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      Wednesday
      Oct292014

      "Citizenfour" And "Kill The Messenger"

      These are outstanding films for anyone engaged in confronting the global surveillance state. They may well contain lessons for the future.

      Laura Poitras' "Citizenfour" is a beautifully filmed documentary about the odyssey of Edward Snowden, the independent whistleblower on the National Security Agency. Snowden on the run is filmed surreptitiously in a Hong Kong hotel room and briefly seen in Moscow, and comes across as an immensely likable, human and compelling human being under conditions that would drive many people beyond paranoia. Poitras is an utterly non-intrusive presence, invisible in the room, and whose email messages with Snowden (known as "ES") convey a sense of curiosity and urgency that makes her altogether human. 

      The film might have cut the extensive footage of Glenn Greenwald, Snowden's original contact, who acts well as an interviewer, reports extensively in Portuguese from Brazil, and is shown consoling his partner who is interrogated at Heathrow after being discovered with encrypted documents on a hard drive. The Brazil material is useful in explaining the Brazilian government's outrage over spying by the Obama administration, and the outrage, which surfaced also in Berlin, where Poitras lives most of the time. But it can't match Snowden's authenticity and raises distracting questions about why Greenwald's friend took such bizarre security risks.

      It is impossible to fathom why the surveillance state - omnipresent as described by Poitras - failed to take notice of a foreign camera crew filming Snowden in his hotel room for seven straight days. But fail they did, and Poitras is completely discreet in revealing how Snowden got through Hong Kong to Moscow while an international manhunt was underway.

      As portrayed, Snowden is probably the most persuasive, rational and charming face of "the whistleblower" yet revealed to a mass audience.

      "Kill the Messenger" on the other hand, dramatically underscores the process by which whistleblowers are demonized with great success.  Directed by Michael Cuesta, the film casts Jeremy Renner as San Jose News reporter Gary Webb in the Eighties as Webb discovers shocking evidence that a CIA "asset" is funneling millions of dollars' worth of Central American cocaine through a South Central Los Angeles conduit in order to finance the illegal US intervention in the so-called "Contra war."

      Disclosure: I became a close friend of Gary Webb when his allegations surfaced to cause an uproar. I was present when CIA director John Deutsch was compelled to meet with angry residents of South Central LA to deny that the CIA supplied crack cocaine to their stricken community. I was present when Webb met with many of the same residents, most of whom regarded him as a hero. I interviewed one of the drug dealers from South Central who was a conduit. Nicaraguan sources confirmed the essentials of the story to me. 

      The devastating counter-attack launched against Webb was exactly what Snowden fears in the Poitras' film, that the focus would be shifted from the content of the documents to the character of the whistleblower. Like a ton of bricks, the leaders of the mainstream media, the Los Angeles Times, New York Times and Washington Post - published massive "exposes" of Webb's reporting, questioning his sources and misinterpreting what Webb had to say. Even his editors at the Mercury News issued an apology.

      Under that pressure, I could observe Webb becoming isolated, agitated and paranoid. His marriage fell apart, he lost his job, he drank too much, he holed up in a wretched motel room, and he drove his motorcycle at reckless speeds. Ultimately he was found dead of two gunshot wounds to the head, and classified as a suicide. I wasn't entirely convinced. Did he want to kill himself so badly that he shot his brains out twice? One thing did seem certain: the pressures generated against him contributed to his breakdown and possible suicide. Whatever happened, he was a victim of the surveillance state.

      The film carefully depicts these ambiguities, leaving the final judgment to the audience.

      Gary Webb wasn't wrong about his central findings. He never accused the CIA of conspiring to fuel the black community with crack. The Iran-Contra hearings exposed the role of Oliver North in facilitating the illegal project; one Reagan administration official was found in contempt of Congress. The CIA inspector general concluded that the Agency failed to "cut off relationships with individuals supporting the Contra program who were alleged to have engaged in drug trafficking activity", and revealed that between 1982 and 1995 there was an internal Agency agreement never to report on drug trafficking by "agents, assets (and) non-staff employees" of the CIA.[1] The CIA admissions didn't matter much. The messenger was cast away by his own profession.

      What are the lessons of Gary Webb for Edward Snowden? First, the times are different, and today's greater public skepticism favors Snowden. Second, Snowden's NSA documents are beyond refutation. Third, the victims of the US spying include the highest officials of Germany and Brazil, not voiceless families in South Central. Fourth, the revelations are available online to millions of people everywhere. Finally, the administration's claim that the exposes would lead to mass killings of American "assets" abroad has been discredited.

      Nevertheless the American public remains legitimately worried about the unilateral disclosure of classified information by unknown individuals. Snowden (and Poitras) are smart to offer explanations of their action to allow the audience to make up its own mind. Who, for example, still believes that whistleblower revelations will be honored, fully explored, and result in forced resignations of culprits? Kill, or at least demonize, the messengers seem to be the preferred strategy.

      We can conclude that the government will do everything in its power to discredit or capture Snowden. Prudence might suggest that President Obama leave him in Russia indefinitely, and gradually ignored. Justice Department officials should think carefully about whether a sitting US jury would convict Snowden of "espionage." Investigating the government misconduct, which the Snowden files reveal, might better use the Justice Department’s time. But that doesn't appear to be who they are.


      [1] Quotations are from voluminous reports by the CIA's Inspector General's office, Gen. Frederick Hitz and Michael Bromwich, July 23, 1998 and Oct. 8, 1998. See also the CIA IG's testimony to the House Select Committee on Intelligence, Mar. 16, 1998. 

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