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A viewing of the film Citizenfour, real-life drama of Edward Snowden’s first days on the run from the National Security Agency (NSA), is bound to elicit one visceral response: chilling. We see in Laura Poitras’ splendid documentary not only Snowden’s by-now familiar personal saga, but the specter of modern technological domination at its most frightening. The film, by way of Snowden’s revelations and commentary, poses searing questions about the impact of surveillance technology on American society and, in turn, on the future of democratic politics anywhere.
Snowden’s journey is well-known enough: hasty departure from Hawaii, where he worked as a technician for the NSA, to Hong Kong as whistleblower in possession of vast information related to the agency’s worldwide eavesdropping activities, then on to Moscow where he finally gains residential status. Poitras’ film centers on eight tense days Snowden spent at a hotel in Hong Kong, where his stunning revelations are turned into dramatic footage along with a series of reports by Glenn Greenwald and others for the London Guardian on U.S. surveillance programs, which have become more intrusive than generally believed. With these programs, Snowden comments, “we are building the biggest weapon for oppression in the history of mankind,” adding that, despite accumulated evidence of domestic NSA espionage, protest in the U.S. is barely visible: Congress, the White House, mass media, and public remain virtually silent in the face on escalating threats to privacy and freedoms.
The Snowden narratives depict a system, NSA at the center, of nonstop secret monitoring and tracking of American citizens, with no accountability and little justification beyond stale references to “national security” and the need to detect and monitor terrorists. In the film we see a post-9/11 technological labyrinth that vacuums up billions of electronic transactions daily and locates millions of people through cellphone and other GPS coordinates. In partnership with corporations like Microsoft and Verizon, the NSA routinely shares data with the Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA), Defense Intelligence Agency (DIA), CIA, and IRS, all ostensibly to spy on terrorists, drug traffickers, and assorted criminals. One result of all this data processing is an exhaustive watch list, currently identifying more than a million “threats”, funneled through the shadowy Terrorist Identities Datamart Environment (TIDE), maintained by the shadowy Terrorist Identities Group (TIG)..
With its sprawling acres of supercomputers, the NSA has been the largest and most intrusive spy agency since 1952, its “black” operations initially driven by the Cold War – a history thoroughly chronicled by James Bamford in a series of books (most recently The Shadow Factory). Thanks to the exhaustive work of Bamford and such whistleblowers and William Binney and Snowden, we currently know far more about this presumably super-secret, or “deep state” realm of the American power structure than will ever be officially acknowledged. The subtitle of The Shadow Factory, written in 2008, is “The Ultra-Secret NSA from 9/11 to the Eavesdropping on America”, indicating that Snowden’s domestic revelations were not as pathbreaking as often depicted. (Unnecessary disclosure: I worked three youthful years for the NSA as a Russian linguist – but never part of any war effort.)
In Citizenfour we learn that in 2013 alone the NSA collected 124.8 billion telephone data items and 97.1 billion pieces of computer data on unsuspecting people around the world, including theoretically off-limits domestic targets. Such “metadata” collection is of course the stuff of totalitarian scenarios that match or exceed the worst Orwellian nightmares. The film (and Snowden’s accounts in general) raises questions about the fate of individual privacy, political freedoms, and democratic governance in an era of ever-expanding (and elusive) surveillance technology.
The first question goes directly to the predicament of democracy itself, already under siege. When government agencies can create eavesdropping resources well beyond the reach of laws, policies, and conventions, what public leverage can ordinary people hope to secure over the machinery of state and military power? Can nonstop mega-data collection and processing, carried out by intelligence organizations with little regard for its consequences, ever be compatible with democratic politics? Can the “deep state” of modern communications, more far-reaching with each technological innovation, serve anything but elite domination?
A second – equally crucial – question turns on the already-deteriorating character of public discourse: feeble resistance to technological authoritarianism in the U.S. is palpable and alarming. Congress has done nothing to tame the juggernaut, while the Obama administration remains essentially content with dancing around the issue, obsessed with Snowden’s notoriety (and imputed criminality). Despite what has been revealed by Snowden – and Bamford and Binney before him – few dare to speak out, surely fearful of being derided as “soft on terrorism”. Further, NSA programs are so “deep”, so shrouded in mystery, that hardly anyone seems able to penetrate the technological fortress sufficiently to fathom what is taking place. And of course NSA work is in highly-classified, including even its budget (estimated at possibly $20 billion yearly).
Transparency and accountability are meaningless concepts when it comes to the NSA playbook. We have seen how those recently in charge of agency operations – General James Clapper and Keith Alexander – have blatantly lied to Congress about the extent of NSA domestic spying, as shown in Citizenfour. Unlike baseball players denying they took performance-enhancing drugs, Clapper and Alexander could stonewall everything in broad daylight with legal impunity, protected by their status within the warfare state. In November, meanwhile, Vermont Senator Patrick Leahy offered up a bill to limit NSA access to domestic phone records, a tepid reform that nonetheless failed to muster enough votes to cut off debate. The USA Freedom Act, as it was called, was too extreme for Senate Republicans, whose freedom-loving rhetoric got hopelessly lost in the maze of surveillance priorities. They insist that meta-data collection is required to combat terrorism – though, as Bamford convincingly shows, domestic espionage activities have actually done little to track or intercept domestic terrorism.
