How Laura Poitras helped Edward Snowden
How Laura Poitras, who responded to an anonymous email from Edward Snowden, helped him reveal secret NSA documents
By Peter Maass
“”Last January, Laura Poitras received an anonymous email asking her to send her her public encryption key. Laura had been working on a documentary about surveillance and espionage for nearly two years now, and she occasionally received messages from strangers. This time she responded and sent her public key, allowing the other person to send encrypted emails that only Laura herself could open, using her private key. But she didn’t think it would lead to much.
The stranger responded with instructions for creating an even more secure system for protecting their correspondence. Promising highly confidential information, he told Laura to choose, like passwords, long phrases capable of withstanding a massive attack from a computer network. “Imagine an opponent capable of 1 trillion combinations per second,” the stranger wrote him.
Shortly thereafter, Laura received an encrypted message that listed a series of secret spying and communications monitoring programs run by the US government. She had heard of one of them but not the others. After describing each of the programs, the stranger always added some version of the same statement: “I can prove this.”
Seconds after having decoded and read this email, Laura Poitras disconnected from the internet and deleted the message from her computer. “And I thought to myself, if this is true, my life has just changed,” she told me two months ago. “The things he claimed to know and be able to prove were staggering.”
Laura, however, remained suspicious of her interlocutor. Her biggest fear was that some government agent might be trying to trick her into revealing information about the people she had interviewed for her documentary, including Julian Assange, the editor of the WikiLeaks organization. “I pressed him,” recalled Laura. “He said that either he really had that information and was taking huge risks, or he was setting a trap for me and the people I know, or else he was crazy.”
The answers were reassuring, but not enough. Laura didn’t know the name, sex, age or who the stranger worked for (The CIA? The NSA? The Pentagon?). In early June, she finally got the answers. Along with her reporting partner, Glenn Greenwald, a law graduate and columnist for the British newspaper The Guardian, Laura flew to Hong Kong and there met an NSA contractor, Edward J. Snowden, who she handed over to the two thousand confidential documents, sparking a controversy of enormous proportions over the extent and legality of US government espionage. Laura Poitras was right when she thought her life would never be the same again.
Glenn Greenwald lives and works in a house surrounded by the Tijuca Forest, in Alto da Boa Vista, a neighborhood far from downtown Rio de Janeiro. He shares the house with David Miranda, his Brazilian companion, ten dogs and a cat, and the place gives the impression of a student republic transplanted into the middle of the forest. The kitchen clock is hours late, but no one notices; dishes tend to pile up in the sink; the living room contains a table, a sofa and a big-screen TV, plus an Xbox console, a box of poker chips and little else. The refrigerator is not always stocked with fresh vegetables. A family of monkeys sometimes attacks the banana trees in the backyard, getting into noisy disputes with the dogs.
Greenwald works most of the time on a covered porch, usually in a T-shirt, surfer shorts, and flip-flops. In the four days I spent with him, I was constantly on the move, speaking Portuguese and English on the phone, rushing to be interviewed in town, answering phone calls and emails from people looking for information about Snowden, tweeting to his 250,000+ followers (and getting into heated arguments with some of them), and then sitting down to write more articles for the Guardian about the US National Security Agency, the NSA, all while insisting on having their dogs do it silence. In a particularly feverish moment, he ended up screaming: “Would you like to shut up?!” But the dogs were unimpressed.
n the midst of this chaos, Laura Poitras, a thoughtful 49-year-old woman, continued to sit in a spare room or at her living room table, working silently in front of one of her many computers. Occasionally he would go out on the porch to talk to Greenwald about the article he was writing, or sometimes he was the one who stopped his work to peek at the latest version of a new video Laura was editing about Snowden. They talked a lot – Greenwald louder and talking much faster than Laura – and sometimes they burst out laughing at some joke or absurd memory. The Snowden affair, the two said, was a battle they were in together, a struggle against the powers of espionage that they both believe are a threat to fundamental American freedoms.
