Filmmaker Laura Poitras Sues US Over ‘Kafkaesque’ Harassment

Published on Tuesday, July 14, 2015 by Common Dreams by Nadia Prupis, staff writer

Award-winning journalist and filmmaker Laura Poitras on Monday filed a lawsuit against the U.S. Department of Justice (DOJ) and U.S. intelligence agencies for subjecting her to what she called “Kafkaesque” harassment at airports throughout the U.S. and the world on dozens of occasions.

Poitras, who won an Academy Award last year for Citizenfour, the documentary about NSA whistleblower Edward Snowden, said she has been detained, searched without warrant, interrogated for hours, and had vital belongings confiscated more than 50 times over the course of six years—without ever being charged with a crime.

The Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) lawsuit names the DOJ, the Department of Homeland Security, and the Office of the Director of National Intelligence and demands the release of all records from those agencies on Poitras.

In a statement on Monday, the filmmaker, who is being represented by the civil liberties group Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF), made clear that her lawsuit stood for more than just her own experiences.
“By spurning Poitras’ FOIA requests, the government leaves the impression that her detentions were a form of retaliation and harassment of a journalist whose work has focused on U.S. policy in the post-9/11 world.”
—Jamie Lee Williams, Electronic Frontier Foundation

“I’m filing this lawsuit because the government uses the U.S. border to bypass the rule of law,” Poitras said. “This simply should not be tolerated in a democracy. I am also filing this suit in support of the countless other less high-profile people who have also been subjected to years of Kafkaesque harassment at the borders. We have a right to know how this system works and why we are targeted.”

Poitras has spoken openly about her harassment at U.S. borders, which included reportedly being placed on the government’s No Fly List after returning home from filming My Country, My Country, a 2006 documentary which profiled Iraqi critics of the U.S. occupation.

She has also had her laptop, camera, mobile phone, and reporter notebooks seized and their contents copied, according to the suit. On one occasion, Poitras was allegedly threatened with handcuffing for taking notes during her detention, as border agents said her pen could be used as a weapon.

This is not the first time that Poitras has filed FOIAs with intelligence agencies for their records on her detainment, but the departments have evaded her requests at every turn.

“The government used its power to detain people at airports, in the name of national security, to target a journalist whose work has focused on the effects of the U.S. war on terror,” said David Sobel, EFF senior counsel. “In refusing to respond to Poitras’ FOIA requests and wrongfully withholding the documents about her it has located, the government is flouting its responsibility to explain and defend why it subjected a law-abiding citizen—whose work has shone a light on post-9/11 military and intelligence activities—to interrogations and searches every time she entered her country.”

EFF attorney Jamie Lee Williams added: “We are suing the government to force it to disclose any records that would show why security officials targeted Poitras for six years, even though she had no criminal record and there was no indication that she posed any security risk. By spurning Poitras’ FOIA requests, the government leaves the impression that her detentions were a form of retaliation and harassment of a journalist whose work has focused on U.S. policy in the post-9/11 world.”

In addition to her documentary film work, Poitras is a recipient of the MacArthur Genius Grant and has won the Pulitzer for her reporting on the NSA leaks. My Country, My Countryand Citizenfour are part of a series of films exploring post-9/11 America, along with 2010’sThe Oath, a documentary about Guantanamo Bay prison. She also writes for The Intercept.

Snowden: NSA Story Needed the 'Courage' Major Media Outlets Have Abandoned

Published on Tuesday, August 13, 2013 by Common Dreams

Profile of journalists Laura Poitras and Glenn Greenwald reveals power and responsibility of "fearless" journalism

– Jon Queally, staff writer

Documentary filmmaker Laura Poitras in Berlin, has "preferred to stay in the background" but remains a key figure in the ongoing story of the NSA documents released by Edward Snowden. (Photo: Olaf Blecker for The New York Times)

Documentary filmmaker Laura Poitras in Berlin, has “preferred to stay in the background” but remains a key figure in the ongoing story of the NSA documents released by Edward Snowden. (Photo: Olaf Blecker for The New York Times)

In an interview given for the upcoming New York Times Magazine cover story, NSA whistleblower Edward Snowden describes why he chose independent journalist Laura Poitras and the Guardian's Glenn Greenwald over "major American news outlets" to handle the explosive content he was ready to share with the world.

In an encrypted email exchange with the NYT's Peter Maass, Snowden explained:

After 9/11, many of the most important news outlets in America abdicated their role as a check to power — the journalistic responsibility to challenge the excesses of government — for fear of being seen as unpatriotic and punished in the market during a period of heightened nationalism. From a business perspective, this was the obvious strategy, but what benefited the institutions ended up costing the public dearly. The major outlets are still only beginning to recover from this cold period.

Laura and Glenn are among the few who reported fearlessly on controversial topics throughout this period, even in the face of withering personal criticism, and resulted in Laura specifically becoming targeted by the very programs involved in the recent disclosures. She had demonstrated the courage, personal experience and skill needed to handle what is probably the most dangerous assignment any journalist can be given — reporting on the secret misdeeds of the most powerful government in the world — making her an obvious choice.

