edward snowden By Laura Poitras / Praxis Films, Wikimedia Commons

'Snowden': A cinematic snow job?

It’s well understood that even the most historically accurate films may take some dramatic license in their depiction of actual events.

But when it comes to the recently released movie about the famed data-pilfering National Security Agency contractor, “Snowden,” government insiders feel that director Oliver Stone and his team should get their dramatic license revoked.

“It was a hard thing to watch…because I was in a constant state of wonder about the misappropriation of the truth, fabrication and exaggeration,” NSA’s former Deputy Director Chris Inglis said of the “Snowden” film in a recent video.

Having worked at the NSA for 28 years and served in the deputy director role from 2006 to 2014, Inglis, who is now the chairman of the Securonix Strategic Advisory Board, said he was shocked at how the big-budget film portrayed Edward Snowden as someone with “significant authority, a senior advisor to the CIA. [Someone who was] sent by the then-deputy director, which would have been me, to Hawaii to affect some extraordinary program. None of that was true.” Indeed, Inglis argued that it would be wildly out of the ordinary at best for an executive at his level to be working with a fairly low-level contractor, never mind sending him on a secret spy mission.

Besides this account, the movie portrays Snowden’s version of events from his injuries in Army to his CIA training to his contract work with the CIA and NSA, through to his ultimate decision to steal and reveal information on U.S. surveillance programs. Since June 2013, Snowden has released nearly 1,200 documents and more than 150 articles have appeared that use his information about intelligence agencies’ budgets and technology. Hiding overseas to avoid prosecution since before the documents were released, Snowden has been criminally charged under the U.S. Espionage Act.

Mark Weatherford, who was the first deputy under secretary for cybersecurity at the Department of Homeland Security from 2011 to 2013, said that “Snowden’s apparent vacuum-cleaner approach to his insurrection has exposed much of what the intelligence community considers invaluable and, in some cases, irreplaceable.”

“Intelligence is a time-consuming business where cultivating and developing legitimate information of value to the safety and security of a nation can take years,” said Weatherford, now chief cybersecurity strategist at vArmour. “As a result of his dishonest intentions, he [also] ruined the professional lives of some of his innocent coworkers through his deceitful actions.”

Legal experts also see this as a destructive and damning move at best. “I agree with the premise that Snowden’s leaks caused considerable damage to U.S. national security interests,” said Bradley Moss, national security lawyer with Mark S. Zaid Legal Services. “Even if Snowden had a legitimate basis to raise concerns about the two domestic programs, the overwhelming majority of his leaks had nothing to do with American civil liberties or illegal surveillance.”

University of Virginia Law School Professor Robert F. Turner, who specializes in national security issues and served as counsel to the President’s Intelligence Oversight Board at the White House, pointed to embellishments in several of Snowden’s claims -- from his education to his supposed spy training to his reported motivations for taking secret intelligence documents.

“The odds an American phone record will be examined by a human being at NSA are about a thousand times less likely than that they will be examined by law enforcement officers,” Turner said. “The NSA metadata program (Sect. 215) was not designed to catch criminals, but to protect the country from terrorists. And the Supreme Court has repeatedly recognized that no governmental interest is greater than the national security.”

Meanwhile, some Snowden supporters point to the bigger picture.  Trevor Timm, executive director of the Freedom of the Press Foundation, said that while “Oliver Stone took dramatic license in his portrayal of the Snowden story… [t]he overarching story about Snowden's metamorphosis from a person who wanted to help his government to someone who was very concerned and disturbed about what his government was doing in secret remains true.”

About the Author

Karen Epper Hoffman is a freelance writer based in the Seattle area.

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