Two reporters from the Guardian were in Rio to help Greenwald, so part of our time was spent at the hotel where they were staying, on the edge of Copacabana beach, where Brazilians in good shape playing volleyball in the sand they added a new layer of surrealism to events. Laura has signed part of Greenwald’s articles as a co-author, but almost always prefers to stay behind the scenes, letting him be the one to write and speak. So it is Glenn Greenwald whom people hail as a fearless defender of individual rights, or accuse him of being a nefarious traitor, depending on your point of view.
“I always say she’s the Keyser Söze of the whole story, because she’s both invisible and ubiquitous,” said Greenwald, referring to Kevin Spacey’s character in the movie The Suspects, a genius of the crime that plans everything, but pretends to be a slipper. “Laura is at the center of it all, but still no one knows who she is.”
One late afternoon, I accompanied Laura and Greenwald to the newsroom of the newspaper O Globo. Greenwald had just published an article in the newspaper describing how the NSA eavesdropped on Brazilian phone calls and e-mails. The news caused a great scandal in Brazil, and Greenwald was received in the newsroom as a celebrity. The editor-in-chief shook his hand enthusiastically, inviting him to write a regular column in the paper; reporters snapped souvenir photos with their cell phones. Laura filmed part of the party, then put away her camera and continued to observe everything. I saw that no one paid her any attention, that they all had eyes only for Greenwald, and she smiled. “It’s fine like that,” he commented.
Laura Poitras seems committed to going unnoticed, more as a matter of strategy than shyness. In fact, she can be very determined when it comes to weighing up what she should and shouldn’t say. During a conversation that began with questions from me about her personal life, she complained, “This reminds me of a dental appointment.”
But the summary picture is this: Laura was raised in a prosperous family outside Boston and, after high school, moved to San Francisco determined to work as a chef at some top-notch restaurant line. He also studied at the San Francisco Art Institute, where he took courses with experimental filmmaker Ernie Gehr. In 1992, he moved to New York and began to make his way into the world of film, while taking graduate classes in social and political theory at the New School [university known for left-wing faculty< /i>]. Since then, he has made five films, the most recent of which is The Oath – about Salim Hamdan, a Guantanamo prisoner, and his brother-in-law who lives in Yemen – and received two awards, the Peabody and the MacArthur.
On September 11, 2001, Laura was living on the Upper West Side of Manhattan when the Twin Towers were attacked. Like most New Yorkers, over the next few weeks she found herself overwhelmed by grief and overwhelmed by feelings of solidarity and togetherness. It was a moment, she said, when “people could have done anything, in a positive sense.” When that moment led to the invasion of Iraq, however, she thought her country had lost its way. “We always ask ourselves how a country can deviate from the right path,” she said. “How can people let that happen, how can they do nothing while limits are crossed?”
Laura had no experience in conflict zones, but in June 2004 she traveled to Iraq and began documenting the American occupation.
Soon after arriving in Baghdad, she was allowed to enter Abu Ghraib and film a visit by City Council members to the prison. This was only a few months after the publication of the photos showing Abu Ghraib prisoners being mistreated by American soldiers. A prominent Sunni doctor was part of the visiting delegation, and Laura Poitras filmed memorable footage of her interaction with the prisoners, shouting that they were locked up there for no reason.
his same doctor, Riyadh al-Adhadh, invited Laura to his clinic and later allowed her to follow his routine in Baghdad. The documentary she then produced, My Country in Ruins, focuses on the difficulties faced by the doctor’s family – the shootings and blackouts in her neighborhood, the kidnapping of one of her nephews. The film opened in the United States in early 2006 and was enthusiastically received, having been nominated for an Oscar for best documentary.
Trying to show the effects of the war on Iraqi citizens made Laura the target of serious – and false, allegations, it seems. On November 19, 2004, Iraqi soldiers backed by US forces attacked a mosque in the Adhamiya neighborhood where the doctor lives, killing several people inside. The next day, violence broke out in the neighborhood. Laura was with the doctor’s family, and from time to time she would go up to the roof of the house with them to get an idea of what was going on. On one of these trips, she was spotted by soldiers from a battalion of the American National Guard. Shortly thereafter, a group of insurgents launched an attack that killed one of the Americans. Some soldiers thought that Laura had gone up to the slab because she had prior knowledge of the attack and wanted to film it. The battalion commander, retired Lieutenant Colonel Daniel Hendrickson, told me that he filed a complaint against her at his brigade headquarters.
