‘Citizenfour’ is an Oscar favorite. Does it deserve it?

“Citizenfour,” a film by Laura Poitras telling in glowing terms how she helped Edward Snowden publish thousands of secret documents about widespread government surveillance of U.S. citizens, is considered a shoo-in for Best Documentary Feature at the Oscars on Sunday.

The award seems inevitable, since Poitras and others associated with the Snowden disclosures have already won many honors including Pulitzer Prizes, the George Polk Awards in Journalism, the I.F. Stone Award, and just last week a praiseful treatment in a New York Times forum moderated by David Carr, who uncharacteristically went along with the crowd and joined in extolling the Snowden theft.

Nonetheless, the case can be made that the earlier honors were mistaken and that the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences would do well to break ranks and drop the Poitras film from this year’s Oscars.

Poitras and others describe the film and the Snowden leak of secret documents as exposing secret government surveillance that was constitutionally questionable and totally unjustified.

Outrage by the media, politicians, and the general public has centered on the massive surveillance of telephone and email conversations—gathering senders and recipients of calls but only in rare cases their content. Much has been made of the fact that this surveillance covered millions of U.S. citizens who had never come under suspicion or investigation.

True enough, but what was its purpose? The government was reacting to a major attack on United States security, the September 11, 2001, hijacking of four passenger airlines by al-Qaeda terrorists, the destruction of the World Trade Center, The crash into the Pentagon, and the crash in a field of the fourth plane, targeted for Washington, D.C., probably for the Capitol, the White House, or the Supreme Court.

The 19 terrorists were unknown and had no suspicious public records. So it made sense in trying to prevent another similar attack, to cast a wide net including all unsuspected U.S. citizens. Also, considering the uproar when it became known, secrecy was arguably justified.

Disagreements over the mass surveillance came down to privacy versus security. Some privacy advocates pose the possibility that a future president could use surveillance in a scheme to establish a dictatorship. This suspicion carries some plausibility since potential dictators may have, in fact, sought the presidency. But when one bad actor, Richard Nixon, did win the presidency, he was forced to resign in dishonor. And Senator Joseph R. McCarthy, whose often unfounded charges of Communism and homosexuality among government officials ruined many lives, was eventually censured by the Senate in a rare imposition of that punishment. A strong and effective system has repeatedly dealt with such evils.

Against the speculative conjecture that some new evil may escape punishment, the advocates of security can point to a threat that was actually carried out—the 9/11 attacks. And if anyone minimizes that calamity, contending that the 3,000 fatalities are far more than matched by casualties in unjustified wars and automobile accidents, he can be reminded that the fourth 9/11 plane actually came close to crippling an entire branch of the United States government.

So this argument about privacy versus security amounts to pitting a fanciful conjecture against the possible recurrence of an actually demonstrated major attack.

Of course, the Snowden disclosures included a lot more than surveillance of American citizens. Germany’s Chancellor Angela Merkel drew wide support for her complaint that he United States government had been spying on her. She said angrily that “snooping among friends, that just doesn’t work.”

That stirred more outrage. Still, on consideration, would it make sense for the U.S. Government to halt all surveillance of friendly nations? And Chancellor Merkel might find it awkward to be asked whether her government ever spied on its friends. As a practical matter, any successful government probably spies on its friends as well as its foes, so a to be prepared for an unknown future. Everything changes, and it must be prepared for anything.

Thoughts like these run against the grain of what seems to be a growing culture of mistrust of authority and suspicion of supposed conspiracy to control our actions and restrict our freedom. Bad things do happen, but the response should be protective action but not what the historian Richard Hofstadter, in his famous analysis, called “The Paranoid Style in American Politics.”

Richard Dudman is a retired reporter and correspondent for the St. Louis Post-Dispatch. He lives in Ellsworth, Maine.

Share our journalism