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Liberty at the movies: Snowden

Snowden is Oliver Stone's "biopic" about the world's most famous whistle-blower. It is also one of the best films of the year and may be Stone's best movie ever.

Snowden uses the story of it protagonist's journey from a true believer in everything the government told him about the war on terror to the someone willing to risk everything to expose the truth about the surveillance state.

Stone's story jumps back and forth between Snowden's clandestine meeting with journalists in a Hong Kong hotel to telling how he came to work for intelligence and his gradual disillusionment with the surveillance state. This allows the audience to share Snowden's journey while keeping the focus on his revelations about mass surveillance.

So when we first meet Snowden, he is already a man on the run from the government. But then we flash back to the days when Snowden was an eager young volunteer for the US Military. He is so determined to help fight the war on terrorism that he tries to hide the fact that he has two broken legs. Snowden's injury is discovered, he is discharged, so he goes to work for the CIA.

Snowden realized early in his CIA training that the government's "intelligence" agencies may have other less savory motives then just keeping us safe.  Snowden befriends a CIA veteran (portrayed by Nicolas Cage) who tells him that he developed a more effective surveillance system that allowed the agency to target actual terrorist threats, but the agency killed it in favor of a less effective, more expensive system. The reason? The inferior system was developed by a politically powerful contractor.

Snowden's disillusionment grows as he sees how the surveillance state is more about enhancing the global and domestic powers of the US Government -- plus advancing the carers of individual agents -- than protecting the people from terrorism.

The movie personalizes surveillance with a scene where a visibly disturbed Snowden watches a women disrobe with a clearly amused fellow agent.

One of the most chilling scenes is when Snowden's CIA mentor explains that the not only is mass surveillance necessary, but the people actually want it. What makes it chilling is the CIA's chief absolute certainty of his (and the government's) righteousness.

The movie does a masterful job of weaving in an explanation of "metadata" collection, the uselessness of the FISA court, and how Section 702 of the FISA Act allows government to contract surveillance activities without even getting it rubber-stamped by the FISA court.

The movie also does a great job of making Snowden's escape from Hong Kong suspenseful even though we obviously know the ending.

One of my favorite parts of the movie (if not my favorite) is how it honestly deals with Barrack Obama, who is a larger presence in the movie than George W. Bush. By 2008, Snowden had seen all he needed of the surveillance state to realize that mass government surveillance trades real liberty for phony security.

So why didn't he blow the whistle in 2008 or at least resign? Because he believed Barrack Obama's promises to make the government's surveillance programs comply with the U.S. Constitution. It was his realization that nothing would change under Obama that lead him to blow the whistle on the government's activities.

While the film honesty addresses' Obama's embrace of the surveillance state, other aspects of the movie play up the conventional narrative that only "liberals" or "progressives" support civil liberties.

Early in the movie, Snowden defends the Iraq War to his "anti-war" girlfriend. Later, she referred to his growing disgust with the snooping state as him becoming more liberal. The movie never considers that Snowden may be abandoning neoconservatism, for a more liberty centered brand of conservatism.

This is reinforced at the end of the movie when, during a montage of clips regarding Snowden, the only political figure quoted defending Snowden is...Bernie Sanders. Nothing against Senator Sanders but has he really done as much to galvanize opposition to mass surveillance as Ron Paul and other liberty Republicans like Rand Paul, Thomas Massie, and Justin Amash?

This oversight is especially disappointing considering that what we now about Snowden's own politics suggests that he at least leans libertarian.

That caveat aside, I highly recommend Snowden.

Following the movie's release and Snowden's request for a Presidential pardon, the intelligence-security complex and their Congressional amen corner House of Representatives have renewed their attacks on Snowden.

My friend Patrick Eddignton responds to the attacks here.

Peter Van Buren offers some thoughts on Snowden (h/t RPI).

Mr. Van Buren recently discussed the movie with Daniel McAdams on The Ron Paul Liberty Report. 

 

 


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