Citizenfour, Ed Snowden, MI-5, Homeland, and Scandal

MI-5 is the British domestic intelligence agency. It is also the American title of an immensely popular British TV series (Spooks) that ran for ten seasons from 2002 through 2011. The series gives the viewer an inside look at the Brit agency and is likely the inspiration for two American series – Homeland and Scandal. Both American series have women in the leading roles. Homeland’s bipolar Carrie Mathison takes us on harrowing adventures as an international CIA’s operative and Scandal’s Olivia Pope, is the Washington “fixer” and conflicted daughter of Command, the leader of a fictional, shadowy agency (B613) charged with the clandestine protection of “the Republic.” All three series give us putative looks at the intrigue within the various spy agencies. Charged with our protection from nefarious external agents, they often reveal the inherent temptations of using evil to fight evil.

This year the three TV dramas were upstaged by the tense real life melodrama of Edward Snowden and his revelations of America’s worldwide surveillance apparatus as well as his Bourne-like escape from Hawaii to Hong Kong and eventually to sanctuary in Russia.


Citizenfour is Laura Poitras’ feature length film documenting Snowden’s journey, intellectual and physical, from relatively minor technical analyst at the CIA to his elevation as a lead technologist for the National Security Administration’s information sharing office, his subsequent disillusionment and decision to leak information on the surveillance and his belief that the agency’s program exceeded its legal authority and was therefore unconstitutional.

I’ve struggled to decide whether Snowden is a traitor or a hero, but there is no question that he is a genius. He outwitted, out maneuvered, and out played the CIA, NSA, and FBI in executing his plan to collect and disseminate information on the overreaching extent of NSA spying on US and world citizens while managing to escape detection and capture – or death – at the hands of the agencies involved.

Citizenfour claims that Snowden tried to alert co-workers and superiors to the dangers and violations of the NSA programs but was discouraged from pursuing it and warned about the danger to himself if he did. I agree that he would have been in mortal danger if he had gone further. Had he been regarded as a threat to the programs or agencies involved he would likely have met with lethal consequences. In fact, he was so meticulous and secretive in the planning and in selecting Poitras and Glenn Greenwald of The Guardian as his conduits they had no idea who he was until they met in a Hong Kong hotel room. Had the CIA discovered him prior to that actual moment no one would have known his identity or intention and I am sure he would have met with a fatal accident. The Marine officer in me regards his leaks and revelations as traitorous, but the Berkeley-trained lawyer admires his courage and perseverance as an example of selfless citizenship.


The jury is still out on this question, but watching the film it is hard not to admire Snowden. He willingly sacrificed his own comfort and future to bring this information to the world. I don’t see an upside for him. He was clear, as it was unfolding, that he did not want the story to get derailed and become about him. It was about the information he was sharing through his chosen journalists that was of primary importance.

Even his escape from Hong Kong was a masterpiece of spycraft. With the world focused on him and his revelations he managed to escape detection, spend over a month in Hong Kong, set up a diversionary ticket to South America, negotiate some sort of safe passage arrangement, and slip out of town on a commercial flight to Moscow – all after the US had canceled his passport.

It’s difficult to imagine that life as an exile, in Russia, is what Mr. Snowden wants. He is only 31 years old and though his longtime girlfriend, Lindsey Mills, has joined him there (the film shows them through the window of their hideaway) it must be stifling to be Putin’s pawn and prisoner with no plausible escape lanes. I have a lot of admiration for Snowden, not the least of which is because he was able to use Julian Assange to move his exile status forward without becoming an instrument of Assanges’ media machine.

MI-5 is my favorite TV series of all time. It is tense, compelling, believable, and well acted. Snowden’s story would have fit perfectly within its outline. MI-5’s TV run is over, but Snowden’s journey is not. I for one will be watching and hoping that he does not meet with an untimely accident as a result of his actions.

Citizenfour is a must see look at the Snowden affair. Protecting the country from terrorists is tricky business. It requires constant vigilance and sometimes it’s difficult to tell the good guys from the bad, but the constitution protects us as well.  Citizenfour offers one perspective on Edward Snowden.  Hero or traitor? Maybe he’s both. See the film and come to your own conclusion.



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