With the political campaign season over, now is a good time to see (or see again) “Snowden,” Oliver Stone’s powerful film about a whistleblower disclosure that rocked the world. Information provided in the film is essential to understanding issues likely to be debated in the next Congress and administration.
“Snowden” depicts the real-life struggle of Edward Snowden (played convincingly by Joseph Gordon-Levitt), a computer expert who worked for Booz Allen Hamilton, a National Security Agency contractor, before blowing the whistle on mass surveillance targeting the communications of millions of Americans. The film account bears little resemblance to the propagandized versions floated by current and former government officials in the wake of Snowden’s disclosures. Stone gives us an account that is more accurate and, most importantly, explains why the NSA programs are dangerous to society.
Snowden begins his government career as a true-believer in the government’s official mission, the prevention of terrorist attacks. He is visibly uncomfortable with the liberal activism of his girlfriend Lindsey Mills but trusts her — as far as his security clearance permits. As Snowden learns more about the NSA’s secret surveillance activities, he becomes increasingly alarmed by their scope, their potential for abuse, and the lies told about them to the public. When Snowden’s focus eventually turns to protecting society from secret, unaccountable government, he and Lindsay are on the same page. In looking beyond political labels for allies and sacrificing comfort for the good of others, they are an inspiring counterpoint to election year partisanship and scandals.
Government protections for intelligence whistleblowers are a lot like campaign promises: more hype than substance. Conscientious intelligence agency employees and contractors who warn the public of threats to our safety and freedoms still risk imprisonment under the Espionage Act, a law never intended to be used against whistleblowers. In our own interest, we need to protect whistleblowers from unfair treatment. We cannot do that, however, if we do not make an effort to understand the issues involved. “Snowden” is an excellent place to begin that education.