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“Snowden” – A Movie About a Hero or a Traitor?

“Snowden” – A Movie About a Hero or a Traitor?

Right now the much ballyhooed Oliver Stone film “Snowden” is showing in the majority of theaters in Russia, as well as the US  The film presents the former employee of the CIA and NSA as a conscientious patriot to whom an unpleasant internal world of the American special services is slowly revealed, a sinister world of cynicism, blackmail, hostile recruitment, selfish motivation, and above all – a worldwide system of eavesdropping on American citizens, as well as on foreigners.

Counter to the movie narrative are Edward Snowden’s former intelligence colleagues who say that the defector has been intentionally made to look heroic through a systematic distortion of the facts.  Former Deputy Director for Counterintelligence of the CIA Mark Kelton published an article in which he quotes the report on the Snowden affair from the House Intelligence Committee (HPSCI): “the overwhelming preponderance of the 1.5 million documents taken by Snowden had nothing ‘remotely to do with programs impacting individual privacy.’

“Instead, the report conveys, they ‘pertain to military, defense and intelligence programs of great interest to America’s adversaries.’  About the only thing the movie gets right in this vein is the seeming disinterest on the part of Snowden and the journalists gathered in that Hong Kong hotel room as to the damage their action might do to the safety and security of the citizens of the US and its allies,” writes Kelton.

He also notes that during the investigation of the Snowden affair no evidence was ever uncovered that Snowden tried to resolve the matter internally using available moral or legal means. 

“A viewer of Stone’s movie is left with the impression that Snowden’s anger over a response to a Senator’s question regarding NSA collection on American citizens by Director of National Intelligence James Clapper in March 2013 – about two months before Snowden disappeared from his post in Hawaii — led him to steal information from NSA databases.  In fact, according to the HPSCI report, he began gathering information at least eight months before Clapper spoke.  That reality, coupled with the nature of the information Snowden stole and his subsequent flight to China and then to Russia, countries with a proven disregard for civil rights and privacy, ought to raise questions as to Snowden’s real motives.  In my experience, the collection of information of intelligence value well in advance of flight to an adversary country is more indicative of a putative intelligence volunteer than of a whistleblower,” avers Kelton.

The former CIA Deputy Director also refers to Snowden’s direct supervisor, Steven Bay, who confirms that his subordinate “deceived and abused the trust of those he worked with in order to expand his access and cover his activities.  These people never refused his requests for help.”

Kelton notes that, “Also largely absent from the film, except by implication, is Russian intelligence.  We have been told by Russian President Vladimir Putin that Snowden established contact with his country while in Hong Kong.  We also know from experience that it would have been impossible for Snowden (who had neither a valid passport nor a Russian visa) to have boarded a plane for Moscow absent the assent of the Russian Federal Security Service (FSB).  A conversation between Snowden and Russian intelligence concerning the terms and conditions for being granted a seat on that aircraft would almost certainly have included, at minimum, his agreement to a debriefing by the Russian services and to providing them with sensitive material to which he had access.  The Russian services are, after all, not humanitarian organizations.  Further, it is inconceivable that permission for Snowden to reside in Russia would have been granted absent his agreeing to submit to continued work with the Russian services.  As the provision of classified information to the Russians by Snowden would constitute espionage, the film is, not surprisingly, wholly silent on the issue of his contact with them.”

A similar view is held by former Senior CIA officer Michael Davidson who provided an exclusive interview to our site:  The collection of metadata that so concerned both Left and Right in the United States was exaggerated out of all proportion by the press.  In fact, metadata is what you see on your phone bill at the end of each month.  It consists of a list of the calls you made, their duration, and the phone company’s charges.  In order to go further, the NSA required a ruling by the FISA court, and this was sought when a call to a known or suspected foreign terrorist number was detected.  But what the public and press ignore is the fact that this particular NSA program represented only a small fraction of the 1.5 million documents Snowden stole.  This theft was recently described by Michael Hayden, former chief of the NSA and later the CIA, as the most devastating blow to US security in history.”

The former CIA officer emphasizes that we not forget where Snowden finally landed and how he got there.

“In fact, Snowden’s trajectory to safe haven under Vladimir Putin’s wing strongly suggests that he was acting as a witting espionage agent of Moscow.  Whether he was or was not does not change the fact that he betrayed his country, is by any standard a defector under the protection of the Russian security service, provided everything he had stolen to Russian (and at least some to Chinese) intelligence, and in so doing did in many instances irreparable harm to American security, endangered the lives of assets, and revealed programs that cost the American taxpayer hundreds of millions of dollars.  All of these programs must now be replaced.”

Former NSA Counterintelligence Officer John Schindler subscribes to the same point of view.  In November 2013, he wrote about how the “Snowden Operation” is a classic example of so called “Active Measures, in other words a secret propaganda job.”

Schindler writes, “Relying on fronts, cut-outs, ‘independent’ journalists, plus platoons of what Lenin memorably termed Useful Idiots, is just what the Kremlin’s intelligence services do when they want to engage in Active Measures. We’ve been down this road before ‘ in many ways what’s going on now is merely a replay of the operational game from the 1970s based on the CIA defector Phil Agee (KGB cover name: PONT), but with broadband access ‘ yet the Snowden Operation is unusually successful and brazen, even by Moscow’s high standards in this regard.”

For my part I add that we are not obliged to rely on or agree with the opinion of former American intelligence officers.  But even if you ignore their opinions, Stone’s film still raises a host of questions.

First, my life experience in Russia suggests that over the past several years any more or less close contact with foreigners results in an FSB interrogation – of the Russian, as well as his foreign acquaintances.  More and more often “undesirable” foreigners are refused entry into Russia.  Given this reality, it is to say the least difficult to believe that a person like Snowden who was affiliated with foreign intelligence would be permitted to live in Russia with no conditions.

Second, although the very possibility of access to one’s personal information might create certain risks, there is an obvious difference between the theoretical possibility and actual interference in one’s personal life.  I have yet to see any evidence of persecution in the USA through the use of illegally obtained information.  But in Russia and similar countries, one can find as many examples as you like.  In recent years every representative of the opposition press, including me, and representatives of human rights organizations, as well as people who simply think differently, know perfectly well that our telephone conversations are routinely bugged, not with some abstract program that collects metadata, but by real people listening in.  In 2011 I personally experienced such measures in Belarus, where I had been poisoned after agents had surreptitiously entered the apartment where I was staying. This encounter had all the classic attributes – the lights were left on and several items re-arranged. 

The victimization of “undesirables” in Russia is carried out through routine and brazen violations of privacy, where personal photographs, e-mail and telephone conversations are unabashedly publicized.  Such materials are distributed throughout society widely, often forming the basis for film “exposés” broadcast over the main TV channels watched by most Russians. These personal materials are also used to launch criminal cases, the vast majority of which end in real jail sentences.  These invasive activities began long before 2013, and it is therefore doubly strange that Snowden, an intelligence professional, “didn’t know” what was going on in Russia and “truly believed” that the situation there was somehow better than in his homeland.

In short, the violation of human rights is certainly unacceptable, but to manipulate these rights through the use of double standards and to work for the benefit of dictators is doubly unacceptable.

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