There is no evidence to support his accusation. Fighting in the area took place throughout that day, so it would have been difficult for any journalist not to be in the vicinity of an attack. The very soldiers who accused Laura told me they had no evidence against her. Hendrickson further commented that headquarters never responded to his complaint.
For several months after the Adhamiya attack, Laura Poitras continued to live in Baghdad’s Green Zone [where the US authorities were located] and to work as a journalist accompanying US troops. He exhibited his documentary to military audiences, including at the US Army War School itself. An official who lived with her in Baghdad, retired Major Tom Mowle, said that Laura was always filming, and that “it made perfect sense” that she was filming on a day of violence. “I find the accusations against her totally ridiculous,” said the major.
Although the charges were not supported by evidence, they may have been at the root of Laura’s many arrests and baggage searches. Hendrickson and another soldier told me that in 2007 – months after the journalist’s first arrest – investigators from the Justice Department’s Counterterrorism Task Force interviewed the two, asking them about Laura’s activities in Baghdad on the day of the attack. Laura herself, however, was never sought out by these or any other investigators. “Iraqi forces and the US military attacked a mosque in the middle of Friday prayers, killing several people,” she told me. “And the violence broke out the next day. I’m a documentary filmmaker, and I was filming in the area.
Any suggestion that I knew of an attack is false. The US government should investigate who authorized the assault on the mosque, not the journalists covering the war.”
In June 2006, all of Laura Poitras’ tickets for flights within the United States bore the letters SSSS – which stands for Secondary Security Check Selection – which means that the carrier will be subjected to more rigorous searches than usual. Laura’s first arrest took place at Newark International Airport prior to a flight to Israel, where she would screen her film. On the return flight, she was detained for two hours before being allowed back into the country. The following month, she went to Bosnia to show her film at a festival, and when the plane she’d taken in Sarajevo landed in Vienna, she was called over by the airport’s sound system and instructed to look for a security checkpoint; from there, she was taken to a van and driven to another part of the airport, and then placed in a room where her luggage was searched.
“They opened my bags and went through them one by one,” said Laura. “They asked the reason for my trip, and I replied that I had shown a film in Sarajevo about the Iraq War. And then I became more or less friendly with the security guy. And I asked him what the problem was. He replied that I was marked: ‘You were classified as a threat of the highest degree. Your score is 400 on a scale of 400.’ I asked if this scoring system worked across Europe, or if it was just American. And he replied, ‘It’s your government’s doing, who told us to stop her.’”
As of 9/11, the US government began compiling a list of terrorist suspects that reached nearly 1 million names. And there are at least two other complementary lists related to air travel. One contains the names of tens of thousands of people who cannot enter or leave the United States on board an airplane. The other, larger, subjects the people included in it to more detailed inspections and interrogations at airports. These lists have already been criticized by civil rights groups for being overly broad and arbitrary.
In Vienna, Laura was finally released in time to catch the connection to New York, but as soon as she landed at JFK airport she was met at the gate by two armed agents and ushered into a room for interrogation. This is a routine she’s been subjected to so many times since then – it’s been more than forty occasions – that Laura has lost count. Initially, she said, authorities were interested in the papers she carried, copying all of her receipts and, once, her notebook. After he stopped taking his notes on trips, the focus shifted to electronic equipment. He was told that if he didn’t answer the questions, they would confiscate his equipment and get the answers that way. They once confiscated their computers and cell phones, and did not return them until weeks later. He was further told that refusing to answer their questions was itself a suspicious act. As the interrogations took place at international border points, where the government claims that constitutional rights do not apply, it was never allowed the presence of a lawyer.
