October 10, 2021

Movie Review – Snowden (Oliver Stone – 2016)

Against my better judgment, I decided to watch Oliver Stone’s production of the story of the traitor Edward Snowden. I often wonder at Stone’s predilection with anti-American themes, but that is an analysis for another time.

The film contains a mix-mash of intelligence community descriptions and definitions which, let’s say are only vaguely accurate. I could go through the list of inaccuracies, but I’ll give the filmmakers the benefit of the doubt since it is highly unlikely that any of them have ever been inside the operations and training facilities depicted. I only wish the operations spaces at the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) and the National Security Agency (NSA) were as nice as these sets.


The workspaces in both agencies – I’ve worked in both – are what I would call “GSA* chic” and usually small, cramped, and filled with equipment and files. The smaller spaces are normal because much of the work being done is not only highly classified, but also compartmented. People working in one area are unlikely to be cleared for operations just ten feet away.


The movie attempts to portray Snowden as an intelligence officer at both agencies, but in reality, he was a communications technician, not an operations officer, and later as a technical contractor. This is obvious from the description of the training facility where Snowden received his training, referred to colloquially as “the Hill.”**


The facility exists, and is where the CIA trains people to become Telecommunications Information Systems Officers (TISO), technicians responsible for maintaining the agency’s communications systems around the world. Having worked with TISOs in many locations, they are competent professionals, but they are not field operations personnel – that training takes place at another CIA facility, commonly referred to as “the Farm.” ** The factitious and amateurish asset recruitment scenarios in which Snowden claims to have participated are comic at best, and obviously not part of the skill set provided in his position. I suspect he was attesting to “pad his CV.”


The program that Snowden seems to have found so egregious has to do with the intelligence community’s access to the meta data of phone calls of American citizens. When I was in the signals intelligence business (when dinosaurs roamed the earth), we referred to this information as “externals” – date, time, numbers connected, duration, etc., as opposed to “internal” information, the actual content of the communication.


What is the difference in how the data is used?


The internal information, the content, is used for intelligence information – that’s easy. It is the use of the externals, the meta data, that is extremely useful in uncovering networks – the term is network analysis – who is talking to whom.


Let’s use a real-world scenario. Although I do not consider the Pakistani Inter-Services Intelligence Directorate (ISID) to be an ally, they have been useful at times when their counterterrorism goals coincide with ours. The ISID develops intelligence – or we apprise them – of the presence of an al-Qa’idah operative in Quetta.


ISID officers obtain whatever warrant or authorization necessary (I suspect it is none) to “kick in” the location. One of the most valuable items in the venue will be electronics – cell phones, satellite phone, tablets, computers, hard drives, thumb drives, etc. It is a treasure trove of data.


Let’s focus on the cell phones, although all of the media involved will yield similarly useful data. If this venue, say that al-Qa’idah believed to be a safe house, was occupied and/or used by a known al-Qa’idah operative, wouldn’t you want to know who with whom he has been communicating? That’s a rhetorical question – of course you would. If these contacts were located in the United States, doesn’t that take on a greater sense of urgency? Of course.


The claimed issue (I don’t buy it) for Snowden was the intelligence community’s access to American citizens’ meta data. Granted, the warrants required to access this data, issued via the secret Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act (FISA) courts, are easy to obtain – but shouldn’t they be? An al-Qa’ida operative in Pakistan is talking to someone in the United States; we need to take a look at that.


Although Stone never developed it fully in the movie, the thought that warrants should be limited to the future – in other words, once we have the phone numbers from the Pakistani ISID – the intelligence community and FBI obtain warrants for future communications. The problem: once these safe houses are raided, al-Qa’idah (or whatever group) closes all the accounts and stops using the devices the now assumed to be compromised. We need to know what has happened in the past.


Recent legislation has limited the intelligence community’s access to that historic information, thanks to the overreaction of Snowden’s treason. Unfortunately, our Congress, both houses but primarily the House, have aided in that limitation. If the intelligence community cannot ascertain who these terrorists were connecting with in the United States, we have less of a chance of preventing a future terrorist event.


My primary issue with the movie, which Stone admits is not a documentary or a historical account but a fictionalized version of reality, is the attempt to portray Snowden as a whistleblower rather than the traitor he chose to become. There is no historical record of Snowden contacting the proper whistleblower channels – supervisors, inspector generals, or members of Congress – before he decided to contact the media.


Snowden is not a whistleblower – he went to the media, who he arranged to meet not in the United States, but Hong Kong. Yes, Hong Kong, now a part of the Peoples Republic of China. After meeting with journalists there and releasing classified data, fled to Moscow – yes, Russia – to evade capture.


Call me skeptical. Edward Snowden, who publicly to international media, released highly classified U.S. national security information, and that – and more – did not end up in the hands of Chinese and Russian intelligence? I did this for a living for almost three decades. Whatever sensitive, classified information he had, they now have. From colleagues in the intelligence community, we may never recover from the losses he caused.


So, my views of Ed’s future? If it was up to me, I would go further than former CIA director and NSA director General Mike Hayden’s (a personal acquaintance) comments that Snowden will die in Moscow. I would cause it – but that’s just me, someone who has lost agents in the field because of traitors like Snowden. If he is allowed to return to the United States, I’d like to have a one-on-one conversation.


Bottom line: Edward Snowden is not a whistleblower, and as Oliver Stone would have you believe, he is not a hero. He is a traitor, weak of character, and easily manipulated. This cinematographic attempt to justify his actions borders on abetting treason.


If you must watch, the film is available on Netflix:



* General Services Administration, the agency of the U.S. government responsible for the outfitting and basic functioning of official facilities. Think “lowest bidder.”


** These facilities exist, but officially not by these nicknames – I have chosen not to identify them. I received my clandestine operations training at the facility referred to as “the Farm.” I am sure anyone doing a Google search will figure out where they are, but my secrecy agreements prevent me from identifying them.