The Cipher Brief asked our network member Mark Kelton, the former CIA Deputy Director of the National Clandestine Service for Counterintelligence, for his impressions of the new movie “Snowden.”
If you have come here for a considered view of the artistic merits of Oliver Stone’s new film, Snowden, you had best look elsewhere. My only experience with cinematic art, a college film history course, does not qualify me to make such a judgment. Moreover, my knowledge of Stone’s career as a filmmaker is confined to watching his much-feted JFK years ago. It was, as I recall, wild and unfounded conspiracy theories alleging involvement of the Vice President, the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA), and all the other usual suspects in the murder of an American President presented as history. Having just seen Stone’s latest work, it would appear the intervening years have seen changes in neither his political tack nor in his use of cinema to frame fantasy as fact.
In his masterful work, The Abolition of Man, C.S. Lewis wrote, “We laugh at honor and are shocked to find traitors in our midst.” I think that passage is apropos when considering both Edward Snowden and the reaction of the America people to him based upon what they know, or think they know, about his actions. Stone’s movie is only the most recent effort to shape the facts of the Snowden case to suit a particular narrative. In Stone’s film, his hero is portrayed as just that; a patriot who, in an act of conscience and principle, stood up to blow the whistle on an out of control government systematically violating the rights of its own citizens. However, as the recently released unclassified summary of a bipartisan House Intelligence Committee (HPSCI) report on Snowden clearly shows, the truth is something other than its portrayal on screen by Stone. Indeed, the untruths conveyed in the film are too many, both in detail and thematically, to address here. A few of them, however, merit particular mention.
Except for a statement by Snowden’s erstwhile CIA mentor (later depicted as a villain) about the import to U.S. national security of information of the sort Snowden later compromised, Stone’s film is devoid of discussion of what the HPSCI report calls the “tremendous damage” done by Snowden’s theft of classified information. Indeed, reference to that information in the movie leaves the impression that the information Snowden exposed was limited to purportedly unlawful National Security Agency (NSA) collection programs that violated the privacy of Americans. According to the HPSCI report, however, the overwhelming preponderance of the 1.5 million documents taken by Snowden had nothing “remotely to do with programs impacting individual privacy.” “They instead,” the report conveys, “pertain to military, defense and intelligence programs of great interest to America’s adversaries.” About the only thing the movie gets right in this vein is the seeming disinterest on the part of Snowden and the journalists gathered in that Hong Kong hotel room as to the damage their action might do to the safety and security of the citizens of the U.S. and its allies.
Both the dialogue and voice-over in Stone’s film refer to Snowden being a whistleblower as a statement of fact. The film even portrays CIA and NSA as surveilling Snowden and his girlfriend in order to make sure he was not taking any action based upon his purported concerns over the legality of U.S. collection programs. This is nonsense, as is the depiction of his CIA mentor as a sort of “Big Brother” character reproaching Snowden on an outsized video teleconference screen. To the degree the film accurately depicts Snowden’s concern about possible surveillance of him, it likely reflects his guilt over what he was doing or fear he would get caught while doing it. Unfortunately, Snowden was not caught. Nor, as the HPSCI report makes clear, had Snowden made any effort to raise his concerns as a whistleblower. “Contrary to his public claims that he notified numerous NSA officials about what he believed to be illegal intelligence collection,” the HPSCI report states, “the Committee found no evidence Snowden took any official effort to express concerns about U.S. intelligence activities – legal, moral or otherwise – to any oversight officials within the U.S. Government.” The HPSCI report also refutes claims made by Snowden publicly, as well as by the Snowden character in the film, that he would have faced retribution had he raised such concerns.
A viewer of Stone’s movie is left with the impression that Snowden’s anger over a response to a Senator’s question regarding NSA collection on American citizens by Director of National Intelligence James Clapper in March 2013 –about two months before Snowden disappeared from his post in Hawaii—led him to steal information from NSA databases. In fact, according to the HPSCI report, he began gathering information at least eight months before Clapper spoke. That reality, coupled with the nature of the information Snowden stole and his subsequent flight to China and then to Russia, countries with a proven disregard for civil rights and privacy, ought to raise questions as to Snowden’s real motives. In my experience, the collection of information of intelligence value well in advance of flight to an adversary country is more indicative of a putative intelligence volunteer than of a whistleblower.
In the movie and in fact, when Snowden first met with documentary producer Laura Poitras in Hong Kong, he told her he was a “Senior Advisor” at CIA. This, like so many other things Snowden has said about himself, was a lie. The movie is reflective of a pattern of such lies. In the film, Snowden is depicted as a uniquely gifted CIA trainee; almost a Jason Bourne type character; a fast-tracker earmarked for bigger things. He was, in reality, none of these things. On film, Snowden is forced out of the Army after breaking his legs. In fact, he had shin splints. Caught hacking into a Human Resources database while in Geneva, his explanation in the film that he had been doing so to test the security of that system (an action and explanation curiously akin to those of convicted spy Robert Hanssen) is left without further elucidation. In fact, Snowden had hacked into the system to add to his performance evaluation. As the HPSCI report concludes, Snowden “was, and remains, a serial exaggerator and fabricator.” Unfortunately, the movie depicts Snowden not as he is, but as he would have us see him.
