The Snowden documentary shows that only government transparency can stop leaks
Edward Snowden’s leaks are not isolated incidents – or, at least they won’t be when we look back on this era 10 years from now
theguardian.com, Saturday 11 October 2014 18.12 BST
Transparency is coming, whether the government likes it or not. The only question is whether they decide to bring it to the public before whistleblowers do it for them.
That’s the underlying message of Laura Poitras’ mesmerizing new documentary, Citizenfour about Edward Snowden and the National Security Agency that debuted at the New York Film Festival on Friday night.
Others have hinted in the past that the government better act fast to stem the tide of unnecessary secrecy or have a revolt on its hands. Shortly after the first Snowden leaks (which are chronicled in real-time in the film), journalist Glenn Greenwald told Newsweek:
“Government and businesses cannot function without enormous amounts of data, and many people have to have access to that data,” Greenwald says, adding that it only takes one person with access and an assaulted consciences to leak, no matter what controls are in place.
But during the enthralling second act of the film, where Poitras and Greenwald met a then-unknown Edward Snowden at his Hong Kong hotel, Snowden hints at how realistic that prediction would become.
As he talks to Poitras about the potential consequences of his actions on his own life, Snowden explains that he’s confident that the coming government pursuit of him will only encourage others. It’s like the internet principle of the Hydra, he says: “They can stomp me if they want to, but there will be seven more to take my place.”
In the dramatic conclusion of the film, Snowden learns on-camera Poitras and Greenwald now have a new source, who gave The Intercept information about the US government’s enormous “terrorism” watchlist. That watchlist, which contains 1.2 million names – most of which have no direct nexus to terrorism – is governed by Kafkaesque secrecy rules that were recently ruled unconstitutional (and which took another blow from a fed-up federal judge on Friday night).
The government’s chronic secrecy problem has been acknowledged by virtually everyone, including our sitting president, who has simultaneously decried overclassification and presided over its massive expansion. Yet, like clockwork, the government’s response to every new leak is to reflexively get more secret, call for more leak prosecutions (despite their already record numbers), and impose draconian restrictions on government employees who already work under a microscope.
Recently, the US Director of National Intelligence took the extraordinary step of banning millions of intelligence employees from talking to the press about even unclassified, mundane topics. And the government’s pernicious “Insider Threat” program is stalking government employees’ every move, equating communication with journalists with spying for a foreign enemy.
But what the government has failed to grasp is that Chelsea Manning and Snowden’s leaks are not isolated incidents – or, at least they won’t be when we look back on this era 10 years from now. There are 5 million people with security clearances in this country, and many of them are part of a new generation that is far more critical of the blanket secrecy permeating government agencies than the old guard.
It’s only now that we are finally starting to see the reverberations of Manning’s and Snowden’s whistleblowing. But one thing is for sure: there are many more potential whistleblowers out there, and if government officials do not move to make their actions more transparent of their own volition, then their employees may well do it for them.
Disclosure: Trevor Timm is the director of Freedom of the Press Foundation, where Laura Poitras, Glenn Greenwald and Edward Snowden are board members.
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