Documentary filmmaker and journalist Laura Poitras’ new film, Citizenfour, is a riveting real-life thriller that chronicles the encounters she and journalist Glenn Greenwald had with Edward Snowden in Hong Kong as he exposed how the U.S. government in the guise of monitoring global terrorism was spying on its own citizens. Snowden reached out to Poitras because he knew she had long been a target of government surveillance and had refused to be intimidated. When he revealed he was a high-level intelligence analyst ready to blow the whistle on the massive covert surveillance of Americans by the National Security Agency (NSA), Poitras persuaded him to let her film.
In an exclusive interview, Poitras spoke about her initial contact with Snowden under his code name of Citizen Four, her impressions when she met him in person, how the film about surveillance fits into her trilogy on post-9/11 America and is a portrait of those who make great sacrifices to expose injustice, how our moral compass as a country has drifted since 9/11, her collaboration with Greenwald, the founding of The Intercept with Greenwald and fellow journalist Jeremy Scahill, their commitment to fearless adversarial journalism, Poitras’ interest in doing more short-form visual journalism, and where this story goes from here. Check out our interview after the jump.
LAURA POITRAS: The first reaction was I was a bit curious because I don’t get that many people out of the blue just emailing me. He emailed me and he said, “Hey, do you have a public key that I could talk to you privately on?” So then, I sent it back and I said, “Here you go. So who are you?” Then the next email came back and it was encrypted, and it basically said, “Well I work in the intelligence community and this is not going to be a waste of your time.” That was the email you see at the opening of the film. I was like, “Okay, this doesn’t happen every day,” but I didn’t know much. I wrote back and I said, “Why are you contacting me?” And then I got this email where he explains that. At that point, my gut instinct was that this could be legitimate and that I should be super vigilant in terms of who I talk to and how to secure my communications, etc. I was also nervous. I realized that if it was legitimate, that it was going to be dangerous.
Were you concerned about the possibility for entrapment?
POITRAS: Yes, I was concerned. I asked a couple of times very directly, “How do I know you’re not trying to entrap me?” The response he gave me was, “You’ll know that because I’m not going to ask you to do anything or ask anything of you. I’m going to provide you information, and I’ll be the one taking the risk.” I also said, “How do I know you’re not crazy?” and he said, “Well you’ll know I’m not crazy, because when you receive documents and you ask officials for comments, their responses will tell you they’re authentic.”
What were your impressions when you first met Snowden in the hotel room in Hong Kong?
POITRAS: As Glenn Greenwald has written about it as well, we were both expecting to meet somebody older, so that was the first thing where we had to reorient ourselves. But then, after that, the very, very strong impression we had was that he seemed so calm and articulate, which was surprising given the fact that we were meeting somebody at a moment where they had made decisions where there was no turning back from. We were the ones that were nervous and he was just incredibly calm and articulate. Also, he knew that the decision he had made could potentially come with very negative personal consequences, but he believed that this was information that the public had a right to know.
When Snowden contacted you, you were two years into making a film about surveillance in the post-9/11 era. How did that film evolve once you met him and learned about the massive surveillance of Americans by the NSA?
POITRAS: It definitely shifted, but that was easy. My editor and I realized in the editing that I had shot material for two separate films, but this one would focus both on Snowden and his disclosures, and that also in this film I would need to be one of the protagonists, that it was different from my previous films where I am more outside. This was a film that I was a participant in the events that were unfolding.
Why did you decide to do a film about surveillance and how does this fit into your post-9/11 trilogy?
POITRAS: The first film I did (My Country, My Country) was on the occupation of Iraq, and then I made a film about Guantanamo (The Oath). I felt strongly that I wanted to make the last chapter return back to the U.S., not be set in the Middle East. Surveillance was turned against us domestically in the days immediately after 9/11. I mean, a lot of things happened. We began engaging in the war in Afghanistan and then the drastic things like what we now know as the Torture Memos and a lot of those kinds of outward manifestations of the War on Terror. But inward, we began spying immediately. It was in early October of 2001 when the NSA started domestic spying, and it was very much an important piece of the U.S. response to 9/11.
