June 11, 2013
Top: Edward Snowden, bottom, Jason Lee in ENEMY OF THE STATE (1998)
“I made the judgment that we couldn’t survive with the popular impression of this agency [the NSA] being formed by the last Will Smith movie.” -ex-director of the NSA Michael Hayden to CNN, 1999
Before The Guardian’s video interview with Edward Snowden, the most damaging movie to the National Security Agency’s image was Enemy of the State (1998). Just another slam-bang Jerry Bruckheimer-Tony Scott blockbuster, it also depicted the NSA as a rogue operation that could tap the phones and bank records of American citizens at will. In the book Deep State, Marc Ambinder and D.B. Grady report that, “Not a few NSA managers at the time saw the movie and privately thought, ‘If only!’” Following a dustup with European governments over the NSA’s global surveillance program ECHELON, Enemy of the State convinced Hayden that the NSA had to make gestures towards transparency. But as Snowden’s leaks reveal, the NSA was continuing to gather the capabilities, if not the legal authorization to target American citizens, for the tools deployed in Enemy of the State.
Bruckheimer and his late production partner Don Simpson began developing Enemy of the State in 1991, with a one line idea about a man whose electronic identity is stolen. After the Baltimore Sun ran a series of articles on the NSA in 1995, a time when the agency was reluctant to admit it even existed, they collaborated with screenwriter David Marconi to build it up into a story about the surveillance state, which Tony Scott dramatized through use of spy cameras and satellite footage – a layering of textures he would later push to extremes in Man on Fire and Domino. In the press notes Bruckheimer utilized some classic Hollywood double-talk, eager to please all political factions:
“I’ve always been interested in the inevitable questions surrounding the invasion of privacy. With today’s technology anything is possible and everything is probable. I don’t think the public is truly aware of what’s at stake in terms of an individual’s privacy. But the other side of the controversy remains – we need to be able to protect our borders and our citizens. The NSA has been incredibly active in preventing terrorist attacks and finding those responsible for the rash of senseless bombings that have erupted recently.”
Despite this defense of NSA practices, he was denied cooperation from the agency. So for technical assistance he enlisted Larry Cox, an 11-year veteran of the NSA. In a bizarre bit of historical coincidence, Cox would, just a few years later, be in a position to make the film’s paranoid fantasies come true.
Cox was founder and president of the menacing-sounding ORINCON Sygenex Incorporated, which was acquired in 2003 by Lockheed Martin. where he became the Vice President of Signals Intelligence. In 2005 he became the senior vice president and general manager of the Intelligence & Information Solutions Business Unit (IISBU) of SAIC (Science Applications International Corporation). SAIC employs approximately 41,000 people that “serve customers in the U.S. Department of Defense, the intelligence community, the U.S. Department of Homeland Security, other U.S. Government civil agencies and selected commercial markets.” SAIC was, along with Booz Allen Hamilton, the main contractor assigned to work on the NSA’s massive data mining Total Information Awareness project that was stripped of its funding by Congress in 2003. Cox came aboard two years later, but there are strong indications the program lived on well into his term. An expansive precursor to the Snowden-disclosed PRISM project, TIA sought to “predict terrorist attacks by mining government databases and the personal records of people in the United States.” Cox remains a consultant to the NSA Advisory Board.
At the same time that Hayden was engaging his NSA charm offensive against Enemy of the State in 1999, the agency was starting an aggressive privatization push, which accelerated following 9/11. Needing to hire more analysts and translators, they began contracting heavily from private companies like SAIC and Booz Allen Hamilton, the latter of which Snowden worked at for three months before leaking the PowerPoint slides that outline the siphoning of TeleCom and internet data.
While many of the actions performed by the super-spies in Enemy of the State are pure science-fiction, some are now plausible. An early sequence finds cherubic agent Jack Black pulling up Will Smith’s phone records and cross-checking them against his banking statements, and within seconds forging a link to an ex-flame of his played by Lisa Bonet. The NSA cannot listen in to the conversations of U.S. citizens, but it does suck in all the metadata of their phone calls, their number and duration. While American citizens’ metadata cannot legally be targeted as part of an investigation, it is still collected and stored, ready to be used if the secret rulings of the FISA court ever deem it necessary.
It is President Obama’s contention that collecting this metadata is part of the balance of privacy and security, but that listening in to conversations is the bright line that cannot be crossed. The metadata, though, has an enormous explanatory power of its own, and combined with the NSA’s power to search credit card and bank records, can sketch an entire life. At Foreign Policy Shane Harris notes that “a study in the journal Nature found that as few as four ‘spatio-temporal points,’ such as the location and time a phone call was placed, is enough to determine the identity of the caller 95 percent of the time.”
Will Smith is able to escape the dragnet due to the help of ex-NSA hand Gene Hackman (there are many nods to his role in paranoid surveillance classic The Conversation). It is unclear what help Edward Snowden will receive, aside from legions of internet admirers. His closest analogue in the film is the environmental activist played by Jason Lee, who stumbles upon a government secret and scrambles to release it to the public before getting crushed by a commuter bus. Luckily for Snowden he is not inside a Tony Scott movie, but somewhere…else (he checked out of his Hong Kong hotel today, his current whereabouts are unknown).
The video interview hosted at The Guardian is a fascinating object, hermetic in form but expansive in implication. Conducted by Glenn Greenwald and directed by Laura Poitras (whose forthcoming untitled whistleblower doc has already achieved legendary status), it opens with a scenic picture of lolling boats in Hong Kong harbor. It’s a dis-establishing shot, since Snowden’s specific whereabouts are to remain hidden. When he appears he is a talking head, the back of which is reflected in a nearby mirror. He looks pasty and unshaven, rather the IT stereotype of a denizen of dark rooms. He speaks in calm, even tones, whether about his disillusionment with and deception of the surveillance state, or his fears of government reprisal. It is impossible to glean anything of an inner life, but it is curious that he is speaking at all, considering his stated claim of keeping attention off himself and onto changing U.S. policies. His appearance has deflected debate of this country’s privacy laws, diverted into drive-by psychologial evaluations of Snowden and attempts to identify the girlfriend he left behind (I won’t link to that), and recent polls show that 56% of the U.S. population approves of the NSA’s actions. But there are promises of more leaks, and I’m sure Jerry Bruckheimer is takings notes for the Enemy of the State sequel to come.