Laura Poitras was already on high alert. After completing filming on My Country, My Country, her 2006 documentary on Iraqi life under U.S. occupation, the acclaimed filmmaker/journalist claims she was assigned the highest possible threat rating by the Department of Homeland Security. This designation led to a pattern of what she calls “Kafkaesque harassment” by U.S. border agents who interrogated, searched, or detained her more than 50 times over the course of six years. Seeking answers, she filed a series of Freedom of Information Act requests for documents on her monitoring between 2006 and 2012. The requests fell on deaf ears, so late last month, Poitras filed a lawsuit against the U.S. government demanding the documentation.
So you can imagine her surprise when, on Friday afternoon, while in the midst of copy editing an eye-opening exposé on how telecom titan AT&T partnered with the National Security Agency to spy on millions of Americans, she received a text alert from none other than AT&T. “Do you want answers?” read the message. Shocked and amazed, Poitras thought, “Yeah, we actually have some questions!”
The “we” Poitras is referencing would be her elite team of co-authors on the story, including Julia Angwin, Charlie Savage, Jeff Larson, Henrik Moltke, and James Risen—a veritable team of journalism Avengers out to take down Ultron. And the piece, which ran in Sunday’s edition of The New York Times to much fanfare, served as further evidence of the vast conspiracy perpetuated by the NSA, along with complicit corporations, to spy on millions of Americans’ emails and phone calls without their knowledge.
This government plot was, of course, exposed by whistleblower Edward Snowden, who handpicked Poitras—along with fellow Intercept co-founder Glenn Greenwald—to receive his mammoth archive of classified NSA documents and reveal the agency’s intrusive scheme to the world. What’s more, the entire Snowden reveal was captured in real-time in her gripping documentary Citizenfour. For her efforts, Poitras took home the 2015 Best Documentary Oscar and split the 2014 Pulitzer Prize for Public Service.
“Damn, you know, I’m actually calling you from an AT&T phone—which is hilarious,” Poitras tells me.
And over the course of our in-depth chat, we touched on all things NSA and spying, including Obama’s poor treatment of the press, Hillary Clinton’s “crazy” email scandal, and Citizenfour, which comes out on Blu-Ray and DVD August 25.
Let’s talk about your blockbuster AT&T/NSA story in the Times. Since it came from the Snowden documents, how long had that been gestating?
That was a story that I first approached the Times about a while ago, and the kudos goes to the reporting partners at ProPublica and the Times, as well as Henrik Moltke, who I work with. The story had been reported out for about six months, but it’s a story that I knew needed to be told before that. It deals with Special Source Operations, or the NSA’s relationships with its partners, so those partners include corporations like AT&T, second party, and third party. [The NSA is] very careful with the language in not naming these partners, so you have to do a lot of digging. Everything is written in codenames, and you have to look at which open source reporting can be done to match up with the documents. ProPublica did great research into AT&T’s relationship with the UN. The UN pays AT&T.
So what telecom service should Americans subscribe to?
[Laughs] Unfortunately, I don’t have an answer to this. I also worked on the PRISM story, but the Internet companies have done a lot more to fight back against the NSA than the telecom ones, and AT&T has probably been the worst—they haven’t pushed back in the same way that the others have.
How do you feel the big three tech companies—Google, Apple, and Facebook—have done in combatting NSA surveillance?
I think they’ve made good stands. From what they’ve learned of what the NSA was doing, they were also shocked by how much data was being collected, and so they’ve been trying to implement encryption—which is something they should have been doing before, but have now realized how important it is. I’m supportive of those efforts. Have you ever heard of a project called Signal by Open Whisper Systems? It’s the easiest thing. It’s a free software program for the iPhone where you download it, and you have encrypted text messages and phone calls. Everyone should get it, and we’re going to see more of that. And WhatsApp started using [encryption]. I’m glad that companies like Apple are stepping forward. This isn’t to say that I trust them 100 percent, because with proprietary, you never know.
Are we going to see more revelations from the Snowden documents, and how many more documents are there to sift through?
There’s a still a source who, although he’s come forward, I have journalistic obligation in terms of source protection, so the number of documents falls into things I can’t answer. But there’s a lot more reporting to do, I’ll say. I’m sympathetic to people who say they wish more would come out, but it’s just really hard to scale.
Let’s talk about your lawsuit against the U.S. government, and the harassment you say you were subjected to by U.S. border agents, which seems to be pretty severe.
I’m also high-profile. I filed the FOIA lawsuit because I wanted to know how the system works, and to get as much information on my particular case—but also on behalf of people who are less high-profile, and who might get flagged every time. I’ll tell you, it was for six years that every time I came home, there were agents at the airplane to meet me. There was a long time where I thought, “This is never going to change,” because we’ve entered this new era where the rule of law doesn’t apply at borders, so I thought I’d never be able to come home and not have to answer questions about where I’ve been.