Third, abundant evidence shows that surveillance order rests on a tight partnership of government, corporations, and the military – a power structure extending far beyond the familiar “Big Brother”, understood strictly as a matter of state controls. The now infamous PRISM program, undertaken by George W. Bush in 2007, relies on extensive data-mining shared by the NSA and such corporations as Microsoft, AT&T, Google, Verizon, Yahoo, and Apple. Telephone and computer information is often simply turned over to the NSA, usually without much legal fuss – a system of cooperative ventures, or integrated power, endemic to a militarized state-capitalism.
Freewheeling NSA surveillance poses yet another question: can “deep”, all-consuming, globalized eavesdropping, in the hands of an aggressive ruling elite, be brought under popular control by even the most well-intentioned reforms? Progressives have long embraced the hope of a democratic Internet and related media infused with a high degree of electronic populism, yet in reality the American power structure holds immense advantages in technological, material, and institutional resources over any challenger. The NSA itself can easily trump lesser organizations and movements, suggesting that the prospect of counter-forces strong enough to take on the juggernaut would seem to be dim – at least while the existing power apparatus remains intact. There is the linked problem of whether NSA technology can even be sufficiently grasped to carry out meaningful reform. Snowden and Binney appear to know their way around the fortress, but how many Snowdens and Binneys do we have? There is one certainty here: those at the summits of power, those who manage the apparatus, have no desire to relinquish the God-like power they wield through their arsenal of supercomputers and hundreds of global listening posts. Quite the contrary: their messianic goal is precisely to expand that power, pushing it to its outer limits without the slightest regard for Constitutional or other political limits.
This brings us back to Snowden and his political relevance. In Citizenfour we encounter a beleaguered Snowden, a person unsure and fearful, anxious about the future, understandably in limbo about the potential consequences of his risky actions. Snowden had obviously done much reflection in the weeks and probably months leading up to his decision to flee, although the political ramifications could only be rather murky. Solutions to broadening NSA surveillance were not likely to be on the immediate horizon. A fearsome thought emerges: could the technology now be so sophisticated, so “deep”, that effective reforms will no longer be viable — that something of a turning point might have been reached? Could the apparatus have taken on a life of its own, impervious to the actions of Congress, political intervention, popular movements? Could Snowden’s revelations, for all their spectacular media impact, be overwhelmed by the sheer pace of technological change.
In strictly political terms, Snowden is actually more forthcoming in his recent Nation interview (November 17, 2014) conducted by Stephen F. Cohen and Katrina Vanden Heuvel. In both the documentary and the Nation, Snowden is quick to affirm that he is not especially comfortable dealing with politics, that he is “no politician”, being far more adept at technology. Indeed computer work nowadays appears to consume the bulk of his time in Moscow. In a candid moment, however, Snowden tells Cohen and Vanden Heuvel that, contemplating the surveillance onslaught, people “have the right of revolution – it’s about revolutionary ideas”, adding: “It’s about direct action, even civil disobedience”. He identifies the Occupy movement, though now rather moribund, as something of an inspiration. No less than the future of democracy, in the U.S. and worldwide, is at stake.
At another point in the Nation exchanges Snowden seems ready to embrace social movements as the most efficacious counter-force, possibly the only hope. He tells Cohen and Vanden Heuvel that “we cannot be effective without a mass movement”, but immediately adds “the American people today are too comfortable to adapt to a mass movement.” Unfortunately, he laments, the education system is designed primarily for “indoctrination”, hardly the source of a reflective, critical, galvanized public needed to take on the surveillance state. As for Snowden himself, not being a “politician” leaves him with a daunting challenge – “to focus on technological reform, because I speak the language of technology”.
Could such reform, however ambitious, furnish a solution to the rapidly-expanding system of technological domination we face? Snowden’s own prior comment – that “we cannot be effective without a mass movement” – no doubt provides the best answer. At one moment in the film Snowden concedes that technological constraints placed on the fortress within the U.S. (or any single country) will be checkmated unless those constraints become systemic and global, which poses new layers of obstacles. Snowden knows better than most that communications technology by its very nature is both ever-changing and unbounded, recognizing no temporal boundaries; its very logic is to adapt and expand, resisting barriers (if any) set by mortal politicians. This is emphatically true for “deep” entities like the NSA, which fiercely asserts both its power and secrecy. It follows that U.S.-centered reforms, even in the unlikely event Congress overcomes its fear and lethargy, is destined to be neutralized even before any legislation is signed into law. Despite his remarkably bold and courageous moves, therefore, Snowden’s political options – and indeed those of everyone else – have clearly yet to be articulated, unless his idea of “revolution” is to be taken seriously.
In the end, government and military elites perched atop the surveillance order will happily continue business-as-usual until overthrown by more powerful, resource-laden counter-forces. Their privileged status is much too embedded in the fortunes of the security state and war economy, which depends as never before on endless flows of electronic information, personal tracking, and institutional controls.
CARL BOGGS is the author of The Hollywood War Machine, with Tom Pollard (second edition, forthcoming), and Drugs, Power, and Politics (forthcoming), both published by Paradigm.