Briefing Notes No 40
CitizenFour by Laura Poitras
November 20, 2015
After-screening panel discussion and Q and A Ewen MacAskill and Robert Carolina with Stephanie Stewart – moderator.
About the film
It is almost two and a half years since the events documented in this film took place.
What did Edward Snowden disclose?
Snowden downloaded and gave journalists documents (estimates range from 50,000 – 1.7 million) about NSA surveillance programs operated by the USA and its key allies.
In the USA, most attention has focussed on the NSA massive, bulk collection and storage of the meta-data of phone and internet-based communications and activities of US (and foreign) citizens via various programs.
But also included were accounts of US surveillance and spying on foreign governments, including allies, hacking of Chinese computers, a Presidential directive for cyberwar against specifically named countries, and details of surveillance used for drone strikes in Pakistan.
How did he disclose it?
Snowden gave copies of these documents to journalists at The Guardian and Washington Post and the filmmaker – whom he said he trusted to make “responsible” disclosures (e.g. selected and redacted) and to keep the documents secure, arguing that he was not engaged in “data dumping” and that no names of NSA operatives were revealed. Some call this a “distinction without a difference,” Both the US Guardian and The Washington Post give the US government advance warning and prior sight of their articles.
The New York Times (via The Guardian) also has the files. Snowden also provided specific reports to others, eg South China Morning Post.
Questions remain about who has had access to these documents, their security, and the effectiveness of redaction.
Who has access to intelligence and state secrets?
Both the Manning and Snowden cases raise questions about the accessibility of USA classified material.
Following 9/11 there was an emphasis on the need to share intelligence within the intelligence community. There has also been a very significant growth in the use of private contractors, such as Booz Allen—Snowden’s employer..
The growth of technical capabilities for the collection, storage and analysis of massive amounts of data enables mass surveillance and also facilitates the downloading and wide distribution of vast amounts of data easily and quickly — not only within, but also outside prescribed networks.
Who should be the arbiter of what remains a government “secret” ?
Snowden says he accepts the necessity for secrets and surveillance, and described his motivation as the promotion of public debate to generate more transparency and accountability.
In the US this framework is centered on the executive branch, with legislative oversight via intelligence committees, judicial oversight (limited via the “state secrets privilege”) and, for specific types of surveillance, the FISA Court. . A 1998 law provides a process and some protection for intelligence community whistle-blowers. However Snowden and others argue that the exercise of oversight has been insufficient, ineffective and inappropriate .
The “free press” – the Fourth Estate – has always played a vital role of exposure and disclosure with the protection of the First Amendment. New platforms for publishing and dissemination of materials disrupt the conventions of this model.
What are the rights and responsibilities of private organizations vis a vis democratically elected governments? Are we comfortable with our government, or self-selecting individuals, or groups such as WikiLeaks and Anonymous, or established newspapers having the final say over the release of government secrets?
And what about protection of our personal privacy? Are there related issues around ‘consumer/customer surveillance’ private data collection?
The information and sources provided as well as the views expressed here reflect
neither the views of DAUK or the Democratic Party nor their endorsement of, or association with them.