by Ron Ridenour
Wonderful Copenhagen documentary film festival just ended after 11 days showing 200 films in dozens of movie houses, along with various talks and seminars with filmmakers and protagonists. The subjects included politics, art and drama with focuses on war, surveillance, women, oppressed peoples and economic crises.
Some of us in an activist-group passed out leaflets to movie-goers (1). The leaflets concerns the need to re-energize a peace movement, to combine anti-war actions of several kinds with pro-earth and welfare concerns, building a multi-purpose movement based on indignation and the necessity to retake Denmark’s sovereignty back from the USA.
We spoke to movie goers about these issues. About 100 people took the leaflet from my hands while only three refused. No one was upset by the leaflet. In fact, many thanked us for taking a needed initiative. A new mood is brewing.
I attended six films where I passed out leaflets. The most receptive audiences were at the film “Drone” by Tonje Hessen Schei from Norway, and “Citizen Four” by Laura Poitras from the USA, and the follow up talk by William Binney, former NSA technical director turned whistle blower, interviewed by Poitras and a journalist from Information.
“Drone” focuses on the cruelty of using an unmanned weapon that kills people without any warning, without any judicial process, and no concern for “collateral damage”—meaning if children or totally innocent adults are in the way and get injured or killed that is acceptable since the target was an alleged terrorist.
Filming occurred mainly in Pakistan, the country with the greatest number of victims (estimated at 3000), although drones are also launched at people in several other countries, such as, Afghanistan, Iraq, Yemen and Somalia. Drones have also murdered four US citizens, which is directly in violation of the US Constitution and numerous laws that assure a trial for accused criminals.
The Pakistani government demands that the US ends these attacks. Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif states that they “violate our territorial integrity”. The country’s High Court ruled that these attacks are “illegal, inhumane, violate the UN Charter on human rights, and are a war crime.” Although the US is not at war with Pakistan, and finances its military, it refuses to adhere to its sovereign rights.
The main highlight of this well made documentary is the role played by former airman Brandon Bryant. He, along with several other young colleagues, had sat for 12 hour tours in a windowless bunker in an Air Force base in the USA staring at a special computer. When he received orders from superiors, who were following orders from the CIA, he would push a button and within seconds people died thousands of kilometers away.
The camera swerved to children in the area of instant death. They were shooting stones at a drone with a slingshot. Nearby, adults spoke of living in constant fear of drones that circulate around the clock in several areas of this “friendly ally against terrorism”.
We see Bryant’s constrained face as he explains how painful he began to feel about murdering people, feelings of cowardice, of immorality. When he expressed his concerns his colleagues shunned him. When he began to speak out in public, colleagues threatened to kill him.
At the close of the film, the packed audience was surprised and moved to be introduced to a humble Brandon Bryant in person. He is one of an increasing number of The Establishment’s men coming out of the cold and over to the side of the people.
“Citizen Four” is the code name of another brave man who everyone has heard about, Edward Snowden. This was the code he used with the first journalist with whom he had contact, the filmmaker Laura Poitras. Snowden explains that he chose this code to indicate that there have been, and will be, other whistle blowers.
The professionally and moving documentary opens with a mail Snowden sent Poitras.
“At his stage I can offer nothing more than my word. I am a senior government employee in the intelligence community. I hope you understand that contacting you is extremely high risk…I ask only that you ensure this information makes it home to the American people.”
From that point, January until June 2013, there were many mails that also included free lance journalist Glenn Greenwood. Poitras and Greenwood, as well at Guardian journalist Ewen MacAskill, met with Snowden for a week where they interviewed and filmed him in a hotel room in Hong Kong. It sounds rather boring for a film but is quite the opposite. Poitras interweaves photography from other parts in the world related to the revelations that Snowden provided.
Thanks to Snowden and these independent journalists, the world now knows that every US citizen and resident, and about 95% of the world’s population, is spied upon by the National Security Agency. Its English partner GCHQ, as well as Denmark and most other English-speaking and European nations are fellow spy conspirators.
“Citzen Four” is the third of Poitras’ trilogy about 9/11. The others were “My Country My Country” about the Iraq war, and “The Oath”, which concerns the US military base at Guantánamo Bay confiscated from Cuba at the end of the liberation war against Spain, in 1898.
