Edward Snowden talks 'Citizenfour' with Poitras, Greenwald

New York Times columnist David Carr, in his final public appearance, hosted a reunion of sorts with Snowden, protagonist of the film "Citizenfour," as well as director Laura Poitras and journalist Glenn Greenwald.

Edward Moyer Senior Editor
Edward Moyer is a senior editor at CNET and a many-year veteran of the writing and editing world. He enjoys taking sentences apart and putting them back together. He also likes making them from scratch. ¶ For nearly a quarter of a century, he's edited and written stories about various aspects of the technology world, from the US National Security Agency's controversial spying techniques to historic NASA space missions to 3D-printed works of fine art. Before that, he wrote about movies, musicians, artists and subcultures.
Expertise Wordsmithery. Credentials
  • Ed was a member of the CNET crew that won a National Magazine Award from the American Society of Magazine Editors for general excellence online. He's also edited pieces that've nabbed prizes from the Society of Professional Journalists and others.
Edward Moyer
6 min read

From left: Poitras, Snowden and Greenwald. The three talked Thursday about the state of surveillance and about "Citizenfour," Poitras' Oscar-nominated film chronicling their storied secret discussions in a Hong Kong hideout. The New York Times

It was just like old times, sort of.

On Thursday, NSA whistle-blower Edward Snowden got together again with journalist Glenn Greenwald and filmmaker and journalist Laura Poitras to talk surveillance, reliving in a sense their now historic secret meeting two summers ago in a Hong Kong hotel room.

That first time around, Snowden handed the two a huge cache of top secret National Security Agency documents and asked them to let the public know about the NSA's gigantic and constitutionally questionable appetite for people's data. The meeting set off a chain of events that led to, among other things, consternation in Silicon Valley about the privacy of customer data; international outrage over tapped phones; high-profile reassurances from the president about agency reform; the awarding of a Pulitzer Prize (shared by Greenwald, Poitras and others); and, more recently, a nomination for an Academy Award.

The last item was in part the reason for the reunion, where, this time around, Snowden couldn't be present in the flesh but instead beamed in on a live feed from Russia, where he's been holed up since the document handoff. Poitras famously filmed the initial encounter, with the UK's Guardian news site publishing a short video interview with Snowden when he revealed himself as the source of the leaks. In the film "Citizenfour" -- named for an alias used by Snowden -- Poitras taps previously unseen footage to chronicle the exchange and the surveillance-related circumstances surrounding it. Some have pegged the film as a shoo-in for Best Documentary Feature at the Oscars on February 22.

In anticipation of that event, The New York Times' TimesTalks series played host to the three on Thursday, for a discussion of the film and the present state of " the surveillance state." (The roundtable marked, sadly, a final public appearance by moderator and Times media columnist David Carr, who died of a heart attack later in the evening.)

A 'rare record'

One thing the discussion brought home is how remarkable the film is, simply from a historical standpoint. After all, regardless of how one views the leaking of government secrets, we don't have film of Deep Throat giving Woodward and Bernstein the scoop about Watergate; we don't have footage of Daniel Ellsberg leaking the Pentagon Papers. But in "Citizenfour," we see Snowden in the act of handing over the classified material and explaining various aspects of it. The Hong Kong footage is a fascinating look, in more or less real time, at the events and people behind the countless brief news stories we might have read on the leak, the many sound bites we might have heard.

"I don't think there's any film like it," Snowden said. "It's very rare to get some kind of record like this."

One reason is perhaps obvious. In a remark that got a laugh from the crowd, Snowden said that when Poitras initially asked if she could film the goings-on, he said no "for a number of reasons, not the least of which is when you're involved in an action which is very likely to get you indicted, you typically don't have a camera rolling in the room." But, he said, Poitras was "good about not taking no as an answer."

And the filming, too, was partly strategic. Governments, Greenwald said, like to paint whistle-blowers as crazy, to "equate this level of dissent with the definition of mental instability so that you wanna kind of turn away from the revelations because the person revealing it is just so, kind of, icky." But with Snowden, he thought, that would be tough.