“It’s an absolute violation,” Laura said. “That’s what we feel. They want information that pertains to my work, private and protected by law. It’s very intimidating to be greeted by armed people whenever you step off a plane.”
Although she has written to members of the US Congress, and made requests under the Freedom of Information Act, Laura never got an explanation as to why she was included on a list of people under special monitoring. “It’s maddening that I have to speculate on why,” she said. “Since when did this universe begin to exist in which a person can be included on a list without anyone telling him anything, and starts being detained for every trip for six years? I have no idea why. I know it’s a complete suspension of the rule of law.” And he added: “They never told me anything, they never asked me for anything and I didn’t do anything. It’s a Kafka situation. They don’t tell you what you’re accused of.”
After being repeatedly detained, Laura Poitras began taking steps to protect her data, asking a fellow traveler to take her laptop, leaving her notebooks abroad with friends or in safes. She uses to erase all the contents of their computers and cell phones, so that the authorities have nothing to see. Or it started encrypting your information, so agents cannot read the files they manage to seize. These security arrangements may take a day or more before each of your trips.
And border magazines weren’t the only thing she needed to worry about. Laura said that if the government’s suspicions were enough for her to be interrogated at airports, it was very likely that her emails, her phone calls and her Internet browsing would also be under surveillance. “I imagine there are National Security Letters about my e-mails,” she said, referring to one of the secret espionage instruments used by the US Department of Justice. A National Security Letter enjoins the recipient – in most cases, internet providers and telephone companies – to provide their customers’ data without making them or anyone else aware of it. Laura suspects (but could not confirm, as her telephone company and internet provider were prohibited from telling her) that the FBI has issued National Security Letters aimed at her electronic communications.
After she started working on her film about surveillance and espionage in 2011, Laura took her digital security to an even more extreme level. It reduced the use of the cell phone, which reveals not only who the person is calling and when, but also the location of its carrier. He began to avoid transmitting confidential documents by e-mail and having private conversations on the phone. He started using programs that masked the websites he visited. After being approached by Snowden in 2013, she further tightened her security. In addition to encrypting all the most sensitive emails, he started using different computers, one to edit his movie, another to communicate and one more to read confidential documents (the computer used to read these documents was never connected to the internet) .
These precautions may seem paranoid – and are described as “quite extreme” by Laura – but the people she interviewed for her film have been targeted for the kind of surveillance and interception she fears. William Binney, a former NSA official who publicly accused the agency of illegal spying, was at home one day in 2007 when FBI agents burst through the door and pointed guns at his wife, son and himself. By the time an agent walked into his bathroom and pointed the barrel of a gun at his head, Binney was naked in the shower. Their computers, disks and personal files were confiscated and never returned. Binney was never formally charged with any crime.
Jacob Appelbaum, a privacy advocate who volunteered for WikiLeaks, also appeared in Laura’s film. The government issued a secret order to Twitter to gain access to Appelbaum’s account data, an order that became public when Twitter resisted it. Although the company was eventually forced to hand over the information, it managed to get permission to report the incident to Appelbaum. Google and a small provider that Appelbaum used also received secret orders, and went to court to get it to be warned. Like Binney, Appelbaum was never charged with any crime.
For years, Laura Poitras submitted to airport searches with little public complaint, fearful that her protests would generate more hostility from the government, but last year she reached the limit of what she could tolerate. In an interrogation at Newark Airport, after a trip to Britain, he was told that he could not take notes. On the advice of lawyers, she always recorded the names of immigration agents, the questions they asked her, and all the material they copied or seized. This time, one of the agents threatened to handcuff her if she continued writing. She was told that she was prohibited from writing anything down because she could use her pen as a weapon.
“I asked them to bring me a crayon,” she recalled, “and he said that crayons were also banned.”
Laura was taken to another room and interrogated by three agents – one was standing behind her, another was asking the questions, and the third was a supervisor. “That lasted maybe an hour and a half,” she said. “I was taking note of his questions, or trying to do so, and they started yelling at me. I asked them to show me the law that prohibited me from taking notes. Then they told me that they were asking the questions. It was a very aggressive and hostile confrontation.”