Snowden is clearly a modest person, honest and fully aware that he could be eliminated. He is willing to take the risk, in order to help prevent totalitarian rule. Snowden comes from a military family. He worked as a system administrator for the CIA, and a counter-intelligence trainer at the Defense Intelligence Agency. He then became a private intelligence contractor for the NSA with the highest of secret clearance. He is still loyal to his America in that he will not expose the names and whereabouts of US intelligence agents around the world.
Snowden was motivated to take the leap into insecurity, in part, because of the failed Obama promises. He was appalled at the increase use of drones, the illegal, inhumane incarceration of people at Guantánamo, the incessant all inclusive spying, the total lack of transparency. He explained that this leads people to restrict their views, limiting their intellectual exploration.
On a personal note, he says he feels good knowing that he is contributing to the good of humanity. He shies away from media focusing on him. “It is not about me. It is like a hydra. If they take me, others will come out. I am not afraid. I will not go sulking about. I knew from the beginning that I would come out.”
We see the former NSA spy William Binney angrily speaking of how the post 9/11 government leadership went bananas with meaningless spying. “Loss of privacy equals loss of liberty, loss of democracy. Dictatorships always try to acquire any and all information on populations, and that is what the US government is doing.”
At the end of the film, we see Greenwood writing notes for Snowden to see. A new whistle blower is coming out with information about how the government puts people on a terrorist watch list. There are now 1.2 million on that list and Laura Poitras is one of them (2).
The only element I missed in this fascinating story is something that Snowden said early on in the revelations. I paraphrase: My greatest concern is that despite all the information coming out about how everyone is being spied upon that nothing will happen, that people will not demand it stopped. And so far, there is no evident mass outrage translated into action.
NSA whistle blower Binney
At the Information newspaper talk with William Binney, the former NSA whiz explained that he left the agency in disgust, on October 31, 2001, following the unconstitutional enactment of the Bush-labeled “Patriotic Act”.
“I was pissed off at all the people who decided to spy on everybody. The Bush government decided to violate the constitution and instead of exercising surveillance on genuinely suspicious individuals began spying on everybody in the effort to find terrorists.”
Binney had been in the military four years before coming to NSA, in 1970. He built the original system that is now “misused to collect all the data on anyone”.
“Working at NSA was a lot of fun. I was a key technician in surveillance of the Soviet Union. Before 9/11 we were also after drug smugglers and dealers, and real terrorists. I saw nothing objectionable in what I was doing or with the NSA until 9/11 happened. The system I had built actually protected the mass population and innocent individuals, but it was reshaped to spy on everyone. They now oversee 95% of the world’s internet communications, and nearly all telephone conversations. And they are aided by all their friendly governments in the English speaking countries and in Europe, including Denmark.”
He believes that 9/11 could occur because the intelligence agencies were already so overloaded with so much data that employees missed seeing information that could have prevented the attacks. After the talk, he told some of us that those who believe the US government was involved in the attack had some issues that needed to be addressed.
Asked about what he thought of “collateral damage” from drone attacks, he replied that this is “crazy, whole scale slaughter. Nor does it solve the problem. It is also unconstitutional.”
After 31 years at the NSA, Binney resigned and went to congress to explain that what the Patriotic Act and NSA were doing was a violation of the constitution, which he believes is what America is built on. He was ignored. He persisted, and the FBI sent a dozen agents to his home. They pushed passed his son with guns drawn and entered the bathroom where he was taking a shower.
“They tried to intimidate me. But I stand by my first amendment right to speak freely. I am not the problem. The people who are doing this spying are. They are doing what Nixon was going to be impeached for. They should be put in jail.”
One of the greatest of crimes the intelligence service employees commit, according to Binney, is that they don’t care if they fail in a mission, including failure to intercept information that could have led to the capture of the terrorists planning the 9/11 attack.
“When they fail, it is OK because they go to congress with ´justification´ to get more money, building an even greater apparatus.”
“It is the function of the CIA to keep the world unstable, and to propagandize and teach the American people to hate, so we will let the Establishment spend any amount of money on arms,” John Stockwell, former CIA official and author, prophetically told us.
(1) The leafet is entitled, “Tid til Fred – Aktion for anti-krig, klima & menneskelighed”—Time for Peace – Action against war, for climate and humanity.
(2) Poitras, along with Greenwald and journalist Jeremy Scahill co-founded a new medium focusing on investigating whistle blower leads. See: www.theintercept.org.