Most outrageous, some of Snowden’s co-workers are shown as being sympathetic to his purported concerns about NSA programs on which they were working. One is even shown helping to shield Snowden’s theft of information from discovery, reinforcing the impression that Snowden’s actions were justified. At the same time, the film depicts Snowden as disturbed by the purported conduct of a CIA case officer he works with in Geneva while fulfilling his Walter Mitty-like desire to try his hand at operations. There is even a gratuitous sideswipe at alleged disregard for civilian life in the conduct of airstrikes by U.S. forces. In fact, as a recent piece in the Cipher Brief from Snowden’s supervisor Steven Bay explains, the Snowden he knew deceived and abused the trust of those he worked with in order to expand his access and cover his activities. The HPSCI report supports this in noting (ironically) that in gathering the information he took with him when he fled to Hong Kong, Snowden “infringed on the privacy of thousands of government employees and contractors…(by obtaining)…his colleagues’ security credentials through misleading means, abused his access as a systems administrator to search his co-workers’ personal drives and removed personally identifiable information on thousands of (Intelligence Community) employees and contractors.”
What I found particularly revelatory about the film are the characters who are either wholly absent from it or who make only a cursory appearance in it. The film conveys an impression of Chinese intelligence as being uninterested in Snowden after he sets up shop in Hong Kong. While the former British colony still has a degree of autonomy from Chinese Communist authorities in Beijing, it is generally recognized that this autonomy is increasingly constrained in the security and intelligence arenas. Given Snowden’s claims, his background, and the potential political implications of the case for China, it strains credulity to believe Snowden’s presence in Hong Kong did not draw the interest of Chinese intelligence.
Also largely absent from the film, except by implication, is Russian intelligence. We have been told by Russian President Vladimir Putin that Snowden established contact with his country while in Hong Kong. We also know from experience that it would have been impossible for Snowden (who had neither a valid passport nor a Russian visa) to have boarded a plane for Moscow absent the assent of the Russian Federal Security Service (FSB). A conversation between Snowden and Russian intelligence concerning the terms and conditions for being granted a seat on that aircraft would almost certainly have included, at minimum, his agreement to a debriefing by the Russian services and to providing them with sensitive material to which he had access. The Russian services are, after all, not humanitarian organizations. Further, it is inconceivable that permission for Snowden to reside in Russia would have been granted absent his agreeing to submit to continued work with the Russian services. As the provision of classified information to the Russians by Snowden would constitute espionage, the film is, not surprisingly, wholly silent on the issue of his contact with them.
It is also curious that the film makes only very brief mention of Sarah Harrison, WikiLeaks chief Julian Assange’s closest confidante, who accompanied Snowden on his trip to Moscow. The roles played by Harrison and WikiLeaks in that move demand further explanation. As correspondent Paul Szoldra noted in Business Insider, WikiLeaks gave Snowden the unsigned Ecuadorian document he carried on leaving Hong Kong. At the same time, however, Assange advised him against travelling to Latin America, urging that he go to Moscow instead for safety reasons. Szoldra quite rightly concludes that WikiLeaks’ role in the affair, most notably the fact that the anti-secrecy organization has published no documents detrimental to Russia, is “troubling” (to say the least).
That Stone’s film does nothing to clarify such issues, and instead presents a Potemkin village-like version of reality, is not a surprise. It is clear from the timing of its release that the movie is part of an agitation campaign being mounted by a number of like-minded groups demanding that Snowden be pardoned. Snowden and his backers hope agitprop of the sort produced by Stone will help bring sufficient pressure on the U.S. Government to force it to pre-emptively absolve Snowden of the charges against him rather than continuing to demand that he return to the U.S. to refute them in a court of law.
That propaganda campaign, whatever the resonance it finds, cannot obviate the truth. The film depiction of Snowden as a man of high principle acting out of conscience in stealing and exposing information entrusted to him by the American people is not in accord with the facts. In truth, by not protecting that information and by breaking his solemn oath to do so, Snowden committed an act of profound dishonor for, as Thomas Jefferson observed, “Nobody can acquire honor by doing what is wrong.” But even for argument’s sake, we allow that Snowden acted out of principle, the more principled thing, the more honorable thing now would be for him to return to the U.S. and make his case before a jury of his countrymen. I think it unlikely Snowden has the courage to face that judgement as, the narrative pushed in Stone’s film notwithstanding, he knows that what he actually did would be impossible to defend in court. However, should such a trial occur and the totality of Snowden’s actions consequently become more apparent, it would be interesting to see how many of those who have heretofore refused to condemn Snowden still laugh at honor.