What surprised you most about what the U.S. government was doing?
POITRAS: In terms of NSA, it’s the use of bulk dragnet surveillance of communications of people who are suspected of nothing and collecting that information on a vast international scale. That’s what I think is the most shocking.
POITRAS: In a way, it’s similar to the answer I just gave. It’s that they’re collecting the communications of people that are not suspected of anything, but they’re trying to collect everything and store it for as long as they can so that they can query it. I think this is a departure for the government. The other thing that I hope the film communicates is that it’s a portrait of people who take personal risk and the impact that that can have. You have whistleblowers like William Binney who sacrificed and had huge repercussions for blowing the whistle, and then Snowden making personal sacrifices. (Binney is a crypto-mathematician who formerly served as Technical Director at the NSA and designed much of the infrastructure for automating the agency’s worldwide surveillance network. He raised concerns about domestic surveillance and mismanagement of funds at the agency.) It’s a portrait of people that see something that they think is wrong and they’ve taken action that is going to lead to negative consequences for them, but they still do it because they think it’s the right thing. What I think we’ve seen in the post 9/11 era is a drifting of our moral compass as a country. I mean, we’re doing things now that we could never have imagined that the U.S. would do.
For all the intelligence data that’s being collected, what are your thoughts on why we haven’t been more successful in our War on Terror and why does it always seem like we’re one step behind what is happening?
POITRAS: That’s a really good question. I think that right now we’re swimming in data because they’re collecting so much. It’s not just the danger that they’re violating the rights of individual privacy [of people] that aren’t suspected of anything, but now they’re flooded in so much data that it’s very hard to decipher what to pay attention to in terms of leads. This has been sort of an ongoing issue. This is not new. It’s what I guess I would describe as intelligence failures. It was known that two of the 9/11 hijackers had trained in Afghanistan, and the CIA knew that and they didn’t inform the FBI when they entered the country. There was no holding people accountable for missing that kind of intelligence information. And then, we had a similar thing with what’s called the Underwear Bomber. In that case, his father actually went to the U.S. Consulate and said, “My son is dangerous. He’s been training and you should be careful.” And yet, that person was able to buy a one-way ticket in cash. So, this idea that we have to collect everyone’s communications to keep us safe doesn’t really hold up in terms of what we’ve seen and some of the mistakes that have been made.
POITRAS: It’s been extraordinary to work with Glenn on this project. We were colleagues before Snowden contacted us and what happened was I started getting these anonymous emails. I think it was in February when Snowden said, “This is going to require more than one person to do the reporting. I recommend that you reach out to Glenn.” That made sense to me. So Glenn and I met in April when I told him I’d been contacted by a source claiming to have evidence of NSA abuse and illegality and I asked him if he was interested. He immediately said, “Yes.” And then, in Hong Kong, we learned that Snowden had also separately contacted Glenn before he reached out to me. I actually credit Glenn’s early reporting for really the traction that this story got. We were both articulating the importance of privacy and also subjected to really brutal personal attacks. We also have very different ways of working. I was working on this project which was sort of long form, while he was doing a lot of journalism that was being published more quickly. So it’s been a great collaboration.
What was your scariest moment in this journalistic enterprise and what did you learn in the process of making this film?
POITRAS: I would have to say this definitely felt like the most dangerous reporting that I’ve ever done. I’ve been in conflict. I was in Iraq in 2004. That was pretty scary. But this was a different kind. We were very clear that there were very powerful people who were going to be very angered by the reporting we were doing, and if they could, they would try to stop it. I think the day that David Miranda (Glenn Greenwald’s partner) was detained at Heathrow was really scary. Glenn contacted me early in the morning, and I was online with him all day trying to sort out what was happening. It was clear that they would have liked to try to stop the reporting from happening. But I think on the plus side, the stories have had wide public support and impact, and we have been able to continue to report and haven’t allowed that to stop.
