Something about Edward Snowden struck me as familiar. Had we crossed paths somewhere? We had, after all, lived in the same small town. Not until I recalled a Sydney Pollack spy thriller did an explanation emerge.
“Three Days of the Condor” (1975) is based on a novel by James Grady.T”he film’s main character, Joseph Turner, is a CIA researcher, code named “Condor,” based in New York City. Turner, played by Robert Redford, scans print books and newspapers from around the world for useful information. He is the predecessor of today’s NSA analyst scanning global digital communications and using algorithms to identify useful data.
Turner: We read everything that’s published in the world and we feed the plots dirty tricks codes into a computer and the computer checks against actual CIA plans and operations. I look for leads. I look for new ideas.
Turner’s story, like that of his real-world counterpart, [NSA whistleblower Edward Snowden], begins with a “breakdown in security.” He sends a lead to CIA headquarters, unaware that it could expose a “renegade” operation inside the CIA involving a takeover of oil fields in the Middle East. Similarly, the Bush administration’s warrantless wiretapping program, the foundation for current NSA surveillance programs, has been described by NSA whistleblower Russ Tice as a rogue operation.
Like many whistleblowers, Turner expects headquarters to respond positively to his discovery. He’s shocked when, instead, his coworkers are murdered and a supervisor tries to kill him. He takes refuge in the Brooklyn apartment of a total stranger, Kathy Hale (Faye Dunaway), but has to leave after an attacker finds him there.
Turner manages to stay alive, ironically, because he doesn’t know what to do. “He’s lost, unpredictable,” says a freelance agent hired to find him. “He could fool a professional.” Snowden, too, departed from script. Unlike whistleblowers who preceded him, he left the country. He took refuge, initially, in a Hong Kong hotel but was forced to flee when US authorities pursued him there with an extradition request,
Snowden and Turner are repelled by what they have witnessed and openly confront their agencies. Their methods reflect their times. Snowden communicated by internet video whereas Turner arranges a personal appearance with his Deputy Director, “Higgins,” (Cliff Robertson) on a busy New York street.
What would have happened, Turner asks his boss, if he had not stumbled on the plot? The plan was “all right,” says Higgins, and would have worked. Turner responds with disgust. “What is it with you people? You think not getting caught in a lie is the same thing as telling the truth?”
Turner could as well be talking to James Clapper, the Director of National Intelligence. In response to Sen. Ron Wyden’s question, “Does the NSA collect any type of data at all on millions or hundreds of millions of Americans?,” Clapper said, “No sir…not wittingly.” After that was shown to be incorrect, Clapper said it was the “least untruthful” response he could think of.
Other parallels with the real world are seen in Turner’s debate with Higgins over government’s accountability to citizens. Higgins asks what the CIA should do when supplies of critical resources become scarce.
Turner: Ask them
Higgins: Not now. Then. Ask them when they’re running out…You know something, They won’t want us to ask them, they’ll just want us to get it for them.
Turner: Seven people killed and you play f—- games.
Higgins: Right. And the other side does, too.
That echo you hear is the sound of President Obama offering the same excuse for domestic spying.
“We should stipulate that every intelligence service —not just ours, but every European intelligence service, every Asian intelligence service, wherever there’s an intelligence service — here’s one thing that they’re going to be doing: They’re going to be trying to understand the world better, and what’s going on in world capitals around the world,” he said. “If that weren’t the case, then there’d be no use for an intelligence service.”
There’s a vast difference between traditional spying that targets unfriendly governments and NSA programs that target billions of individuals; but that hasn’t stopped US officials from conflating the two.
“Condor” ends with a scene that calls to mind the classified documents that Daniel Ellsberg struggled–and nearly failed–to have published in 1971. Pointing to the New York Times building, Turner tells Higgins, “They’ve got all of it.” Shocked, Higgins says darkly, “You’re about to be a very lonely man; it didn’t have to end this way.” Turner replies, “Of course it did.”
When national security employees use the “official channels” available to them, the disclosure is forgotten as the whistleblower becomes the focus of a retaliatory investigation. That appears to be by design. Congress has repeatedly rejected petitions from whistleblower supporters for a law that balances secrecy with whistleblower protections. Lacking such a law, national security whistleblowing is a messy process that endangers both whistleblowers and national security.
Returning to the film, we see Higgins gazing up at the New York Times as he asks Turner what he might do if the paper doesn’t print the story. Turner responds, “They’ll print it,” and Higgins counters, “How do you know?”
The New York Times famously published the “Pentagon Papers in 1971; but it declined for a year to publish a 2004 disclosure of warrantless surveillance. Snowden skipped the Times and took his story instead to the Guardian and Washington Post. Both papers published a portion of Snowden’s disclosure. But, the Post later published an editorial calling for Snowden to be silenced, prompting derision from Gawker and the twitterverse.
Backtracking, we find a scene where Turner telephones a freelance agent hired to murder him. Before hanging up quickly, he asks, “Do you believe the condor is an endangered species?” Nearly 40 years after this film was released, the California condor is making a comeback. But, it’s still a hostile world for national security whistleblowers, arguably the most endangered species of all.