How bad did the harassment get? Were there cavity searches?
No, I’ve never been physically violated in that way before. I’ve been violated in different ways. Probably the worst thing was the copying of notebooks and the taking of my computer, phone, and footage. But I’ve never been strip-searched. There are a number of people that don’t have U.S. passports or white skin that are subjected to much worse targeting. There are cases of people who’ve been rendered, put in CIA prisons, tortured, and then dropped off on the street with, “Whoops! We had the wrong name.” So compared to that, my harassment has been pretty lightweight.
The Obama administration has a pretty deplorable record when it comes to both freedom of the press, and overall governmental transparency. And the Obama administration hasn’t been stellar when it comes to fulfilling FOIA requests, either.
I think the FOIA law is a pretty amazing law, so the fact that we have this law is something we should be proud of as a democracy. However, the [Obama administration’s] record has been really bad, and particularly when it gets into any area dealing with national security. There’s the notorious Glomar letter where the NSA said they couldn’t “confirm or deny,” blah blah blah. I pursued my record years before and got a Glomar response. And in terms of Obama’s legacy with the press, it’s not good. In fact, it’s really bad. They’ve subpoenaed the AP, and I think the most egregious is the James Risen case. Really? If the government is going to go after our best investigative journalist that’s working today, that’s a really scary sign. Obama had a chance to not pursue it, but he chose to pursue it and seek Risen’s subpoena. So it’s a really terrible legacy. It’s a really terrible legacy. And I have to say, the landscape of candidates right now doesn’t give me a lot of encouragement.Speaking of candidates, you’re big on encryption, so I’m curious how you feel about the Hillary Clinton email scandal.I think a former Secretary of State having government diplomatic emails on her personal server is a really frightening precedent. I think it’s crazy. In terms of basic security, who is managing that server? And how is it possible? Everybody who was emailing her knew that it was not going to a .gov email address, so why was this not a story in all the years she was Secretary of State? And the idea that she had to delete 30,000 emails because they had… her yoga schedule in them? I can’t buy this.
Right. The deleting of the emails, this speaks to the culture of governmental secrecy that you’ve spent a large portion of your career fighting against. It’s completely outrageous. It’s the culture of secrecy and being above the law. Here’s the thing: We’re living in a country where the Senate has issued a report about how we’ve tortured people, but nobody’s ever been held accountable for torturing people, and it was approved by our government, and it was legalized. And we’ve only seen the redacted version of the torture report. The full version is 6,000 pages. And The Washington Post recently reported that we have 14,000 photographs of black sites, so we’ve documented the black sites because we paid for them—we had these secret places where we were torturing people and they had to use money, so they had to prove how the money was being used, so they had to take photographs. But there’s 14,000 photographs that the government “forgot” to give as part of discovery in the Guantanamo cases, so we’re just learning about this. So to answer your question, I’m not sure if it’s a question of if anyone running for office will change; I think we need an entire change of culture. Another whistleblower—Chelsea Manning—was in the news recently, and her treatment has gotten downright sadistic. It’s now being reported that she faces indefinite solitary confinement for such “offenses” as possessing expired toothpaste and the Caitlyn Jenner issue of Vanity Fair.
It’s devastating. She exposed war crimes, for which no one has ever been held accountable, and yet has been subjected to this kind of treatment. It’s been heartbreaking. It’s a really shameful chapter in U.S. history that someone who exposed wrongdoing in the government is being subjected to that kind of abuse.
And all while she is transitioning. I can’t even imagine what psychological trauma she’s endured throughout this whole process.
Yeah. I’m really excited that she’s being more public, and writing, and tweeting. That’s fantastic. She’s a fighter and is going to stand up for what’s morally right, and hopefully she’ll be pardoned in the not too distant future.
Do you see our situation improving in the U.S. regarding government surveillance, or are we headed towards an Orwellian future?
We need to shift our political paradigm so we live by the rule of law again, return to that, and stop engaging in secrecy, torture, and surveillance. It has to get better. It just has to. I made Citizenfour in Germany and it doesn’t get any worse than that history, and now, Germany is one of the more functioning and best democracies in terms of protecting people’s right to privacy. So let’s just hope this is a bad chapter for us and we’ll be moving along.What impact do you think Citizenfour has had on Americans concerning government surveillance?
It’s kind of a hard question to answer. For me, this is a film that was made with tremendous people taking a lot of risks—not just me. All the people took real, real risks, and there’s still an ongoing terrorism investigation into journalism happening in the U.K., and that’s the landscape in which the reporting was done and the film was made. For me, the best thing about the film being well-received is that not only does it say something about the film itself, but it also says that the risk was worth taking—and that’s not always a given. There was a time where, when I was in Berlin, I wasn’t sure if I’d be coming back to the United States when certain politicians were talking about indicting us. So for me, the acknowledgement of the film is also the acknowledgement of the importance of taking risks.