The Story Of Citizenfour

Fred Kaplan reviews Laura Poitras’ new Snowden documentary:

At one very interesting point in the film, Snowden tells Poitras and Greenwald, “Some of these documents are legitimately classified,” and their release “could do great harm” to intelligence sources and methods. He adds, “I trust you’ll be responsible” in handling them.

This is what most baffles me about the whole Snowden case. What kind of whistleblower hands over a digital library of extremely classified documents on a vast range of topics, shrugs his shoulders, and says, I’ll let you decide what to publish? He tells the two journalists that he’s “too biased” to pick and choose himself. What does that mean? These are esoteric, in some cases highly technical documents; he’s in a better position to know their implications than Poitras and Greenwald; certainly he could warn them, “Oops, I shouldn’t have included this one. It’s really sensitive.”

During a profile of Poitras, George Packer provides his take on the film:

Among the leaked documents are details of foreign-intelligence gathering that do not fall under the heading of unlawful threats to American democracy—what Snowden described as his only concern. [N.S.A. whistle-blower William] Binney, generally a fervent Snowden supporter, told USA Today that Snowden’s references to “hacking into China” went too far: “So he is transitioning from whistle-blower to a traitor.” This is a distinction that Poitras might have induced Binney to pursue. Similarly, the tensions between Greenwald and Assange—their struggle over Snowden’s legacy and the rights to his archive, and its ideological implications—aren’t depicted onscreen. Because Poitras is so close to her subject, politically and psychologically, “Citizenfour” is not the tour de force it might have been.

Regardless, Friedersdorf recommends the documentary:

“I feel good in my human experience to know that I can contribute to the good of others,” Snowden says in one scene. In another, Greenwald delights in a righteous “fuck you” to a spying government he regards as criminal and officials he sees as betraying core liberal principles. At film’s end, we learn that Snowden is living with his longtime girlfriend in Moscow in circumstances far more pleasant than a Supermax prison, though how long he’ll be permitted to remain there is anyone’s guess.

History is rife with dissidents who took satisfaction in various causes—some worthy, others abominable. Snowden’s critics will continue to insist that his actions were unjustified, no matter how earnest he appears to be about the nobility of his purpose. Yet I suspect that even they will find some merit in this film, if only for its footage. Seldom has the public gotten so intimate a glimpse at how a key figure felt and acted in private moments of profound historic consequence.

Wired talked to Poitras about the encryption tools she uses:

In the closing credits of Citizenfour, Poitras took the unusual step of adding an acknowledgment of the free software projects that made the film possible: The roll call includes the anonymity software Tor, the Tor-based operating system Tails, GPG encryption, Off-The-Record (OTR) encrypted instant messaging, hard disk encryption software Truecrypt, and Linux. All of that describes a technical setup that goes well beyond the precautions taken by most national security reporters, not to mention documentary filmmakers.

Poitras argues that without those technologies, neither her reporting on the Snowden leaks nor her film itself would have been possible.

And T.C. at the Economist reveals the film’s ending:

Ms Poitras has one surprise left to spring, and it may turn out to be a big one. Mr Snowden now lives in Moscow, where he claimed asylum after the American government cancelled his passport while he was travelling to South America. The film finishes with a visit from Mr Greenwald, in which he and Mr Snowden discuss the existence of a second leaker inside the NSA—something that has been rumoured for months in the press and on computer-security blogs. When Mr Greenwald shows Mr Snowden what his new source is offering, his eyebrows almost climb off the top of his head. Like an action film setting up a plot hook for a sequel, viewers are told in no uncertain terms to expect more leaks—and soon.