Laura Poitras met Glenn Greenwald in 2010 when she became interested in his work on WikiLeaks [then Greenwald was writing for the Salon website and defending Julian Assange’s disclosure of confidential documents]. In 2011, Laura was in Rio de Janeiro to interview Greenwald for her documentary. He knew about the magazines she was submitted to, and had been asking her permission to write about them. After what happened in Newark, she gave him the green light.
“Laura told me she was fed up,” said Greenwald. “Writing everything down and documenting what happened to him was the only way he had to retain some initiative, maintain some degree of control over the facts. Documenting is her profession. I think she felt that the last vestige of security and control she had in the situation was taken from her, without any explanation, as a simple arbitrary exercise of power.”
The article “American filmmaker repeatedly detained at the border” was published by Greenwald in the Salon in April 2012. Shortly thereafter, Laura stopped being detained. Six years of persecution and abuse, she hoped, could have come to an end.
Laura Poitras was not Snowden’s first choice as a recipient of the thousands of NSA documents he decided to leak. In fact, a month before contacting her, Snowden approached Greenwald, who had written many articles critical of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan and the erosion of American civil liberties after 9/11. Snowden sent Greenwald an anonymous email saying he had documents he intended to share, followed by a walkthrough on how to encrypt the texts, but Greenwald ignored the messages. Snowden then sent the reporter a link to a video on encryption, which also got no response.
“The encryption program is very boring and complicated,” commented Greenwald sitting on his porch during a downpour. “He continued to insist, but he ended up frustrated and decided to look for Laura.”
Snowden had read Greenwald’s article about Laura’s problems at US airports, and knew she was working on a documentary about US government spy programs; I had also seen a short documentary about the NSA she had made for an New York Times online forum. He imagined that Laura would understand the programs he intended to reveal to the public, and that she would have the ability to communicate with him in a secure way.
In March, Laura Poitras had decided that the stranger she had been communicating with was trustworthy. He didn’t find the kind of provocation he’d expect from a government agent – no requests for information as to who he was in contact with, no questions about what he was doing. Snowden had told her from the first moment that she would need to work with someone else, and that she should go to Greenwald. She did not know that Snowden had already tried to contact Greenwald – only when he met Snowden in Hong Kong would Greenwald realize that this was the same person who had contacted him more than six months before.
There were surprises for everyone in this exchange of messages – including Snowden, who would later answer the questions I sent him through Laura. In response to the question about when he had known he could trust her, he wrote: “We reached a point in the checking process where I found that Laura distrusted me even more than I did her, and I’m notorious for my degree of paranoia.” When I asked him about Greenwald’s initial silence in the face of his requests and instructions on cryptography, Snowden replied: “I know journalists are busy people, and I already imagined it would be difficult to be taken seriously, especially given the paucity of details I could. reveal at first. On the other hand, this is 2013, and he is a journalist who regularly writes about the excess of state power. I was surprised to see that there are people in the press who do not realize that any unencrypted message sent over the internet ends up in the hands of all the information services in the world.”
In April, Laura emailed Greenwald saying they needed to meet in person. He happened to be in the States, attending a conference in New York, and the two met in the lobby of his hotel. “She took a lot of care,” recalled Greenwald. “He insisted that I not take my cell phone, as they can be remotely monitored by the government, even if they are turned off. It had all the e-mails in print, and I remember well that as I read them, I had the intuitive feeling that it was all true. The passion and reflection behind what Snowden said – and at that point we still didn’t know he was Snowden – were palpable.”
Greenwald installed an encryption program on his computer, and began to communicate directly with the stranger. The work was organized like a true espionage operation, in which Laura acted as a mentor. “Operational safety was determined by it,” said Greenwald. “Which computers should I use, how should I communicate, how should I protect the information, where should I keep copies, who should I give them to and where. She has a highly specialized understanding of how to do a story like this with all technical and operational security. None of this would have happened with such efficiency and impact if she hadn’t worked with me in every aspect, and actually hadn’t been responsible for coordinating most of the work.”
