A Day After the Oscars, Edward Snowden Speaks Out About ‘CITIZENFOUR’

The whistle-blower reunited with Laura Poitras and Glenn Greenwald to answer questions Monday afternoon.
Feb 23, 2015· 3 MIN READ
Jennifer Swann is TakePart’s culture and lifestyle reporter.

Awards show speeches often double as political platforms, but one notable film subject couldn’t take the stage when his movie won an Oscar Sunday night. NSA whistle-blower Edward Snowden, the focus of best documentary winner CITIZENFOUR, had to wait until Monday, on the not-so-glamorous digital platform Reddit, to share his thoughts from Russia, where he’s avoiding arrest.

“For some treason” Snowden wasn’t at the ceremony, Oscars host Neil Patrick Harris joked. But Snowden reunited with reporter Glenn Greenwald and director Laura Poitras to address the film’s impact, the actions regular citizens can take to combat government surveillance, and yes, that tongue-in-cheek Harris jab: “If you’re not willing to be called a few names to help out your country, you don’t care enough.”

Unlike the Academy Awards’ exclusive ceremony for the Hollywood elite, the Reddit AMA (Ask Me Anything) forum—in which Internet users from all over the world ask questions directly to the person conducting it—is democratized and inclusive. It’s also in keeping with the theme of CITIZENFOUR: transparency. (Full disclosure: CITIZENFOUR was produced by TakePart’s parent company, Participant Media.) Some debates got pretty heated. Below, we paraphrase five questions asked by Reddit users and highlight the best takeaways.

What risks did Poitras face when making this film?

Poitras: Given the fact that I had been repeatedly detained at the U.S. border because of my work on previous films, I moved to Berlin to edit CITIZENFOUR. When Ed contacted me in early 2013, I gave him my assurance I would never comply with a subpoena. Before going to Hong Kong I met with many lawyers to assess the risk. I ignored some of the warnings—for instance The Washington Post urged me not to travel to Hong Kong. Another lawyer said not to bring my camera. In the end I decided I could not live with the decision to not travel to Hong Kong.

If Snowden had to do it all again, would he do anything differently?

Snowden: I would have come forward sooner....

Had I come forward a little sooner, these programs would have been a little less entrenched, and those abusing them would have felt a little less familiar with and accustomed to the exercise of those powers. This is something we see in almost every sector of government, not just in the national security space, but it’s very important: Once you grant the government some new power or authority, it becomes exponentially more difficult to roll it back. Regardless of how little value a program or power has been shown to have, once it’s a sunk cost, once dollars and reputations have been invested in it, it’s hard to peel that back.

Don’t let it happen in your country.

Has the world changed since Snowden leaked NSA documents that revealed government spying?

Greenwald: There are now court cases possible challenging the legality of this surveillance—one federal court in the U.S. and a British court just recently found this spying illegal. Social media companies like Facebook and Apple are being forced by their users to install encryption and other technological means to prevent surveillance, which is a significant barrier. Nations around the world (such as Brazil and Germany) are working together in unison to prevent U.S. hegemony over the Internet and to protect the privacy of their own citizens. And, most of all, because people now realize the extent to which their privacy is being compromised, they can—and increasingly are—using encryption and anonymizers to protect their own privacy and physically prevent mass surveillance.

Snowden: To dogpile on this, many of the changes that are happening are invisible because they’re happening at the engineering level. Google encrypted the backhaul communications between their data centers to prevent passive monitoring. Apple was the first forward with an FED-by-default smartphone.... The biggest change has been in awareness. Before 2013, if you said the NSA was making records of everybody’s phone calls and the [Government Communications Headquarters] was monitoring lawyers and journalists, people raised eyebrows and called you a conspiracy theorist. Those days are over.

What can ordinary citizens do to stop government spying?

Snowden: One of the biggest problems in governance today is the difficulty faced by citizens looking to hold our officials to account when they cross the line. We can develop new tools and traditions to protect our rights, and we can do our best to elect new and better representatives, but if we cannot enforce consequences on powerful officials for abusive behavior, we end up in a system where the incentives reward bad behavior post-election. That’s how we end up with candidates who say one thing but, once in power, do something radically different. How do you fix that? Good question.

Is there any hope that CITIZENFOUR’s success will lead to Snowden’s repatriation?

Greenwald: Edward Snowden should not be forced to choose between living in Russia or spending decades in a high-security American prison.... The goal of the U.S. government is to threaten, bully, and intimidate all whistle-blowers—which is what explains the mistreatment and oppression of the heroic Chelsea Manning—because they think that climate of fear is crucial to deterring future whistle-blowers. As long as they embrace that tactic, it’s hard to envision them letting Ed return to his country. But we as citizens should be much more interested in the question of why our government threatens and imprisons whistle-blowers.