Stephen Kim’s troubles started in June 2009 after he exchanged a series of emails with Fox news reporter James Rosen. Kim, a State Department analyst, was concerned that ordinary Americans were not well informed about North Korea’s nuclear capabilities, so he agreed to provide Rosen with confidential, but not top-secret, information. He violated the law, but he was no traitor. The Obama Administration didn’t see it that way.
The Surrender, a 23-minute film directed by Stephen Maing and co-produced by Oscar-nominated documentary filmmaker Laura Poitras (Citizenfour) and writer Peter Maas (currently reporting for the website The Intercept), chronicles the last few days of Kim’s freedom. We see him packing up boxes and cancelling his cable and phone accounts. He says goodbye to his sister. Friends give him a going away party. One of them can’t believe that a country like the United States would do to any citizen what they are doing to Kim.
“Laws are like cobwebs; they catch the weak but the strong can break through and get away,” Kim says, and what he means by “the strong” are those with power, money and friends in high places. He isn’t one of the strong.
When the government charged Kim with violating the Espionage Act, a 100-year old statute, it did so not because the information he was disclosing was vital to national security — he wasn’t selling arms to ISIS or information to the Russians. Federal officials did it because they wanted to send a message: leaks of any kind, even in the interest of democracy, would not be tolerated. It’s the same message they continue to send to Ed Snowden, and the one they sent to the late Aaron Swartz who, while under federal indictment for data theft and facing up to 30 years in prison, committed suicide.
Stephen Kim considered throwing himself in front of a train. His recent marriage broke up, his life savings are depleted and he faced a 15-year sentence until the government offered him a deal: plead guilty and you’ll only do 13-months.
“His life has been in limbo the last four years,” says Kim's sister, who we see waving goodbye to him the day before his sentence begins. Kim is one of 8 “leakers” charged by the Obama Administration under the Espionage Act. On July 7, 2014, three days after Independence Day, Stephen Kim reported to prison.