Snowden began handing the documents to them both. Laura didn’t want to tell me the exact moment it happened; she said she doesn’t want to give the government information that could be used in a lawsuit against Snowden or herself. Then Snowden told him that he would soon be ready to meet them. When Laura asked him whether he should plan a trip by car or train, Snowden replied that he should be prepared to take a plane.
In May, he sent new encrypted messages, telling Laura and Greenwald to go to Hong Kong. Greenwald flew from Rio to New York, where Laura met him for a series of meetings with the editor of the American version of the Guardian. With the newspaper’s reputation at stake, the editor asked them to take with them a veteran reporter, Ewen MacAskill. On June 1, the trio boarded a sixteen-hour flight between New York and Hong Kong.
Snowden had sent a small amount of documents to Greenwald, about twenty in all, but Laura had received a much larger batch, which she had not yet had a chance to read carefully enough. On board the plane, Greenwald began examining them, eventually arriving at a secret court order demanding that the Verizon telephone company turn over the telephone records of its customers to the NSA. The four-page court order had been issued by the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court, a body whose decisions are secret. [The court was created by the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act, Fisa, to authorize wiretapping that involve US citizens]. Although there were rumors that the NSA had been amassing huge amounts of phone records in the United States, the government had always denied the fact.
Laura, sitting twenty rows behind Greenwald, ended up going to the front to talk about what he was reading. While the passenger next to him slept, Greenwald pointed to the Fisa order on his monitor and asked Laura, “Did you see this? Does this document really say what I think it says?”
At times, the two talked with such excitement that they ended up disturbing the passengers trying to sleep; so they decided to settle down. “It was an amazing moment,” said Greenwald. “It’s only when you look at these documents that you get an idea of their scope. It was an adrenaline rush. For the first time, you feel that you have power in the face of an outsized system that you try to undermine and expose – but usually you can’t go very far, because you don’t have the tools to do so. Now the instruments had fallen into our laps.”
Snowden had recommended that, in Hong Kong, Greenwald and Laura go at a certain time to the Kowloon district, stopping at the door of a restaurant in a shopping center connected to the Mira Hotel. There, they would have to wait until a man appeared carrying a magic cube, and then they would have to ask him what time the restaurant would open. The man would answer but then tell them the food was bad. When the man with the magic cube appeared, it was Edward Snowden, who was 29 at the time but looked even younger.
“We almost fell behind when we saw how young she was,” said Laura, still with surprise in her voice. “I had no idea. I assumed I was dealing with someone who was in a high position and therefore older. But I also knew from our correspondence that he was a person with an incredible knowledge of computer systems, which made me imagine him a little younger. So I imagined a person in their 40s, someone used to using computers all their life, but who had already reached a higher position.”
In our exchange of encrypted messages, Snowden also commented on the meeting: “I think they were disappointed to see that I was younger than they expected, and I was disappointed to see them arrive a little too early, which complicated the initial check. . Once we found ourselves indoors, however, I think the obsessive precautions and the evident good faith of what was said made everyone more relaxed.”
The two accompanied Snowden to his room, where Laura pulled out her camera, immediately assuming her role as a documentary filmmaker. “I was a little tense, a little uncomfortable,” Greenwald said of those opening minutes. “We sat down, and started chatting, while Laura immediately set up her camera. As soon as she turned on the device, I remember very clearly that both he and I were completely stiff.”
Greenwald began the interview. “I wanted to check the consistency of what he said, and get as much information as possible, because I knew it could affect my credibility. We were only able to establish a natural connection after the first five or six hours.”
For Laura, the camera certainly affects people’s behavior, but not in a negative way. When someone agrees to be filmed – even if consent is obtained indirectly when she turns on the camera – it is a gesture of trust that always increases the emotional tension of the occasion. What Greenwald experienced as a moment of tension, Laura saw as a special bond between them, who began to share an immense risk. “It’s a very concrete emotion when you see that they trust you,” she said.
