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The Worst Spy Movie Ever

The espionage genre isn’t what it used to be back in the good old Cold War days. Back then there was a clear-cut good guy versus bad guy backdrop to a spy versus spy tale, no matter how morally ambiguous an Ian Fleming or John le Carre might render their cloak-and-dagger heroes, but these days it’s hard to tell who to root for. This story about Israel’s alleged spying on the negotiations between the United States and its European partners with the Iranian government, for instance, will never make the movies.
There’s no doubt that the Israelis did somehow discover information about the negotiations that President Barack Obama would have preferred they did not know, but it’s hardly the sort of thing that would get an American audience’s blood rushing. It’s all just a sub-plot of a bigger story that the Hollywood moguls won’t want to touch, as well, At this point we have no reason to believe there was even any spying at all, at least not of the sort of that involves the planting of electronic surveillance devices or the taking of pictures with tiny cameras slipped into the heel of a shoe or a comely seductress luring a diplomat to his doom or any of that cinematic sort of spy craft. The Israelis freely admit to having obtained all the information they could gather about America’s negotiations with a country that has vowed to drop nuclear bombs and them and annihilate their entire population, which seems a reasonable thing to do, but insists it was all a dreary matter of diplomatic contacts and calling in favors from well-placed sources and reading the same papers where Obama seems to get all his news, and this seems plausible enough. We’d like to think the diplomatic channels would put Israel in touch with some highly-placed American and European sources who would still prefer that Iran not annihilate the Jewish state and are willing to share information about any developments that might make that unhappy event more likely, and given the taut security of the Obama administration the eaves-dropping microphones and shoe cameras and comely seductresses hardly seems necessary.
To further muddle the plot, the Israelis didn’t pass the information along to some cat-stroking arch-villain in a South Pacific volcano island fortress but rather to the United States Congress and the American people. Even the Wall Street Journal article that broke this story, and with all the breathless fervor of a screenplay treatment being pitched to a Hollywood producer, admits that “The espionage didn’t upset the White House as much as Israel’s sharing of inside information with U.S. lawmakers and others to drain support from a high-stakes deal intended to limit Iran’s nuclear program, current and former officials said.” It’s not clear from the story how The Wall Street Journal defines “espionage,” and whether its quoting of “current and former officials” would also meet that definition, but in any case the officials’ admission would introduce another plot-twist that would make that Hollywood producer wince. The good guy is supposed to be Obama, at least if you want to sell this script to Hollywood, and it’s likely to be a little confusing when he’s the one who’s withholding information not only from Congress, a stock villain, but also the American people. Even the foreign audiences, a vital market, might find that baffling.
Perhaps the plot can proceed that our heroic president is shrewdly negotiating a brilliant deal despite the efforts of hard-liners in both Iran and among those villainous Republicans and Israelis who so ardently desire an Iranian bomb, but if it will take some expensive computer-generated images to explain why the Republicans or Israelis would want that and some rather fanciful screenwriters to bring it to a happy ending. The big hole in the plot is why the heroic president with the masterful plan won’t reveal it to the American public until it has been signed, sealed, and delivered without the approval of the people and their elected congressional representatives. Those press reports that the deal will allow Iran to continue its nuclear-enriching centrifuges and join the nuclear club in ten years seem all the more convincing, the Iranian’s long history of duplicity in international affairs makes it hard to believe that even such generosity won’t be abused, and the most likely ending would be derivative of “Dr. Strangelove.”
There was never a sequel to “Dr. Strangelove,” as you’ll recall, and this plot is an even bigger downer.

— Bud Norman

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The Snowden Saga Continues

The strange case of Edward Snowden, that unshaven young fellow who created such a fuss by revealing information about the National Security Agency’s ambitious data-mining operations, becomes more compelling by the day. More sober-minded observers have cautioned that his story shouldn’t distract the public’s attention from the more important matter of what he has revealed, and we readily concede the point, but still, it is hard to look away from an improbable adventure with more plot twists and exotic locales than a big-budget James Bond movie.
All of the news media seem to agree that Snowden has somehow slipped away from his recent refuge in Hong Kong to an undisclosed location in Moscow, where his presence provides Vladimir Putin with yet another opportunity for the Russian president to demonstrate contempt for his American counterpart, but the next stop seems to be anybody’s guess. The New York Times’ and the Associated Press’ sources say Snowden will be heading to Ecuador, the Russian news agencies have Snowden en route to Venezuela via Cuba, and Reuters, in a story headlined “Snowden stays out of sight after leaving Hong Kong,” cautiously reports only that the peripatetic leaker “kept people guessing about his whereabouts and plans.” Wherever Snowden might pop up next, we can only assume that a gorgeous femme fatale and a martini that has been shaken and not stirred will await him.
Much of the world’s audience will likely be rooting for him, too, judging by the reaction of most mainstream press outlets around the world. Germany’s Der Spiegel, the definitive voice of conventional continental wisdom, headlined its story about the NSA program revealed by Snowden “Obama’s Soft Totalitarianism: Europe Must Protect Itself from America,” and the president reportedly was lectured about the data-mining by several heads of state during a recent economic summit. The countries that have aided and abetted Snowden’s flight have obviously made their opinions known, as well, and although most of them prefer a harder form of totalitarianism than even Obama aspires to they can’t resist the opportunity to annoy the American government.
Even here in the United States, where Snowden has been charged with espionage and is officially regarded as a fugitive from justice, he seems to have a following. An internet petition demanding a pardon for Snowden has more than 110,000 signatures, and supporters seem to be coming from all directions. The libertarian right has championed his cause, and even many on the right who were comfortable with similar data-mining operations under the previous administration aren’t as enthusiastic about the information being accumulated by a government that is using the Internal Revenue Service to harass conservative groups and the Department of Justice to pursue investigative reporters as criminal conspirators. Despite the left’s past passion for Obama, who once decried such security measures as an assault for civil liberties, many are now embracing Snowden as their new hero.
There’s a similarly strange mix of people defending the program and vilifying Snowden for revealing it, of course. Former Vice President Dick Cheney has robustly defended the NSA’s efforts, embarrassing the president to the point that he’s gone on television to insist that “I’m not Dick Cheney,” while former critics of the Bush-era terrorism protocols such as Sen. Dianne Feinstein and former House Speaker Nancy Pelosi are now striking a more hawkish tone. Poor Pelosi tried out her new arguments in front of the “Netroots Nation,” a convention of liberal activists and internet writers, and wound up being roundly booed and harshly heckled for her troubles. We take time out to boo Pelosi every day, and would gladly heckle her if she were within earshot, and although we have very different reasons for doing so we’re glad to see her get it from the same audience that once adored her.
More plot twists are almost certain to follow, and it’s possible that one or more of them will reveal some nefarious rather than patriotic motive for Snowden’s choices, so we’re withholding judgment of the leading character until the final reel. In the meantime we’ll be mulling over the advantages and dangers of the NSA’s various programs, and enjoy watching the president being upstaged by a new action adventure hero.

— Bud Norman