POITRAS: I think probably it will raise a certain awareness of the dangers and the threats of this kind of surveillance to democracies. Also, hopefully it will help them understand the risks that whistleblowers take to come forward with this kind of information and put more pressure on our government that we shouldn’t be living in a country that has secret interpretations of laws and secret watch lists that you’re put on and there’s no due process to ever get taken off of it. Those things are just fundamentally against the principles of our country, and hopefully the film will raise awareness about that.
Journalism has changed dramatically since the days of Watergate, the Pentagon Papers, and editors like Benjamin Bradlee. You’ve long been a target of government surveillance, subjected to extraordinary scrutiny when you travel, and you now live in Berlin to protect your work. How does the founding of The Intercept with Jeremy Scahill and Glenn Greenwald fit into this new era of journalism?
POITRAS: I’m really proud to be working with Glenn and Jeremy and others at The Intercept because what we’re committed to is this idea that journalism is supposed to be adversarial to power and that’s the tradition that all of us come from. And then, to be able to work under the same roof I think sends a message that we will fight for that principle. But I also think that there are extraordinary journalists working at other institutions. Someone like my friend Jim Risen who’s at The New York Times has been doing some of the most fearless reporting, and most important, telling the public what’s happened in this 9/11 era. He’s also been subjected to an extraordinary amount of scrutiny and targeted by the government. We’re definitely in an era where the government wants to keep more secrets and it wants to come after anyone who’s exposing those secrets and in many cases exposing government illegality. They’re coming after the journalists and they’re coming after the whistleblowers. It’s not a good sign if the government is expending so much energy trying to find out who journalists are talking to.
POITRAS: When we first founded it, I warned everyone that I was editing and that just means it was going to take up a lot of my time before I could be working and publishing more with The Intercept. They were all warned of that. What I’m interested in doing is building out visual journalism, those short-form videos, because that’s my expertise and that’s really where my passion lies. We’re still in the process of building that infrastructure.
Apple and Google recently announced plans to make encryption part of default service. You’ve got the FBI Director arguing about the mistrust of government and how this could compromise law enforcement and civil liberties groups arguing the opposite. What are your thoughts on this?
POITRAS: It’s a basic right. It’s a constitutional right to privacy in our communication. The NSA has violated that principle. One of the things that I think is true is that encryption actually is able to secure our communications, that every individual can use encryption, and that it’s accessible and in many cases free. I think that the Snowden revelations have opened up probably a demand in the larger society for having basic privacy in our communication. So I’m not surprised that Google and Apple are now coming forward with technological solutions, and I think that that’s actually a positive sign. There are people who are always going to try to engage in activity that is illegal and they’re going to try to subvert surveillance. But everybody should not give up their liberties and rights to privacy because some people are going to [do that]. I spend a lot of time with people who are into privacy activism and they say, “Are we going to shut down the roads, too?” Everybody needs to use the roads. We shouldn’t stop or limit our basic liberties because some people are going to engage in criminal activities.
What are you working on next that you’re excited about?
POITRAS: This film we really just finished. One of the things that I definitely want to be doing is more short-form visual journalism. On The Intercept, I’m really interested in how we understand issues on a more human scale, how it changes how we think about them. I mean, I just made a film about a prisoner at Guantanamo that tried to capture that. He was somebody who was cleared for at least many years and ultimately died at Guantanamo. It’s a bit unclear how he died, if he committed suicide or if it was an overdose. But in all my work, I’m interested in trying to understand the human consequences of government policies.
At the end of this film, the audience is made aware that there’s a newer, more higher placed whistleblower than Snowden ready to reveal new information. Where does this story go from here?
POITRAS: We are in the middle. The reporting is ongoing. I don’t have a timeline and I’m not holding it back for any reason. I mean, all of this reporting takes time and we’ll release it when it’s ready. And so, I don’t have an answer for that.