Snowden, though surprised, got used to it. “As you can imagine, spies are usually allergic to any contact with reporters or the press, so I was a virgin source – everything was a surprise to me… But the three of us knew what was at stake. In fact, the weight of the situation made it easier for us to focus on the public interest rather than our own. I think we all understood that once Laura turned on the camera, there was no going back.”
For the next week, the preparations for the three of them followed the same pattern – as soon as they entered Snowden’s room, they took the batteries out of their cell phones and stored them in the room’s minibar. Pillows were propped against the door so that nothing could be heard outside, and then Laura cocked the camera and began filming. It was important for Snowden to explain to the two at once how the US government’s spy machine worked because he feared he would be arrested at any moment.
Greenwald’s first reports – including the first reporting the court order received by Verizon that he read on the flight to Hong Kong – were published while Snowden was still being interviewed by him and Laura. This gave rise to a very peculiar experience, that of creating a news together and then being able to watch it as it spread. “It was possible to follow the repercussions”, said Laura. “Our work was very focused, and it required our attention, but we could see on the TV that it was working. We were in that closed circle, and we knew the reverberations around us, they could be seen and felt.”
Snowden had told them, prior to their arrival in Hong Kong, that he wanted to reveal who he was. He wanted to take responsibility for what he did, Laura said, and he didn’t want others to be unfairly targeted. He also imagined that at some point he would end up being identified. Laura produced a twelve-and-a-half-minute video with Snowden that was posted online on June 9, just days after Greenwald’s first articles were published. From there, a veritable media circus was set up in Hong Kong, with reporters doing their best to discover the whereabouts of the three.
There are a number of subjects Laura Poitras chose not to talk to me about on the record (for publication), and others she hasn’t even agreed to address – some for security or legal reasons, others because she wants to be the first to tell crucial parts of her story in her own documentary. About the way she and Snowden said their goodbyes after the video was posted, she just told me: “He and I knew that when the video was released, that stage of the work would be over.”
Snowden left his hotel and disappeared. Some reporters found out where Laura was staying – she and Greenwald were at different hotels – and started calling her room. At one point, someone knocked on the door and called her name. She already knew that Greenwald had also been located, so she called hotel security and asked them to escort her out of a back door.
Laura tried to stay in Hong Kong a little longer, thinking Snowden might want to see her again, and also because she was interested in filming the Chinese reaction to his revelations. But now she herself had become a target of interest. On June 15, while filming a pro-Snowden demonstration outside the US consulate, Laura was recognized by a CNN reporter, who began asking her questions. She refused to answer and slipped away. The same night, he left Hong Kong.
Laura flew directly to Berlin, where in the fall of last year she had rented an apartment to edit her documentary without fear that the FBI might show up at any time with a search warrant for her hard drives. “I constantly make a distinction between places where I feel I can have privacy or not,” she said, “and that line is getting narrower.” And he added: “I’m not going to stop what I’m doing, but I preferred to leave the United States. I literally felt that I had no way to protect my material in the country, and that was even before I was approached by Snowden. If you promise someone that you will protect you as your source, but you know the government is monitoring you or might seize your laptop, it turns out to be impossible to do.”
After two weeks in Berlin, Laura Poitras traveled to Rio de Janeiro, where I was with her and Greenwald a few days later. My first stop was the hotel in Copacabana, where they were working that day with MacAskill and another Guardian reporter, James Ball. Laura was editing a new video about Snowden to be posted in a few days on the Guardian website. Greenwald was working on another article of immense interest, this time about the close collaboration between Microsoft and the NSA. The room was full – there weren’t enough chairs for everyone, and there was always someone sitting on the bed or on the floor. A large number of flash drives circulated among those present, although no one told me what they contained.
Laura and Greenwald were worried about Snowden. They hadn’t heard from him since Hong Kong. By that time, he was trapped in diplomatic limbo in the transit passenger area of Moscow’s Sheremetyevo Airport and was the most wanted man on the planet, accused by the US government of espionage. (The Russians would later grant her temporary asylum.) The video Laura had been working on, using material recorded in Hong Kong, would be the first image the world had seen of Snowden in over a month.
