Snowden doc lives up to the hype

'Citizenfour' was easily the most talked-about film at this year's Copenhagen International Documentary Film Festival and our reviewer says it offers a fascinating look behind one of the most important stories of our time.

Snowden doc lives up to the hype
Photo: Praxis Films
It’s entirely possible that Edward Snowden is the attention-seeking fame whore so many of his detractors and critics say he is. I don’t think he did what he did for the attention, but let’s suspend that for a moment and decide all the haters have a point. Does that make what he did any less important and relevant? His detractors also call him a traitor, but does that somehow make the NSA’s stunning abuse of power and resources any less shocking, criminal, or blameworthy? Does it make it not happen? Does it cancel out the lies it seems (former NSA director) Keith Alexander and (Director of National Intelligence) James Clapper told? Does it retroactively give you or I more privacy while emailing, texting, or talking on the phone in, say, February 2013? 

Of course not. 
In becoming the biggest whistleblower ever, Snowden helped show the world just how free they’re not, just how victimized they are, and how potentially victimized they might still find themselves. Not by Isis, al-Qaeda, street gangs, trans fats, or the bogeyman — but rather by people they helped put into power in an effort to have a functional democracy. By the powerful organizations and institutions those people control. 
(Aside: when I was typing “functional” on my phone, my clumsy thumbs slipped, and the autocorrected word ended up as “fictional,” making it read “fictional democracy.” Talk about a poignant error.)
Laura Poitras’s ‘Citizenfour’ is a thrilling look at how Snowden did what he did, and why. It traces his initial contact with Poitras via email; it traces hero Guardian journalist Glenn Greenwald’s entry into the fray; and shows its audience exactly how Poitras, Greenwald and Snowden (and later on, the Guardian’s Ewen MacAskill) figured out how they were going to break what may end up being the most important story of our lifetimes, our generation’s Watergate.
At the centre of it all — the story and the film — is Snowden, a 29-year-old computer head who got enough access to peek behind the curtain and see just how much was rotten in the surveillance state of Denmark America. This is the moment everyone waited for, of course. We wanted to see and hear Snowden during those days in June 2013; we wanted to know the man behind the leak, and understand the mind behind the man. 
What we see in ‘Citizenfour,’ in essence, is a patriot; a self-assured, wry, smart guy who unwittingly became The Man Who Knew Too Much. More importantly, perhaps, we see a man who knows exactly what he’s doing and who seems resigned to the fate that eventually befell him. Seeing him softly accept pariah status before it happens is sobering; so too is watching him freak out. It’s a complicated portrait of a guy who acted in the best interests of Americans and got crucified for it. 
‘Citizenfour’ completes a trilogy of films Poitras made about post-9/11 America which includes 2006’s ‘My Country, My Country,’ and 2010’s ‘The Oath’. It’s an understatement to say that the United States — and indeed the world — changed after 9/11, but Poitras’s films illustrate just how the worst terrorist attack in American history provided a lot of bad people the gateway to do a lot of fundamentally unconstitutional things. Perhaps it’s overly hopeful to think that a film like ‘Citizenfour’ opens enough eyes that certain wrongs can start to be righted, but I’d rather believe in that than the inverse. 

Dave JafferDave Jaffer is The Local's arts and culture writer. He has contributed to countless publications, including Hour, Spinner, Reader's Digest, The Huffington Post, and Exclaim! Cyberstalk him on Twitter at @combatdavey

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Macron and Merkel demand answers on Denmark spying claims

French President Emmanuel Macron and German Chancellor Angela Merkel said on Monday that they expected explanations from Washington and Copenhagen over a report they spied on Denmark's European allies.

Macron and Merkel demand answers on Denmark spying claims
French President Emmanuel Macron and German Chancellor Angela Merkel hold a joint press conference after the 22nd German-French joint ministerial council on Monday. Photo: Thomas Samson/AFP/Ritzau Scanpix

In an investigative report on Sunday, Danish public broadcaster Danmarks Radio (DR) and other European media outlets said the US National Security Agency (NSA) had eavesdropped on Danish underwater internet cables from 2012 to 2014 to spy on top politicians in France, Germany, Norway and Sweden.

