Oliver Stone’s new film aims to humanize the infamous NSA leaker and convince viewers he’s a hero, not a traitor
BY Jeff Stein
Bill Binney found a seat just inside the door of Washington’s Chez Billy Sud, a chic Georgetown pub, as a happy crowd was pouring in after an advance screening of Oliver Stone’s new film on Edward Snowden. The entrance was an appropriate perch for Binney, a lanky, 73-year-old former top National Security Agency official who’s largely been overlooked in the flood of publicity about Snowden, the infamous electronic-spying leaker who now resides in Moscow.
Years before anyone had ever heard of Snowden, Binney, a gifted cryptologist and mathematician, was pushing back against the NSA’s spying overreach. In October 2001, after more than three decades at the agency, he resigned rather than participate in a clandestine, overpriced and questionably legal electronic spying system code-named Trailblazer. By most accounts, Binney and his colleagues had designed a system with built-in privacy protections and higher efficiency than that one, called ThinThread.
But the agency’s boss at the time, General Michael Hayden, ditched ThinThread and poured at least $1.2 billion into the coffers of contractor Science Applications International Corp. to develop Trailblazer, until the Bush administration terminated it. Ever since, Binney has alternated between grief and rage over his firm belief that ThinThread would have discovered the 9/11 hijackers before they struck. “It was just revolting and disgusting that we allowed it to happen,” Binney says of the attacks.
Eventually, the government came after him and his fellow NSA dissidents, as well as a House Intelligence Committee staffer, Diane Roark, who had championed their cause. Their story is told in a deeply disturbing Austrian documentary, A Good American, due to be released in the U.S. in February. But on this night, Binney was thrilled by Stone’s powerful biopic of Snowden, who astounded the world with his massive exposure of the NSA’s global spying programs.
“I think it’s great,” Binney says of Snowden, a mostly hagiographic take on the largely self-taught computer expert’s journey from patriotic, post-9/11 Green Beret volunteer (he washed out after breaking his legs) to CIA recruit to NSA contractor and eventually apostate and renegade. “It did what I hoped it would do. It shows the human side of surveillance and how it affects people.”
For most people, he says, the technical jargon about how the NSA spying programs work, not to mention the complexity of laws that largely fail to control them, is too hard to understand. “With this movie…people can visualize and grasp things. I think it will help people understand what is really going on behind the scenes.”
And that is? “That they are invading the privacy of everyone,” he says. “They can turn on your cellphone and listen to you. They can turn on your camera and watch you. They can do the same with computers…[even] OnStar,” General Motors Co.’s car communications system. “They can use radios in cars to do that. It’s a total invasion of what you thought you had as a citizen as rights to privacy.”
What the George W. Bush administration freed the NSA and other spy agencies to do after 9/11, he adds, has continued under Barack Obama, despite the president’s promise to end the NSA’s warrantless collection and storage of bulk phone-call data.
For the most part, Stone’s version of events, based largely on The Snowden Files, a 2014 book by Guardian correspondent Luke Harding, tracks closely with the dissident’s accounts of his growing alienation. His disaffection begins with his CIA posting to Geneva, when the spy agency exploits information collected by the NSA to manipulate and blackmail a foreign banker.
Snowden, who joined the CIA to fight terrorists, hadn’t signed up for that. Later, his illusions further evaporate when he learns how the NSA’s secret partnerships with U.S. telecom companies have allowed it to vacuum up the personal emails, telephone calls and financial transactions of any American (not to mention foreigners) with a computer, without a warrant. His estrangement deepens in 2013 when James Clapper, the director of national intelligence, lies under oath during a congressional hearing about the NSA’s spying programs.
Snowden had seen what had happened to Binney and other NSA executives who came under investigation and whose careers were ruined.
But those events proved to be too much backstory for Stone’s focus on Snowden’s catharsis. So he invented a sequence in which a comically evil CIA official, apprehensive about Snowden’s growing disenchantment, lets his erstwhile acolyte know he’s spying on him and his girlfriend. Stone, in a conversation with a journalist at the September 7 after-party in Georgetown, allowed that the scene is a cinematic device to explain Snowden’s decision to download thousands of top-secret documents and hand them over to reporters from The Guardian and The Washington Post. The decision will likely re-energize Stone’s persistent, mostly right-wing critics, who have hounded the director for decades over his unconventional portrayals of U.S.-backed Salvadoran death squads, Vietnam atrocities, Wall Street greed and especially the assassination of President John F. Kennedy.
But Stone hews far closer to the facts in Snowden than in his other films. The film climaxes with the whistleblower, charged with espionage, fleeing from Hong Kong to Moscow, en route, he hoped, to Ecuador, which has no extradition treaty with the United States. Instead, the State Department revoked his passport, stranding him in Russia.
Now, over three years later, a coalition of human rights groups is launching a campaign to persuade Obama to grant Snowden a pardon. It’s not likely to be successful. Putting aside Snowden’s depiction as a traitor in many quarters—even Hillary Clinton has said he needs to come home “to face the music”—Obama has shown no inclination to lessen, much less drop, the charges against him.
Binney, meanwhile, says the Obama administration has expanded the NSA’s spying programs. “They are collecting vastly more amounts of information every year,” he says, with plans to build a massive new data storage facility at Fort Meade, Maryland, besides the one that opened in Utah in 2014. “It’s all for naught,” he says, “because it doesn’t help prevent terrorist attacks at all.”