A documentary that explores gaps in U.S. security from the point of view of a whistleblower who had spotted problems before the 9/11 attacks made its debut on Friday at the Berlin film festival.
“S.O.S./State of Security” follows the travails of former White House security adviser Richard Clarke, depicted as a Kennedy-era idealist whose cries went unheeded.
In the film, Clarke, who famously apologised to victims for government failure to prevent the 2001 attacks on New York and Washington attributed to Al Qaeda, criticises over-reliance by intelligence experts on technology.
“Good security is all about having good people and good critical dialogue,” he said following the screening. “The only way to make progress is to expose these problems as much as possible.”
Making its world premiere at the festival, the documentary takes potshots at the administration of former U.S. President George W. Bush and includes interviews filmed in close up with former and current members of the U.S. intelligence community whose work usually is shrouded in secrecy.
The film describes weaknesses in airport and infrastructure security in the United States and a lack of foreign expertise and human intelligence gathering abroad as leaving the country exposed despite massive investment in the sector.
“I think America is going through a security theatre — a lot of what goes on at airports, for example, does not provide security and is not really necessary,” Clarke said.
Experts cited in the film argue that successful security requires discussion and the ability to defeat extremist ideology in public debate, a battle in which they say tolerant, open societies should have the advantage.
The film also argues that it is in the best interest of the United States to avoid alienating Muslims and to bring an end to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
Director Michele Ohayon, who grew up in Israel, said the film highlights the struggles of those who seek to fight terrorism in a way more effective than pure military might.
“What interests me most is the personal stories of those idealists who were at the forefront, how they wanted to make a difference but then realised that they couldn’t always manage to do it,” she said.
Ohayon came up against her own bureaucratic hurdles in making the film, shot mostly at the end of the Bush administration, when many officials shied away from interviews.
“(Director) Michael Moore had created an obstacle for us because people didn’t want to be made fun of,” she said, referring to the satirical filmmaker whose muckraking documentaries have made him the enemy of many politicians.
Clarke, a career government adviser and defence expert who works as a consultant, commentator and a teacher at Harvard University, highlighted the threat of cyber attacks on infrastructure and computer systems as a big security challenge.
“That’s the new issue — the one that hasn’t happened yet,” he said.
“The challenge to leaders is to create something real in the minds of people before it happens.”