John Breeden II is an award-winning journalist and reviewer with over 20 years of experience covering technology and government. He is currently the CEO of the Tech Writers Bureau, a group that creates technological thought leadership content for organizations of all sizes. Twitter: @LabGuys
The new Oliver Stone film, "Snowden," promises to tell the true story of contractor Edward Snowden in his quest to expose a National Security Agency program that could allegedly track all forms of digital communication. Even with my limited perspective as a journalist who covered that event, I knew enough to spot dozens of historical and technical inaccuracies while watching the film. But I wanted to see just how badly the facts were mangled, so I sat down with Chris Inglis, who was the deputy director of the NSA during the incident.
“The film was grossly incorrect technically, but that was not the most egregious thing about the movie,” Inglis said. “It’s that it was spiritually incorrect. It was well wide of conveying a true sense of how the NSA purports itself, on what its role was and on what Snowden’s role was.”
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And it’s a topic that Inglis remembers well. When watching the film, emotions about Snowden’s betrayal are raw, even though he says that he has never allowed them to negatively affect him. “I can’t afford those emotions,” Inglis said. “In the summer of 2013, we suffered a disastrous loss of our capabilities, so what I told the workforce was that they had every right to be angry, disappointed and possibly your hearts are broken ... but you can’t afford that. Because you have to do your job, which is to keep people safe, at a time when your capabilities have been terribly undermined.”
The film portrays Snowden as a patriot who becomes disillusioned with the U.S. after seeing the NSA trampling individual rights. Inglis says nothing is further from the truth, and that Snowden was a low-level contractor with suspect motives who would not have even had the capability to see many of the things his character experienced in in the film, even if any of it were actually true.
“As a system admin, his job was to activate and deactivate accounts, populate SharePoint servers, show people how to collect and how to search,” Inglis said. “But he never had access to the tools themselves. He was never allowed to search or to write reports. So when he, at a distance, saw these capabilities, he came to false conclusions about how they were being used…in most cases, he got it dead wrong.”
In the film Snowden is elevated from his IT job to that of an almost super spy type of character with wide-ranging powers and responsibilities that he never had in real life. This mirrors what Snowden said back in 2013, when he bragged that he as an analyst could have targeted the communications of the president of the United States.
Inglis says that is a complete lie, for several reasons. First off, Snowden was never an analyst, and never had targeting authority. Secondly, the systems are not set up to be able to easily target domestic communications. Instead, they are designed to monitor foreign traffic where the most useful intelligence resides. And finally, even if Snowden had tried to do anything like that, he would not have been able to because there are built-in two-person control authorizations for all of those systems.
The movie also fails from a technical standpoint, giving the NSA seemingly god-like technical powers that simply don’t exist according to Inglis, at least not in the high-tech futuristic ways they are depicted in the movie. “The depiction of the telephone metadata database, I don’t know if that was Oliver Stone’s characterization or Snowden’s, but it’s grossly wrong,” Inglis said. “NSA does have some impressive technology, though we are probably lagging behind the private sector for some of it, to put together some very intricate patterns to create predictive insights, but you wouldn’t apply it to the US person’s telephone metadata.”
“What they showed up on the screen, and I am not saying there is not an assembler like that—I think it’s technically feasible—but what they showed contained pictures, real-time content, email and social media connections, all of which was, by law, off the table,” Inglis said. “You could not use the telephone metadata that way. The movie made it seem like the NSA used that to gain deep insights into the domestic affairs of citizens, and that is simply not true.”
In fact, in all of 2012 when Snowden supposedly became shocked and disillusioned with the government, Inglis says the metadata was only queried 288 times. It could only be done if a foreign number connected with one of three terrorist groups was suspected of reaching out to a contact inside the U.S. Analysts would input the suspected foreign number and if it was connecting to a phone inside the U.S., that new number would be spit back out. The results only gave the U.S. number, not any names or anything else connected to it. Inglis said the NSA then had to call the FBI for help in getting more information about the new number, something he says it did only 13 times in 2012. That is a far cry from the all-knowing, all-seeing supercomputer depicted in the Snowden movie.
Inglis has since left his position at NSA, though not because of Snowden. In fact, he was getting ready to retire when the incident broke and decided to stay on for an additional year to help the agency rebuild. Today he spreads out his time in various ways, including teaching cyber studies as a visiting professor at the U.S. Naval Academy, performing charity work and acting as the chairman of the Securonix Strategic Advisory Board. He is also the chairman of the NSA’s National Cryptologic Museum in Fort Meade, Maryland.
Securonix worked with Inglis to create a short video pointing out some of the very high-level mistakes made by the movie, and to explain why people should likely not take almost anything depicted in it as fact.
Inglis seems to have weathered the storm personally just as the agency he used to lead did. “My experience with the NSA has been very helpful to me in my second career,” he said. “And my experience with Snowden has also been helpful because I can now help people know what it’s like to deal with a low-probability high conflict event, and what you have to think about when you consider that it might happen to you. I can also share what mistakes we made, and help others avoid them.”