The NSA got access to text messages, telephone calls and internet traffic including searches, chats and messaging services — including those of Germany’s Chancellor Angela Merkel, then-foreign minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier and then-opposition leader Peer Steinbruck, DR said.

French President Emmanuel Macron and German Chancellor Angela Merkel said Monday they expected explanations from both Washington and Copenhagen.

“This is not acceptable between allies, and even less between allies and European partners,” said Macron after the two leaders talked via video conference.

“There is no room for suspicion,” said Macron, as he stressed the value of the ties between Europeans and Americans. “That is why what we are waiting for complete clarity,” from both Denmark and the US, he added. “We are awaiting these answers.”

Merkel said she “could only agree” with Macron’s comments, adding she was “reassured” by Danish Defence Minister Trine Bramsen’s condemnation of any such spying.

Bramsen, who took over the defence portfolio in June 2019, has neither confirmed nor denied DR’s report, but told AFP that “systematic eavesdropping of close allies is unacceptable”.


Denmark’s neighbours also demanded explanations. “It’s unacceptable if countries which have close allied cooperation feel
the need to spy on one another,” Norwegian Prime Minister Erna Solberg told public broadcaster NRK.

She said Norway had asked Denmark “for all the information they have”. Swedish Defence Minister Peter Hultqvist said he had been “in contact with Denmark’s defence minister to ask if Danish platforms have been used to spy on Swedish politicians”.

DR said the NSA had taken advantage of a surveillance collaboration with Denmark’s military intelligence unit FE to eavesdrop.

But it was unclear whether Denmark knew at the time that the US was using the cables to spy on Denmark’s neighbours.

Contacted by AFP, Denmark’s military intelligence unit refused to comment on the revelations.

The US State Department and the NSA also declined requests from AFP to comment on the affair.

US eavesdropping on European leaders is, however, not new. In 2013, former NSA contractor Edward Snowden revealed thousands of classified documents exposing the vast US surveillance put in place after the September 11, 2001 attacks.

Among other things, the documents showed the US government was spying on its own citizens and carrying out widespread tapping worldwide, including of Merkel’s mobile phone.

However, if the Danish-US spying is confirmed, it went on during and after the 2013 Snowden affair. In 2014, following the Snowden scandal, a secret internal working group at FE began looking into whether the NSA had used the Danish-US spying
collaboration — called XKeyscore — to spy on Denmark’s allies, DR said.

The group’s report, codenamed Operation Dunhammer, was presented to top FE management in May 2015.
What happened after that is not yet known.

READ ALSO: US ‘used Danish surveillance system’ to spy on Merkel and Nordic allies

‘New pieces of the puzzle’ 

Bramsen was however informed of the spying in August 2020, according to DR. Shortly after that, FE director Lars Findsen, his predecessor who was in the post until 2015 Thomas Ahrenkiel, and three other FE employees were removed from their positions — no full explanation was made public.

At the time, the government said an audit had raised suspicions that FE was conducting illegal surveillance between 2014 and 2020.

In November 2020, DR revealed that the US had used the Danish cables to spy on the Danish and European defence industries from 2012 to 2015.

A month later, Denmark’s justice ministry ordered a commission of inquiry into FE’s operations. Its conclusions are due at the end of 2021.

Snowden, who now lives in Russia, called on Twitter for “full public disclosure” from Denmark and the US.

The latest revelations are “new pieces of the puzzle,” Thomas Wegener Friis, an intelligence expert and professor at the University of Southern Denmark, told AFP.

“It’s exactly the same kind of scandal as the one with German services helping the Americans to spy a few years ago.”

Denmark is one of the United States’ closest European allies and sent troops to fight in Iraq.

It is the only Nordic country that is both a member of NATO and the EU.