Laura Poitras on Snowden's Unrevealed Secrets

Filmmaker and journalist Laura Poitras, who first made contact with Snowden and captured his journey in the Oscar-worthy documentary Citizenfour, opens up about Obama and the NSA.

Travis P Ball/Getty Images for SXSW

Glenn Greenwald described Laura Poitras as “Keyser Soze,” someone “at once completely invisible and yet ubiquitous,” while James Clapper, the Director of National Intelligence, branded her and Greenwald “accomplices” to espionage at a Senate hearing in January. She’s been on the Department of Homeland Security’s watch list since 2006, and is regularly harassed and interrogated by border agents.

Now we’re huddled together in the back of a coffee shop in Tribeca. I had chosen a seat by the window, but Poitras vetoed the location. Despite her apparent sense of paranoia, she’s placed her CryptoPhone out on the table and is showing me the ins and outs.“It was purchased by First Look, so I don’t know the cost of it,” says Poitras. “You can make encrypted and regular calls. It will also tell you the suspicious activity of where you’ve been.”

Poitras is perhaps the person most responsible for bringing Edward Snowden’s NSA leaks to the front pages of newspapers, and the story of her first meeting with the whistleblower reads like a le Carré novel. Snowden contacted Poitras in mid-January 2013 after failing to connect with Greenwald due to his lack of encryption. By that point, the Oscar-nominated filmmaker had been working on a documentary on whistleblowers, shooting interviews with former NSA worker William Binney, Jacob Appelbaum, and WikiLeaks’ Julian Assange.

Following five months of encrypted communication, Snowden agreed to meet Poitras and Greenwald in Hong Kong in May at the chic Mira Hotel. They were told to search the lobby for a man fiddling with a Rubik’s cube, at which point the NSA contractor guided them up to his hotel room, where they (joined later by The Guardian correspondent Ewen MacAskill) planned how to bring Snowden’s leaked NSA documents to the eyes and ears of the public.

Poitras told the Daily Beast that the British newspaper had "a freak-out" at one point in Hong Kong and began to destroy some of the source material. Ultimately they would go ahead along with the Washington Post and publish a host of revelations from the Snowden cache.

For her part, Poitras took home the 2013 George Polk Award for “national security reporting” due to the NSA disclosures, and contributed to the 2014 Pulitzer Prize for Public Service awarded jointly to The Guardian and The Washington Post. She also captured the entire episode in her riveting, award-worthy documentary Citizenfour, which is in theaters now.

After chiding me for not regularly using the anonymous browsing tool Tor, we discussed her film, the NSA, Obama’s legacy, and much more over coffee.

You’ve got the full Snowden archives. What else is in there?[Laughs]

Do you know what the X-37B is?

No, I don’t know. What’s that?

It’s billed as the Air Force and NASA’s “secret space plane” that experts are guessing will be used to spy on other countries’ spacecraft and satellites—China, in particular.

Oh, right. I’ll have to go back to Berlin and do some research. There’s a lot more there, though, and the thing that hasn’t been reported enough is the whole Special Source Operations program—which is the partnership between NSA and the telecoms. From their own internal documents, 80 percent of all the NSA’s collection happens through those partnerships.

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So there are going to be more stories coming from intel in the Snowden files.


Are you consulting on the Oliver Stone/Snowden film?

Let me see how I want to answer that question… No, I’m totally not. Are you kidding? Stone contacted me, of course. But here’s the thing: I’m not a fan of Luke Harding’s book [The Snowden Files], whose rights were purchased by Stone. Stone purchased the rights to Luke Harding’s book, who wasn’t in Hong Kong, and the rights to the book by Snowden’s Russian lawyer [Anatoly Kucherena], who… I’m not sure why his lawyer is optioning rights. I have some problems with both of those books so I’m not involved. But hey, I think the story is big, and people are going to tell it in a lot of different ways.

