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Modern field guide to security and privacy

The NSA whistleblowers who vetted Oliver Stone's 'Snowden' biopic

Former National Security Agency executives Bill Binney and Thomas Drake, who blew the whistle on US government surveillance programs more than a decade ago, served as advisers on the Edward Snowden film that opens nationwide Friday.

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    American whistleblower Edward Snowden is seen through a camera viewfinder as he delivers remarks via video link from Moscow to attendees at a discussion regarding an International Treaty on the Right to Privacy, Protection Against Improper Surveillance and Protection of Whistleblowers in Manhattan, New York September 24, 2015.
    Andrew Kelly/Reuters
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Eleven years before Edward Snowden became a household name for leaking National Security Agency secrets, the government 's crosshairs were on Bill Binney and Thomas Drake for speaking out against a controversial intelligence collection program.

The pair of NSA senior executives filed a Department of Defense Inspector General's report in 2002 alleging dire problems with "Trailblazer," designed to analyze internet data during the Bush administration. The government claimed Mr. Drake stole agency documents and handed them to the press. He was charged under the Espionage Act but the case was later dropped. Mr. Binney resigned from the agency.

While their story may have faded in the public's memory, their ordeal helped provide a greater sense of authenticity and accuracy to Oliver Stone's "Snowden" biopic that opens this Friday in theaters across the country.

In fact, Mr. Snowden has said that Binney and Drake helped inspire his decision to leak confidential NSA files in 2013 to journalist Glenn Greenwald and filmmaker Laura Poitras, including documents disclosing the existence of a the surveillance program known as PRISM to search global internet data. The disclosures helped push President Obama to curb NSA metadata collection last year.

Mr. Stone's film is unquestionably a Hollywood version of the Snowden saga. Many of the characters are fictionalized and he relies on visual effects to illustrate cyberattacks and computer code, adding some panache to the often mundane work life of an NSA analyst or programmer.

In one scene, Mr. Snowden, played by actor Joseph Gordon-Levitt, and a handful of young recruits take a computer hacking exam in a dark room at a government training facility. As Snowden and his colleagues defend the networks, frenetic lines of neon green code whiz by on giant screen.

In real life, says Drake, those kinds of tests are usually done in basic UNIX programming languages. 

Mr. Stone and the film's producers conducted extensive interviews with Mr. Snowden, who is played on screen by actor Joseph Gordon-Levitt, but they didn't have unlimited access to the former NSA contractor who is living in exile in Russia and currently faces charges in the US under the Espionage Act.

Drake and Binney helped fill in some of the gaps, especially when it came to helping Stone (who cowrote the film with screenwriter Kieran Fitzgerald) capture life inside the NSA's headquarters in Fort Meade, Md., or its other facilities such a facility in Hawaii where Snowden worked until he left the US. 

"When he first arrives [in Hawaii], it looks like a spaceship," says Drake. "That scene was intended to capture what it's like inside of that facility. The equipment, much of that is actually drawn from what you could see."

Binney was on set for much of the filming in Munich, Germany, and served as a full-time technical consultant to Stone and the production crew for two weeks during shooting. 

As Stone has done with his previous work, such as the Oscar-winning "Platoon" and "JFK," his latest film aims to make a political statement, this time about the global digital surveillance and privacy debate.

"Mr. Obama could pardon him and we hope so," Stone said about Snowden during the Toronto International Film Festival last week. In fact, when the film opens Friday, activist groups are taking advantage of the publicity blitz to urge the White House to do just that.

The American Civil Liberties Union and Amnesty International plan on launching a campaign to ask President Obama to clear Snowden of charges of violating the Espionage Act for disclosing secret NSA programs. 

Binney also hopes "Snowden" revives the public conversation about surveillance and privacy issues that was at the root of his earlier leaks. Putting the Hollywood spotlight on the issue could reinforce the significance of the debate for moviegoers, he says.

"It wasn’t working," Binney says of his efforts to bring disclosures of US surveillance programs into the public eye. "I could say things on radio or television or '60 Minutes' or 'Frontline' and it wasn’t getting through. The film is a way to impact a wide variety of people and gives them the ability to see things. That makes a lot of difference."

Editor's note: This story has been corrected to accurately characterize the nature of Bill Binney and Thomas Drake's complaints against the National Security Agency. They called for an internal US government investigation of an intelligence program. 

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