Too Many Secrets? On Sneakers, and the NSA

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George Orwell’s novel Nineteen Eighty-Four is the most famous fictional work about omnipresent government surveillance and its myriad risks. Yet, an often-overlooked movie from 1992 provides even more prescient insights into the modern surveillance state, especially recently revealed National Security Agency collection programs.
Sneakers centers on the development of an advanced decryption device that can break all U.S. codes — and the NSA’s attempts to obtain the device at all costs.

Along the way, it explores the legality of NSA domestic surveillance, the U.S. government’s interest in spying on Americans, and the onset of the digital age in which information is power. Despite a tongue-in-cheek plot, Sneakers is extremely relevant for the ongoing public debate about privacy and the serious risks posed to civil liberties by increased NSA domestic surveillance.
Sneakers was the first major Hollywood movie to focus on the NSA and was a box- office success, grossing over $105 million worldwide. Its star-studded cast includes Robert Redford as Martin Bishop, the leader of an information security consultancy in San Francisco and wanted fugitive. He teams with Sidney Poitier (“Donald Crease”), Bishop’s confidant and retired CIA officer; Dan Aykroyd (“Mother”), a technology expert and conspiracy nut; David Strathaim (“Whistler”), a blind audio-technician; River Phoenix (“Carl”), a resourceful burglar; and Mary McDonnell (“Liz”), Bishop’s ex-girlfriend.

Together, they steal the decryption device from Ben Kingsley (“Cosmo”) – a mob figure and former computer hacking partner of Bishop – bent on using the device to cripple the international economy and create a utopian society. James Earl Jones plays NSA agent Bernard Abbott who ultimately recovers the device from Bishop’s crew in exchange for wiping Bishop’s record clean and giving his team whatever they ask for (e.g. a Winnebago). The program to develop the device was ominously called “Setec Astronomy,” which is an anagram for “too many secrets” – a recurring theme throughout the movie.

In one scene, Sneakers explains in a simplistic but effective way the basic distinctions between the responsibilities and jurisdiction of FBI (domestic surveillance), CIA (foreign intelligence gathering), and NSA (cryptography and government information security). The irony is that this (accurate) explanation is provided by one of Cosmo’s henchmen posing as an NSA agent.

He explains that the NSA is “not chartered for domestic surveillance” and that it is the FBI, not NSA, who Bishop hears “breathing on the other end of [his] phone.” Recent revelations about the scope of NSA telephone monitoring and data gathering – authorized by wide-ranging Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court orders – casts doubt on the continued veracity of the movie’s explanation, much to the chagrin of many civil libertarians.

The movie develops this theme further in a subsequent scene when Abbott (the real NSA agent) demands Bishop hand over the decryption device. Bishop explains that the device does not serve a lawful NSA interest because the device cannot decrypt Russian codes. Even though the Cold War had ended in 1992, the residual Russian “threat” was a common justification for national security policies of that era.

It is not surprising that Russia figured prominently in Sneakers as competitor to the NSA that was also seeking the decryption device. The ongoing Russian “threat” has parallels to the omnipresent – and to some, exaggerated — terrorist threat of today as a seemingly boundless justification for enhanced government surveillance activities.

But Bishop sees through this flimsy justification, and challenges Abbott to explain why the NSA is seeking the device. After all, wasn’t “the FBI supposed to do this kind of thing?” Crease reinforces this point and explains that this “is outside the NSA’s jurisdiction” unless perhaps the NSA wants to keep the device a secret and use it for its own agenda. Other team members chime in and posit that the “only thing [the device] would really be good for is spying on Americans” or reading “the FBI’s mail…or the CIA’s or the White House’s.”

This exchange is a bit conspiratorial (e.g. the NSA spying on the White House for presumptive political gain) although rivalries are alive and well within the U.S. intelligence community. More salient, however, is how the dialogue captures the desire and ability of the NSA to spy on Americans, as revealed by the existence of Prism and complementary programs, such as Fairview, Stormbrew, Blarney, and Oakstar.

As a recent Washington Post profile makes clear, NSA Director and Army General Keith Alexander has overseen a concerted effort since 2005 to collect and store all information he possibly can – including vast troves of Americans’ metadata. Some members of Congress are understandably wary about the amount of power accumulated by the NSA during his tenure.

Sneakers situates its commentary on NSA surveillance within a broader treatment of the digital age. In another scene, Cosmo — the movie’s principal antagonist – succinctly explains to Bishop that the “world isn’t run by weapons anymore, or energy, or money.” Rather, it’s “run by little ones and zeroes, little bits of data. It’s all just electrons.” In his eyes, there is a “world war” ongoing, which will be decided by “who controls the information.” Despite Cosmo’s megalomaniacal plan, he understands very clearly that information is power. He, like the NSA, wants to device because it will give its owner unequaled power.

Cosmo’s argument has not been lost on the U.S. government, which created the U.S. Cyber Command in 2010, also led by NSA chief Alexander. Its mission is to protect critical U.S. information from being compromised by and conducting offensive cyber operations against foreign adversaries. CYBERCOM is engaged the very type of conflict Cosmo describes by defending against Chinese military efforts to penetrate U.S. computer networks and by launching the Stuxnet virus to cripple Iran’s nuclear-development efforts. And the scene’s warning about the abuse of such power echoes (so far unfulfilled) campaign pledges by President Obama to roll back the aggressive intelligence and counter-terrorism practices inherited from the Bush Administration.

Sneakers aptly ends on a cautionary note. Bishop delivers the device to Abbott but sabotages it before handing it over by surreptitiously removing a key component. His distrust of government power wins out in the end.

The Obama Administration would be wise to heed Sneakers’ admonition and roll back its intrusive domestic surveillance programs, even if they are supported by a pliant Congress and approved by a secretive FISA court. It should embrace a more transparent and open dialogue that explains what exactly the NSA is doing and why. Allowing Internet companies to disclose the scope of their cooperation with government surveillance efforts is also crucial. How else can users of Outlook, for example, better understand what if any privacy they have in their electronic communications?

Washington should watch this movie again and learn from its insightful pop-culture commentary. After all, the NSA’s ongoing quest to overcome “too many secrets” risks real damage to America’s fundamental liberties. Just ask Martin Bishop.

Eli Sugarman is a fellow at the Truman National Security Project and a former U.S. State Department officer. He is currently Senior Director of Gryphon Partners, an emerging markets advisory firm.