It’s Joseph Gordon-Levitt and Shailene Woodley playing Snowden and his girlfriend, so it’s going to be a pretty glamorous affair either way.

[Laughs] Yeah. And Glenn optioned his book to Sony. I haven’t optioned anything, because I made a movie. I know Hollywood thinks they’re the only ones who can make movies, but I also think that the people who actually have the personal experience should be the ones telling the story.

What are your thoughts on the celebrity hacking attack? It seems like the American public didn’t get all that outraged about hacking until it happened to celebrities.

Look, I agree with you on that. It’s interesting to see what the things are that trigger outrage. It was an absolute violation of these people’s privacy that their personal photos were distributed and seen, and it also exposes the vulnerability of how easy it is to get data about people. People felt it really crossed a line in the same way the phone hacking scandal in the U.K. was triggered by the tabloids hacking into the voicemail of a murder victim [Milly Dowler]. People felt that crossed all lines, and then it became a story, so there are tipping points that trigger a public response.

Let’s talk about Citizenfour. What convinced you to make the trip to Hong Kong to first meet Snowden?

I got the email in late May saying he was in Hong Kong, and that’s where the meeting would happen. I had lawyer meetings where people said they’d never used the Espionage Act against a journalist and they told me it would be less risky to not bring my camera. I said, “Well, I know it’ll be less risky for me to not bring my camera, but that’s what I do, so it’s not gonna happen.” The Post’s lawyers tried to talk me out of going, saying it was too risky. And then Glenn finally got on encryption, came on a plane to New York, and off we went.

One of the most telling sequences, in my opinion, is that scene where he spends several minutes fussing with his hair in the mirror. There seems to be reluctance on his part to be “the face” of this, but at the same time, he seems pretty preoccupied with his appearance.

The reluctance is very real. For sure… he made the choice to come forward, and he knew that it meant people would talk about him. He also made the decision that, given what had happened to previous whistleblowers, he’d made the decision to seek political asylum rather than stay inside of the U.S. He did all that to make a statement about the current context of how the government is responding to sources and whistleblowers, and he didn’t want to be an example of a martyr. What you see in the mirror is a number of things. He worked as a CIA agent so he knows how these guys think, so he’s reflecting on that, but he’s also trying to change his identity so he looks different from the guy on television.

Did Snowden ever go outside of his hotel room? The film gives the feeling that he didn’t.

He did go outside. When we were there, he made one trip outside.

How did you get the footage out of Hong Kong? Did you have to pull a This Is Not a Film, where they smuggled the footage from Iran to Cannes on a flash drive hidden inside a birthday cake?

There was a bit of that. I had a contact in Hong Kong and was copying the footage onto an encrypted drive and getting it out of the hotel room every day just to make sure if we got raided I wouldn’t lose everything. It was actually a lawyer. And then I was destroying the physical media, because you can’t encrypt SD cards.

I’m picturing that sequence in the film where The Guardian staffers are destroying machinery in the bowels of the building with a chainsaw after being threatened by the GCHQ.

Actually, it hasn’t been reported yet but The Guardian did destroy some material in Hong Kong. They had a freak-out moment and destroyed some source material. So, I was copying it and getting it out, and I kept a copy on myself at all times with really, really strong passwords. I stayed longer in Hong Kong than Glenn and Ewen, and was hoping to film Snowden one more time where he was hiding out. But it was too risky. I was being followed. It was probably local… but [Snowden’s] lawyer said they could try and get me to a couple of safe houses and then try to film with him, but I didn’t want to jeopardize his situation. We published the video interview on Monday, and then on Saturday, I had a choice to meet with the lawyer and try and stay longer and I was online talking to Glenn, and he said, “You need to leave now. What the fuck are you still doing there? You need to get out of the country.” So I went straight to the airport, bought a one-way ticket, and flew out.

Let’s talk about the ending to Citizenfour, which makes Snowden’s jaw drop. It’s revealed that all American drone strikes are funneled through the Rammstein U.S. Air Force Base in Germany, and that the chain of command leads right up to President Obama, who effectively signs off on every drone strike.