The interview with Snowden was given as part of Maass' profile of Poitras and Greenwald, who together have formed the nucleus of the journalistic team responsible for handling and reporting the numerous classifieds National Security documents leaked by Snowden over the last several months.

Glenn Greenwald, a writer for The Guardian, at home in Rio de Janeiro. (Photo: Mauricio Lima for The New York Times)

Glenn Greenwald, a writer for The Guardian, at home in Rio de Janeiro. (Photo: Mauricio Lima for The New York Times)


Though less well known in public circles than Greenwald, Poitras is given particular focus by Maass for her role in the still-developing NSA leak story. Though essential and integral to the entire process, Poitras has "preferred to stay in the background," even as the intrigue surrounding the way the leaks surfaced and how they've been reported has at times become a more elevated story than the contents of the leaks themselves.

As Greenwald says of Poitras, “I keep calling her the Keyser Soze of the story, because she’s at once completely invisible and yet ubiquitous,” he said. “She’s been at the center of all of this, and yet no one knows anything about her.”

As his exchange with Maass indicates, the main reason that Snowden initially reached out to Poitras—known more for her award-winning documentary film war in the post 9/11 era than newspaper-style investigative journalism—was because of the way she has herself been targeted by government agencies. In the email interview, Snowden writes:

We came to a point in the verification and vetting process where I discovered Laura was more suspicious of me than I was of her, and I’m famously paranoid. The combination of her experience and her exacting focus on detail and process gave her a natural talent for security, and that’s a refreshing trait to discover in someone who is likely to come under intense scrutiny in the future, as normally one would have to work very hard to get them to take the risks seriously.

With that putting me at ease, it became easier to open up without fearing the invested trust would be mishandled…

The magazine profile also explores the ongoing work of Poitras and Greenwald, who continue to pour over documents provided by Snowden. The work, they think, has changed their lives, but the narrative shows them as dedicated servants not only to the contents of the disclosures, but also to the source of the leaks, Snowden himself.

In but one revealing passage describing an interaction with Poitras, Maass recounts her reflections on the work and why she avoids television interviews and public attention:

“It’s an incredible emotional experience,” she said, “to be contacted by a complete stranger saying that he was going to risk his life to expose things the public should know. He was putting his life on the line and trusting me with that burden. My experience and relationship to that is something that I want to retain an emotional relation to.” Her connection to him and the material, she said, is what will guide her work. “I am sympathetic to what he sees as the horror of the world [and] what he imagines could come. I want to communicate that with as much resonance as possible. If I were to sit and do endless cable interviews — all those things alienate me from what I need to stay connected to. It’s not just a scoop. It’s someone’s life.”

The NSA revelations made possible by Snowden, Poitras and the Guardian have captured headlines in recent weeks, leading to a national debate in the US and an international dialogue about the nature of global surveillance in the digital age, and the profile is compelling reading for anyone curious about just how it all come together to make the disclosures possible.  The film version will make for incredible viewing.

As Maass concludes, however, he pauses to reflect on the two journalists at the heart of the dramatic story, even as Greenwald and Poitrascontinue to put their focus on the work of the documents and the surveillance systems they so stunningly reveal:

They are holding onto more secrets than they are exposing, at least for now.

“We have this window into this world, and we’re still trying to understand it,” Poitras said in one of our last conversations. “We’re not trying to keep it a secret, but piece the puzzle together. That’s a project that is going to take time. Our intention is to release what’s in the public interest but also to try to get a handle on what this world is, and then try to communicate that.”

The deepest paradox, of course, is that their effort to understand and expose government surveillance may have condemned them to a lifetime of it.

The complete transcript of the email exchange with Snowden is here. The NYT Magazine profile of Poitras and Greenwald here.


Long Before Helping Expose NSA Spying, Journalist Laura Poitras Faced Harassment from U.S. Agents

Journalist Laura Poitras is being described as the connection between the NSA whistleblower Edward Snowden and the reporters for The Guardian and The Washington Post who published his leaked documents about government surveillance. Poitras shared a byline on two of the key articles about the ongoing NSA revelations, and filmed the Guardian interview in Hong Kong in which Snowden went public with his identity. But well before she took on Snowden’s case, Poitras has come face to face with issues of privacy and state surveillance over her work as a documentary filmmaker. In an excerpt of an April 2012 interview on Democracy Now!, Poitras discusses her repeated detention and interrogation by federal agents whenever she enters the United States. The interrogations began after Poitras began working on her documentary, “My Country, My Country,” about post-invasion Iraq, and continued with most recent film, “The Oath,” about ex-Guantánamo prisoners returning to Yemen. She estimates she has been detained approximately 40 times and has had her laptop, cellphone and personal belongings repeatedly searched.

© 2013 Democracy Now!