film suggests, unlimited.