The Rammstein stuff we’re still working on, and will publish soon. But the communication flow for the drone system all goes through Rammstein, so it’s part of the nerve center. The controls are elsewhere, but it all runs through fiber optic cables that go in and out of Rammstein, and it’s already been reported that Obama signs off on all the targeted drone killing. I believe Tuesdays are the days he signs off on the people on the list. And there are more documents we’ll report on that support that. For me, what it means is that this story is far from over.

What were your thoughts on the NSA reform bill that died in the Senate? Too little too late?

Yeah. Way too little, way too late. I think it’s sort of a joke. I don’t think it changes anything, you know? It’s window dressing.

How culpable are sites like Facebook, Google, and Apple in aiding potential spying, and the loss of privacy? They’re essentially compiling way more information than the average user realizes and creating a metadata-like profile on each consumer for targeted advertising purposes.

That’s their business model, right? Customer’s data is what they want. So, sure, they’re totally culpable in that, and are also partnering in different ways with intelligence agencies. You had the PRISM program, and you also have National Security letters. It’s hard to know when and if they do resist them. Twitter seems to be the most upstanding in terms of privacy of its customers. But the telecoms—AT&T, Verizon—they’re so deeply in bed with the NSA, and the NSA doesn’t even function without access to their infrastructure. That’s the reporting that’s most essential that is still ongoing. It keeps me up at night—the SSO programs, or Special Source Operations.

Does the new iPhone 6 encryption give you a faint glimmer of hope?

I’ve read some NSA documents, so there are some Microsoft documents where they say, “We’ve changed our encryption, and we’ve called the NSA to let them know we’re changing our encryption,” so whether or not there’s a backdoor, I don’t know. But let’s be generous and say Apple’s not created a backdoor to the encryption. I do think it’s encouraging that telecoms and the tech industry are thinking, “Oh, this is something that customers are going to want; they’re going to want some assurances that their communications are private.”

To play devil’s advocate, do you see the benefits to targeted surveillance on potential terrorist assets?

I’ve never argued, Snowden’s never argued, and Glenn’s never argued that there aren’t legitimate ways in which surveillance can be used by governments and law enforcement when people are suspected of crimes. But what we believe is that the government doesn’t have a right to take all of our communications. The “secret interpretation” of Section 215 that collects the call data is a violation of the Fourth Amendment, and that’s the reporting we’ve been doing. The PRISM document that was reported by The Post and The Guardian simultaneously, there were sections that were operational that we redacted that would fall in to the category of more legitimate usage of this type of surveillance. The reporting we’ve done has all been filtering what’s in the public interest versus what’s operational, appropriate, and legal. I’ve been reporting on the practice that GCHQ and NSA do, which is the targeting of engineers at telecoms. Are they terrorists? Of course not! But their names and email addresses are in GCHQ and NSA documents. That’s one example of them crossing the line.

What about an organization like ISIS that’s very technologically proficient, and uses burner phones and other forms of covert communications? The NSA would argue that they need to cast a wide net and utilize a metadata approach, otherwise there’s no way of tracking them.

Criminals are going to use means to disguise their communication—they always have, and they always will—and I don’t think that means the government should collect all of our data. Also, the argument that it’s effective has also been challenged. Many claim that they are in fact swimming in data, and have too much information so they’re missing leads. For instance, the “underwear bomber,” an incident which led to the rapid expansion of the watchlist system, which I’m actually on. His father went to the U.S. Embassy in Nigeria and said his kid was dangerous, and that they should revoke his U.S. travel visa. That was a failure of intelligence, and they had all the metadata in the world. After 9/11, the U.S. intelligence agencies realized that they had no clue what was happening in the world and no language skills, so they couldn’t do traditional intelligence gathering and adopted this “collect everything” attitude.

And 9/11 happened in part because of a failure in intelligence gathering.

