Political Film Society - Newsletter #265 - December 20, 2006

December 20, 2006


The ListeningIn 2005, Italy began to issue arrest warrants for twenty-five CIA agents who in 2003 abducted Islamic cleric Abu Omar (1963- ), an Italian citizen who had been granted asylum, from a street in Milan and flew him first to Germany and then to his native Egypt, where he was imprisoned and allegedly beaten, with electric shocks applied to his genitals, only to be rearrested, detained at an unknown location, and later released and offered $2 million to deny the facts surrounding his treatment. How could such an event be possible? The answer—and more—is found in perhaps the most frightening film ever made, The Listening, which seeks to construct a feature film in order to dramatize several facts that have been revealed by an investigation by the European Parliament, as noted in a 1999 issue of the Bulletin of Atomic Scientists, which charges the National Security Agency with a program of espionage of all telephonic communications under the codename Echelon. Among the findings, the report states the Echelon’s industrial espionage has damaged such firms as Airbus. When the film begins, a voiceover dates the beginning of the Central Intelligence Agency as 1952 from a previously secret codebreaking organization and indicates that there are more than three thousand communication satellites around the world. The voiceover then accompanies a visual tour of the NSA’s largest facility, located in England, which listens to all telephone traffic that goes through the satellites, picks up codewords, and connects to information about the interlocutors. Later, a voiceover indicates that the National Security Agency now employs more persons than the CIA and FBI combined. Titles at the end indicate that the European investigations reveal that private corporations tap into the NSA network, with an estimated value of $345 billion.

Much of the information in the final titles goes across the screen too quickly to be assimilated, is dated before 9/11/01, and part of the concluding title is headlined above. One implication is that after 9/11 the capabilities have been exploited to the maximum, perhaps explaining why certain cellphone and landline telephone companies have cooperated so readily and secretly in the effort at surveillance of persons inside the United States. The drama in the film, much less consequential than the premises, centers on Francesca (played by Maya Sansa), who in 1999 accidentally finds a briefcase containing a publication about a super-secret technology called Echelon developed by a company, Wendell Crenshaw, that is attempting to sell its technology to the NSA. Echelon offers to provide visual surveillance anywhere in the world from cellphones or landline phones, whether turned on or off, through some element in the batteries. James Wagley (played by Michael Parks), an NSA agent is ordered to listen to her telephone conversations in order to determine whether she poses a security risk. However, Wendell Crenshaw has its own agents in Italy, who apprehend Francesca and then use NSA’s electronic conferencing technology to monitor her interrogation. Wagley attends the conferenced interrogation, indicates on the basis of her telephone chatter that she poses no risk, and insists that the vendor be removed from NSA. Wagley’s boss, however, decides instead to ask Wagley to leave the ongoing interrogation, whereupon he defects from the NSA and flies to Italy to save Francesca from almost certain death. The only way he can save her is to compromise the secrecy of the new technology, so he seeks help from a friend in Italy. In the rest of the film, her fate and his hang in the balance. Director Giacomo Martelli, in short, shows considerable courage in bringing facts about the NSA and Echelon to light. The film is an Italian effort, though almost entirely in English, and apparently only exhibited in Hollywood, far from the radar of the NSA in Maryland. Accordingly, the Political Film Society has nominated The Listening as the best film exposé and best film implicitly arguing for greater democracy of 2006. (For those who seek to read the incredible 92-page report, including findings and recommendations for vulnerable European countries, click here. MH