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Citizenfour's Escape to Freedom in Russia

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Reprinted from Consortium News


NSA whistleblower Edward Snowden speaking in Moscow on Oct. 9, 2013.
(Image by (From a video posted by WikiLeaks))
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In early September in Russia, National Security Agency whistleblower Edward Snowden told me about a documentary entitled "Citizenfour," named after the alias he used when he asked filmmaker Laura Poitras to help him warn Americans about how deeply the NSA had carved away their freedoms.

When we spoke, Snowden seemed more accustomed to his current reality, i.e., still being alive albeit far from home, than he did in October 2013 when I met with him along with fellow whistleblowers Tom Drake, Coleen Rowley and Jesselyn Radack, as we presented him with the Sam Adams Award for Integrity in Intelligence.

A year ago, the four of us spent a long, relaxing evening with Snowden -- and sensed his lingering wonderment at the irony-suffused skein of events that landed him in Russia, out of reach from the U.S. government's long arm of "justice."

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Six days before we gave Snowden the award, former NSA and CIA director Michael Hayden and House Intelligence Committee chair Mike Rogers had openly expressed their view that Snowden deserved to be on the "list," meaning the "capture or kill" list that could have made Snowden the target of a drone strike. When I asked him if he were aware of that recent indignity, he nodded yes -- with a winsome wince of incredulity.

This September, there was no drone of Damocles hanging over the relaxed lunch that the two of us shared. There were, rather, happier things to discuss. For example, I asked if he were aware that one of his co-workers in Hawaii had volunteered to Andy Greenberg of Forbes Magazine that Snowden was admired by his peers as a man of principle, as well as a highly gifted geek.

The co-worker told Greenberg: "NSA is full of smart people, but Ed ... was in a class of his own. ... I've never seen anything like it. ... He was given virtually unlimited access to NSA data [because] he could do things nobody else could."

Equally important, the former colleague pointed out that Snowden kept on his desk a copy of the U.S. Constitution to cite when arguing with co-workers against NSA activities that he thought might be in violation of America's founding document. Greenberg's source conceded that he or she had slowly come to understand that Snowden was trying to do the right thing and that this was very much in character, adding, "I won't call him a hero, but he's sure as hell no traitor."

Snowden spoke of his former co-workers with respect and affection, noting that most of them had family responsibilities, mortgages, etc. -- burdens he lacked. He told me he was very aware that these realities would make it immeasurably more difficult for them to blow the whistle on NSA's counter-Constitutional activities, even if they were to decide they should. "But somebody had to do it," said Snowden in a decidedly non-heroic tone, "So I guess that would be me."

Following the intelligence world's axiom of "need-to-know," Snowden had been careful to protect his family and Lindsay Mills, his girlfriend, by telling no one of his plans. I found myself thinking long and hard at how difficult that must have been -- to simply get out of Dodge without a word to those you love.

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Perhaps he felt Mills would eventually understand when he explained why it was absolutely necessary in order to achieve his mission and have some chance of staying alive and out of prison. But, not having discussed with her his plans, how could he be sure of that?

And so, learning recently of the interim "happy-ending" arrival of Mills in Russia was like a shot in the arm for me. I thought to myself, it is possible to do the right thing, survive and not end up having to live the life of a hermit. Equally important, that reality is now out there for the world to see. What an encouragement to future whistleblowers -- and to current ones, as well, for that matter.

Snowden was delighted when I told him that Bill Binney, the long-time and highly respected former NSA technical director, had just accepted the Sam Adams Award, which will be presented in 2015. It was Snowden's own revelations that finally freed up Binney and other courageous NSA alumni to let the American public know what they had been trying, through official channels, to tell the overly timid representatives in Washington.

Seeing "Citizenfour"

Snowden was happy to tell me about the documentary, "Citizenfour," explaining that during his sessions in Hong Kong with Laura Poitras, Glenn Greenwald, and The Guardian's Ewen MacAskill, Poitras seemed to have the camera always rolling during the eight days they shared in Hong Kong -- including during the grand escape from the hotel. With a broad smile, Snowden said, "Ray, when people see my makeshift disguise, well, it is going to be really hard to argue that this thing was pre-planned!"

All I have seen so far is the trailer, but I have tickets for a showing Friday night when "Citizenfour" opens in Washington and other cities. With Snowden, I figured I could wait to witness the grand escape until I saw the film itself, so I avoided asking him for additional detail. Like: "Don't spoil it for me, Ed."

I was encouraged to read, in one of the movie reviews, that the documentary does allude to the key role played by Julian Assange and WikiLeaks in enabling Snowden's escape. I had long since concluded that WikiLeaks's role -- and that of Sarah Harrison, in particular, was the sine qua non for success. I hope "Citizenfour" gives this key part of the story the prominence it deserves.

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Ray McGovern works with Tell the Word, the publishing arm of the ecumenical Church of the Saviour in inner-city Washington. He was an Army infantry/intelligence officer and then a CIA analyst for 27 years, and is now on the Steering Group of Veteran Intelligence Professionals for Sanity (VIPS). His (more...)
 

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