Two of the 9/11 hijackers were on the CIA list and had trained with bin Laden in Afghanistan. They came into the country and they failed to notify the FBI. We’re here 13 years later with 13 years of war, $4 trillion of money spent, occupied countries, and it was an intelligence failure that could have been corrected in a different way where we should have said, “Why did this happen? Some people should get fired, and let’s be smarter about this.” They had a handful of people that hated us, but now they’ve created entire generations. That’s the stuff that drives me crazy—this response of more violence and more war to make us all safer actually creates more violence.

I wanted to ask you about First Look Media, too. The thing that I’ve heard about the first tumultuous year there is there was a money problem. Pierre Omidyar pledged $250 million to finance First Look, but I’ve heard that it’s more like $5 million that was actually spent during the first year.

I’ve got to think about how I want to answer this. In terms of the actual number, I’m not sure, because there’s The Intercept, First Look, and also Matt [Taibbi]’s project. [That project has since been canceled.] I think it was a bit naïve to imagine building up an infrastructure so quickly to report on the Snowden material, and it does take time to build up an institutional structure. There was a period where we were making a general news site, then we were making more focused digital magazines, and then there was a point where there seemed to be a freeze of budget which made it hard for us to hire. But here’s what I think is the good news: for me, being under the same umbrella of people like Glenn and Jeremy [Scahill], is meaningful. And this new reporting we’re doing confirms that, because we all have a reputation for doing reporting that is risky, adversarial, and that tries to get to the truth. Yes, there have been hurdles to get the thing up and running, but none of those hurdles have ever been about censoring anything that we’re trying to do.

Really? No censoring at all?

In terms of content? Never.

Do you think hiring Matt Taibbi as a manager was a misstep? It’s really a different skill set to be a manager of people as opposed to a hell-raising reporter.

I really wish things had worked out different, obviously, because he’s an extraordinary journalist. I’m based in Berlin, so I’m not there for the day-to-day, and when we started up, I let everyone know that I was finishing a film and that was going to take up the majority of my time, so I’ve been a little out of the loop.

What about editor-in-chief John Cook? He was only at The Intercept for less than a year before returning to Gawker, which doesn’t reflect well on The Intercept.

It was his decision. He came in at a time where we really needed someone and built up a team and the website, but that’s really a question for John. What I want to do there is build video journalism, and build out a team. It’s been a tough year, but I’m still very optimistic about what we’re building.

How do you feel about the state of America? How cynical has all this NSA reporting made you?

After 13 years of war? On one hand, yeah, I’d like to see this country engage with the world differently. I’d like to have political leaders who don’t feel they should be doing things in secret. The [Senate Democrats' CIA] Torture Report drives me crazy. It’s insane that this country engaged in torture, we never had any hearings for it, and no one was ever held accountable, and now we have this Senate report that cost us $40 million, and they’re trying to censor it. To me, historically, this whole decade-plus, I hope we look back on this time and say, “Oh, that was a dark chapter, but luckily we made some changes and decided that endless wars is not the way to bring peace to the world.” The thing that concerns me the most is the institutionalization of some of these policies.

When you consider the expansion of the drone program and NSA spying, how would you compare what Obama’s done to Bush?

Well, Obama didn’t legalize torture—so he has that going for him. But the thing I find most disturbing about Obama is he had the choice to rectify, rein in, and have a national process where we try to see what had happened in the immediate aftermath of 9/11 with torture, and rendition. Instead of doing that, he chose this “we won’t look back, we’ll look forward” approach which then results in normalizing and institutionalizing policies that I feel are really radical and stray outside of the rule of law and democratic principles. I think the drone program is horrible and horrifying, but we’ve charted this path where this is just the way the U.S. does things, and to me that’s really scary—to institutionalize these programs.

So you don’t subscribe to the Paul Krugman school of thought that Obama is one of the best U.S. presidents ever.

[Laughs] I do not. I do not. I don’t think history is going to look kindly on these years.