“Citizenfour,” the Laura Poitras documentary featuring Edward Snowden, debuted this weekend at The New York Film Festival to rave reviews.
The film is an utterly fascinating account of the week Poitras and Glenn Greenwald spent interviewing Snowden in his Mira hotel room in Hong Kong in early June 2013. It also covers some of the preparations and fallout.
William Binney, a 32-year veteran of the US intelligence community and one of the best code breakers in NSA history, is a central character in the film. The mathematician tells Poitras how he built a program called “Stellarwind” that served as a pervasive domestic spying apparatus after 9/11, which sets the stage for Snowden’s collaboration with Poitras.
But the vivid presentation in “Citizenfour” avoids one of the most important aspects of the Snowden saga: the massive cache of documents that the 31-year-old former NSA contractor allegedly stole but didn’t give to American journalists.
And Binney has shared his views of that subject.
The China Leaks And William Binney
Beyond the estimated 200,000 documents given to Poitras and Greenwald, Snowden also took up to 1.5 million documents detailing NSA operations targeting American adversaries.
Two days after parting ways with the American journalists, Snowden provided documents revealing “operational details of specific attacks on computers, including internet protocol (IP) addresses, dates of attacks and whether a computer was still being monitored remotely” to Lana Lam of the South China Morning Post (SCMP).
“I did not release them earlier because I don’t want to simply dump huge amounts of documents without regard to their content,” Snowden told the Hong Kong paper in a June 12 interview. “I have to screen everything before releasing it to journalists.”
That Snowden took a bunch of documents unrelated to civil liberties and showed some of them to a Chinese newspaper is not mentioned in “Citizenfour.” And Binney’s previous comments on the SCMP become an elephant in the room.
“Among the leaked documents are details of foreign-intelligence gathering that do not fall under the heading of unlawful threats to American democracy — what Snowden described as his only concern. Binney, generally a fervent Snowden supporter, told USA Today that Snowden’s references to ‘hacking into China’ went too far: ‘So he is transitioning from whistle-blower to a traitor,” George Packer of The New Yorker, who spent time with Poitras and co. in Germany, writes in his detailed review of the film and overall situation.
“This is a distinction that Poitras might have induced Binney to pursue,” Packer adds. “Because Poitras is so close to her subject, politically and psychologically, ‘Citizenfour’ is not the tour de force it might have been.”
Earlier this year, Binney described Snowden as a “patriot,” but he has not retracted or clarified his comments to USA Today.
And we know even more about the second part of Snowden’s epic theft.
James Bamford of Wired, who met Snowden in Moscow this summer, reported that the former CIA technician moved from Dell to Booz Allen in March 2013 to steal details on “the NSA’s aggressive cyberwarfare activity around the world” and became immersed in “the highly secret world of planting malware into systems around the world and stealing gigabytes of foreign secrets.”
Edward Jay Epstein of The Wall Street Journal, who has reported extensively on Snowden’s theft, echoed Binney’s criticism when he told Powerline that Snowden was “a whistleblower in the case of some documents, and not a whistleblower in the case of other documents.”
“So in the case of his work [for Booz Allen] at the National Threat Operations Center, he is not in my book under any theory a whistleblower,” Epstein concluded to Powerline. “At Dell, he could be a whistleblower. These are two different jobs and two different phases.”
Further, no one knows exactly what happened to the other documents (beyond the SCMP leak).
James Risen of The Times reported in October 2013 that the former CIA technician said “he gave all of the classified documents he had obtained to journalists he met in Hong Kong.” (ACLU lawyer and Snowden legal adviser Ben Wizner subsequently told Business Insider that the report was inaccurate.)
In May 2014, Snowden then told NBC’s Brian Williams in Moscow that he “destroyed” all documents in his possession while in Hong Kong.
Greenwald, for his part, recently had a colourful answer to critiques like that of Binney and Epstein.
“I consider [questions about Snowden’s motivations] absurd and idiotic,” Greenwald after a TED talk. “That accusation comes from people in the U.S. government, from people in the media who are loyalists to these governments, and … they are saying a lot more about themselves then they are about the target of their accusations because those people … never act for any reason other then corrupt reasons.
“So they assume that everyone else is plagued by the same disease of soullessness that they are,” Greenwald added.
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