Snowden and Greenwald during their initial series of meetings in Hong Kong, in June 2013. Poitras is behind the camera. Laura Poitras/Radius-TWC

"When I first met Ed, that was the thing that convinced me that we really had an opportunity to do something that hadn't quite been done before," Greenwald said. "He's very humble and smart and articulate, and, you know, look at him: he just sort of looks like the grandkid of every Midwestern couple, you know? I knew that the government was going to have an extremely difficult time playing that game in this case."

Still, for all three, the main thing was getting the story out, not creating a cult of personality around Snowden. Moderator David Carr asked Snowden if Poitras respected that concern when making the film, and Snowden said she had.

"She focuses on the fact that there are many other players in the game," Snowden said, referring to privacy activists, previous whistle-blowers and others. "Ultimately, it's not a film about me; it's a film about us; it's about this moment; it's about this journey that we all went on: this experience of revelation -- and suspicion, in the beginning, but nobody could prove it, even though we suspected [such mass surveillance] was going on."

Intense debate

So, about a year and a half after their fateful meeting, are Snowden, Greenwald and Poitras satisfied with the events it triggered? Greenwald said he recalled Snowden worrying about "unraveling his life" only to find that no one cared about the revelations regarding the NSA. And then Greenwald spoke of something that's depicted in the film: Snowden watching the TV news as the shock wave triggered by the initial NSA stories spread.

"I remember the moment in Hong Kong when we did the first two or three stories and I was able to watch Ed watch the global news explode with these stories, and I felt so gratified," Greenwald said. "The intensity of the debate that has been triggered, not just in the United States but globally, has changed consciousness about so many things -- and that's beyond the concrete changes of companies being forced to encrypt and prove they're devoted to privacy so they don't lose a whole generation of users, or of individuals using encryption.

"Citizenfour" director Laura Poitras at an awards ceremony in Germany last year, with Edward Snowden looking on via live video feed. Poitras' film has won the National Society of Film Critics Award for Best Non-Fiction Film and the New York Film Critics Circle Award for Best Non-Fiction Film. Poitras has also won Directors Guild of America Award for Outstanding Directing - Documentaries.
Poitras at an awards ceremony in Germany last year, with Snowden looking on via live video feed. "Citizenfour" has won awards for best nonfiction film from the National Society of Film Critics and the New York Film Critics Circle. Poitras also nabbed the Directors Guild of America Award for Outstanding Directing - Documentaries. Adam Berry/Getty Images

"The debate that we were able to have that we couldn't have before -- not just about surveillance, but privacy in the digital age and the role of journalism and the dangers of government secrecy and the role that the United States plays in the world -- when you start changing consciousness like that, it may take a while for it to happen, but there's no question that the changes that are engendered will be fundamental."

Poitras agreed that eyes had been opened around the world, and she touched on another remarkable, and gripping, aspect of the film's Hong Kong footage: as you're watching it, you're very aware that the players involved have, in that moment, no idea how things are going to turn out.

"When we were sitting around talking about possible outcomes with lawyers," Poitras said to Carr, "sitting here with you was not one of them. And we really were thinking that there were some potentially really bad possible outcomes. And to have the international awareness -- we had no idea how large the story would be."

"I thought it was 95 percent certain that [Snowden] was gonna end up in American custody and be put in a cage for pretty much the rest of his life," Greenwald said, "and he thought that was a good possibility too...There were a few times when he came very close to that. And it was a little bit of luck but a lot of cunning as well that he was able to end up the way he ended up."

The latter part of the film gives a very brief glimpse of Snowden's current life in Russia. We see him reunited with the girlfriend whom, before spilling his secrets, he left in order to protect her from any incrimination. The two are shown in a scene of domestic peace, stirring a pot together as they prepare dinner.

"I think it's a critical part of the story," Greenwald said, "because it shows people you can stand up to the US government, you can take a courageous step that you believe in as an act of conscience and not be disappeared, not be put in a cage. You can find a way to then live a fulfilling life."

"I think that 'Citizenfour' has something hopeful in it," Poitras said. "It's hopeful for me because it's people basically being willing to be courageous and say something about what they see as wrong in the world."

Snowden said it was worth the sacrifices he's made. "I think everybody involved has paid some cost or another. I can't live with my family nowadays, I can't go back to my home. But it's incredibly satisfying to be a part of something larger than yourself, and there is a tremendous sense of peace in doing what you think is the right thing to do."

Here's the complete discussion: