The famed director of “JFK” and “Wall Street” talks about his new film, “Snowden,” about Edward Snowden the man, the totalitarian character of “surveillance capitalism” and Russian President Vladimir Putin.
You portray Edward Snowden in your film not as a traitor, but as an information age patriot defending American citizens from their own intelligence agencies. At one point in the film, Snowden and his colleagues are shocked to learn that the incidence of surveillance on Americans was greater than on America’s adversaries, the Chinese and Russians.
Since the Snowden revelations, security laws have been revamped to curb a broad collection of metadata on U.S. citizens. Do you see these as sufficient safeguards on civil liberties, or weak rules easily rolled back if there is another major terror attack ― or if Donald Trump wins the presidency?
'As Snowden has said, "they’ve only changed the drapes in the White House."'
As Snowden has said, “they’ve only changed the drapes in the White House.” The capacity, of course, is still there. There have been some curbs. But there are several federal judiciary challenges that have gone back and forth, some rulings calling mass eavesdropping unconstitutional, which I firmly believe, while others have moved in the other direction. So, it is all now in a kind of bureaucratic muddle with a lot of confusion about where the boundaries lie. It will take years to clear up.
This whole episode from the aftermath of 9/11 through the Snowden revelations ― and beyond ― is a story for history, which is why I made the film.
James Risen of the New York Times had the scoop on mass eavesdropping as far back as 2004, but they decided not to publish at the time because they were called in by [President George W.] Bush and his gang and warned off for “national security” reasons. Had this massive surveillance been known at the time, it could well have shifted the election to John Kerry, who was then running against George Bush who was seeking a second term. It was not the Pentagon Papers time anymore for the New York Times, but the opposite.
The Times finally released the story in late 2005. It was the first sign of what some of us suspected: something deeply wrong was going on inside the Bush administration along with interrogation policies like waterboarding.
But it wasn’t until June 2013, five years into the “reform-minded” administration of Barack Obama, when Edward Snowden broke open the dam of secrecy with his revelations of programs such as Upstream and PRISM [which accessed personal data from the databases of Google, Apple, Yahoo and Microsoft].
'When I got deeper into making the movie I realized this all was just the tip of the iceberg.'
That’s nine years after Risen first sniffed out the story of mass surveillance. What Snowden had was all the hard evidence, exposing programs that were beyond most people’s imagination of what the government was doing.
But when I got deeper into making the movie I realized this all was just the tip of the iceberg. There are scores, if not hundreds more of these spying programs, such as XKeyscore, [that enables surveillance of nearly everything a person does through the internet] or Boundless Informant [that maps by country the data collected from computers and telecom networks].
Now, we’ve gone even further to cyberwar, which Obama unleashed onto the world from the early days of his administration when he sped up the Stuxnet virus attacks ― begun in the Bush period ― which wormed its way into and damaged Iran’s nuclear centrifuge controls. For the first time, the U.S. was using a digital weapon offensively, not defensively. One of Snowden’s biggest concerns is that the intelligence community has not so much been defending America as building up offensive capabilities.
My larger point is that, for all of Snowden’s revelations, they haven’t exposed everything. They are only an implication of what still lies underneath. In the movie we deal with mass eavesdropping and with drones, and we just touch the surface on cyberwar. We show Snowden noticing, on an official trip to Japan, that U.S. agents were inserting malware into the Japanese computer systems. Our allies! Who knew?
Now, let’s look at it from the other side. Having seen the U.S. using Stuxnet and other digital weapons offensively, don’t you think they have woken up in Iran, China and Russia and built their own capacities? It is now a digital arms race.
'The U.S. has been the biggest offender in cyberwar. And now we are getting it back.'
And that doesn’t even include the non-state hackers. A couple of weeks ago a group called “Shadow Brokers” gave a warning to the intelligence elites. They claimed to have hacked the NSA and stolen cyberweapons which they say they will auction off to the highest bidder. In effect, they are saying “we know what weapons you have and we are going to go against you unless you give up this form of warfare.”
The U.S. has been the biggest offender in cyberwar. And now we are getting it back.
And if Trump wins?
Personally, I don’t think he has a chance. Hillary will win. And then we are in for a very rocky road because she has a vociferous and belligerent foreign policy. She was a terrible secretary of state, probably worse than Condi Rice. She’s very hawkish and aggressive.
The paradox of the internet age is that ever greater connectivity also means ever greater capacity for surveillance ― and not only by the government, but by private digital companies that collect and exploit personal data for commercial reasons. Does that worry you as well?
Absolutely. I said recently that the Pokemon Go game, which enables access to a user’s Google account personal data, is an entirely new level of invasion. Companies like Google profit enormously from data mining of your personal searches, behavior and habits. There is more money in selling that data than in selling a product. It’s surveillance capitalism. It really is a new kind of totalitarianism.
With respect to government surveillance, it has been the private companies who are now installing encryption software so the government can’t get in through a back door. They are afraid of losing their customers. They’ve jumped from being collaborators to the other side of the fence: “Now we are going to give you privacy.”
'Surveillance capitalism is really a new kind of totalitarianism.'
I hope so. Are all of these encryption programs real? Can you trust them? You don’t know. We’re all wandering in this atmosphere of uncertainty. We watch our words. It’s a chilling effect. McCarthyism 2.0.
At one point in the movie when Snowden warns his girlfriend to watch what she says online, she shrugs and says “I’ve got nothing to hide.” Is the so-called Facebook generation naïve, already acculturated to this new era of surveillance?
I don’t think you can generalize about a whole generation. But to the extent it is true I do think there is a certain passivity, a sense of “what can you do anyway?” It is not like there is an alternate system of communication. Your only choice is to go off the grid, which some do. That is why Snowden and others are really fighting for some effective regulation and internet reform.
There is no reason to believe that private companies don’t want to do that to protect their customer’s privacy from government intrusion. The competition over privacy would be a good thing. On the commercial side, competition can break up monopoly control of the Googles of the world. I like the European approach, which is trying to break up the Google monopoly. You can’t let these guys go crazy.
The New York Times recently did a huge profile of WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange, suggesting that, wittingly or not, he is benefiting the Russians. While Assange has so far refused to criticize Russia’s crackdown on the freedom of speech, Snowden has, calling a proposed Russian law an act of “big brother.”
What distinction to you make between Assange and Snowden?
'Ed Snowden has played it very straight. He loves his country, the United States, and wants to go back home.'
Ed Snowden has played it very straight. He loves his country, the United States, and wants to go back home. He is a patriot who just wants to fix what is wrong and get on with it. He is a great mind who, I think could help the NSA. That’s been lost. There is no sign he is a traitor in that sense. He is very tough on the Russians, both in what he has said to me privately as well as publicly.
I don’t know if he realizes that he couldn’t have gotten asylum anywhere else but Russia, which is beyond the reach of the American intelligence agencies. No SEAL raid is going to work there to snatch him. China, Russia or Iran are the only places the U.S. would not have been able to force the governments to hand him over, or go in with a commando raid. Even China waffled under pressure.
There is a scene in the movie where I show that the Bolivian presidential plane of [President] Evo Morales was forced down in Austria, after Portugal and France refused landing rights to refuel, because Snowden was suspected of being on the plane. If that doesn’t show how the U.S. dominates most of the world, I don’t know what does.
Julian [Assange] has a very different view of the world and is in a very different situation. He sees the world as dominated by the menacing American empire and he wants to fight it and bring it down. That is not Snowden at all.
You spent a lot of time in Russia making the Snowden film, including a long session with Vladimir Putin. What was your impression?
'Putin is very clear-eyed. Rational. Unemotional. He is a fervent patriot who believes in a strong Russia.'
Very clear-eyed. Rational. Unemotional. He is a fervent patriot who believes in a strong Russia, he’s a “Son of Russia,” as the saying there goes. He gave Russia its integrity back after it fell apart in the post-Soviet days of Boris Yeltsin. He went after the oligarchs and said, “if you have the interests of the state in mind, that’s fine. But we don’t want you in politics.” We should do that here in the U.S.
Putin is definitely a capitalist who believes in private enterprise, and wants it. He was trying to build up the economy, which has now been subverted by Western sanctions. Like the leaders in China, he sees the U.S. as seeking to ignite a “color revolution”-style popular uprising, like in the Ukraine, to expand its sphere of influence and keep Russia weak. We’re poking the bear. But the bear is tough.
This interview was edited for clarity.