Edward Snowden: from patriotic geek to NSA whistleblower
Steven Strauss
volume 37
issue 6
December 2016

Oliver Stone’s Snowden is a gripping dramatization of whistleblower Edward Snowden’s journey through the totalitarian madness of the CIA and National Security Agency (NSA). Commenting on the film, the director and co-writer blew a little whistle of his own.

“They say we have freedom of expression; but thought is financed, and thought is controlled, and the media is controlled. This country is very tight on that, and there’s no criticism allowed at a certain level. You can make movies about civil rights leaders who are dead, but it’s not easy to make one about a current man.”

Snowden, indeed, is about the surveillance of thought by the darkest forces of U.S. imperialism. And, as portrayed in the film, Snowden (Joseph Gordon-Levitt) is a “current man,” someone many young people can easily relate to. Raised in a financially strapped family, he leaves school to help out. He considers himself a patriot. Combining the two, he joins the army.

But he breaks his legs in a training exercise and needs a new career. He approaches the CIA. It “sounds really cool to have top security clearance,” he says. They discover that he is a digital genius.

From soldier to critic. And so begins the saga of a quiet young man who has keyboard access to the greatest secrets of the U.S. empire.

Stone cleverly employs various contrasts to paint his political portrait of Snowden.

Snowden finds his companion Lindsay Mills (Shailene Woodley) through Yet he cannot relate to his fellow geeks at the NSA, whose egos inflate with every new spy program they invent. He asks them whether surveillance on innocent Americans is conscionable.

Lindsay is a self-described “liberal.” When they chance upon an anti-war demonstration in D.C., he asks whether this isn’t harming the country. Yet his patriotism is also about freedom of thought, and his mental gears are now in motion.

Snowden’s superiors include upper level military brutes. He lacks their killer instinct. But he discovers that they use his work to service their grotesque adventures. “You track ’em, we whack ’em,” is the message he gets.

And he learns many other important lessons along a “trajectory [he] can’t turn back on.”

“The modern battlefield is everywhere,” he is told. “This is not about terrorism. Terrorism is the excuse. This is about economic and social control.”

He discovers that the intelligence agencies have a convenient legal cover, the Federal Intelligence Surveillance Act (FISA) court. The FISA court considers requests for warrantless domestic spying. But Snowden learns that it is just a “rubber stamp” for the NSA.

To whistleblower and target. Deciding finally that the unconstitutional and unethical surveillance must be revealed to the world, Snowden manages to download two million NSA files into a tiny chip and get it past security. He emerges from the NSA’s physically dark exit tunnel into the light of day. But the sky is not entirely clear and bright. It is opaque and fuzzy. We know what Snowden has accomplished thus far, but what will be his fate?

When the entire world learns of the extent of NSA spying — on ordinary working people, government leaders, and with the participation of companies like Verizon — you can practically see the egg on Obama’s face. “Obama,” mutters Snowden, “I thought things were gonna get better with him. I was wrong.”

Obama does not figure much more in the film. But we know that he wants Snowden to return to the U.S. from Russia to stand trial. Snowden knows better. He’s staying put.

Neither Stone nor Snowden explains that the spy agencies are all about serving U.S. capitalist rule, for which civil liberties and human rights are entirely expendable. But they have shaken things up. The task of socialists is to make the next connection, to explain that democratic rights are fragile and temporary in capitalist democracies, because capitalism itself needs repression in order to keep wealth in the hands of a tiny minority. And in a period of economic crisis, capitalism needs even more repression to put down the growing resistance.

Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders both proposed that the rough edges of the CIA and NSA be smoothed out. That’s like asking a serial killer to use a less painful weapon. We need to eliminate these terrorist agencies entirely. The only way to achieve this is through a socialist society, organized around the needs of humanity, not the private profit of a select few, and whose inner workings intrinsically respect human rights.

Snowden’s principled courage is in the tradition of great whistleblowers like Daniel Ellsberg and Chelsea Manning. This is an important film to learn about the role of such figures in the struggle for a better world.

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