“Now that he’s incommunicado, we don’t even know if we’ll ever talk to him again,” Laura said. “And is he all right?” asked MacAskill. “His lawyer said yes,” Greenwald replied. “But the lawyer is not in direct contact with Snowden,” Laura recalled.
When Greenwald arrived home that night, Snowden contacted him over the Internet. Two days later, while working at Greenwald’s house, Laura also heard from him.
It was getting dark, and animal cries and bird calls came from the woods around the house. These sounds were mixed with the barking of five or six dogs as I walked through the entrance gate. Through one of the windows, I saw Laura in the living room, concentrating on one of her computers. I walked through a screen door, she looked at me for a second and went back to work, oblivious to the cacophony around her. At the end of ten minutes, he closed his computer and mumbled an apology, saying he needed to take some action.
e showed no emotion, nor did he tell me he had just exchanged encrypted messages with Snowden. I didn’t insist, but a few days later, after I got back to New York and she went to Berlin, I asked her if that was what she was doing that night. She confirmed it, but commented that she didn’t want to talk about it at the time because the more she talks about her interactions with Snowden, the more distance she feels from them.
“It’s a very unique emotional experience,” Laura said, “to be approached by a complete stranger who tells you he’s going to risk his life to expose things the audience needs to know. He was putting his life on the line, and he decided to entrust this burden to me. I want to keep an emotional relationship with this experience.”
His connection to Snowden and the material, he continued to explain, is what will drive his work. “I’m touched by what he sees as the horror of today’s world, and what he imagines could still happen. And I want to pass this along with as much resonance as possible. If I were to be doing endless TV interviews, it’s the kind of thing that would take me away from what I need to stay tuned to. This is not just a scoop. It’s a person’s life.”
Laura Poitras and Glenn Greenwald are particularly dramatic examples of how independent journalism works in 2013. Neither works in a newsroom, and they insist on personally controlling everything that is published, and at what time. When the Guardian didn’t publish the first article dealing with Verizon as quickly as they’d expected, Greenwald considered repurpose the text, sending an encrypted copy to a colleague who works in another vehicle. He also thought of creating a website on which they could publish everything, which he planned to dub the NSA Disclosures, something like NSA Disclosures. In the end, the Guardian decided to publish his articles. But Laura and Greenwald have created their own dissemination network, with reports in other vehicles in Germany and Brazil, which they plan to diversify even further in the future. They have not shared with anyone the entirety of the documents they hold.
“We have partnerships with news outlets, but we feel our primary responsibility is the risk our source took and the public interest in the information they gave us,” Laura said. “A random press organization only appears on our list after that.”
Unlike many mainstream press reporters, neither Laura nor Greenwald has a facade of political indifference. Greenwald has not spoken out for years; on Twitter, he recently responded to someone who criticized him saying, “You are a complete asshole. And you know that, don’t you?” His left-wing political views, combined with his cutting style, made him disliked by many in the political establishment . His work with Laura is labeled militant and harmful to national security.
Laura, while not as prone to controversy as Greenwald, disagrees with the idea that their work is militancy. “Of course I have my opinions,” she said. “Want to know if I think state surveillance is out of control? Think. It’s a scary thing, and it’s really good for people to be scared. We have a parallel and secret government that keeps growing, always invoking national security and without the supervision or national discussion that would be thought necessary in a democracy. And I’m not saying this out of militancy. We have documents that confirm everything.”
Laura has a skill that is vital – and still rare among journalists – in an era when official espionage is so commonplace: she knows how to protect herself from monitoring. As Snowden said, “from what is being revealed this year, it is very clear that any unprotected communication between journalist and source is an unpardonable oversight.”
A new generation of sources, like Snowden or Bradley Manning [the soldier who leaked documents to WikiLeaks], have access not just to a handful of secrets, but to thousands at once, thanks to their ability to collect them in protected networks. These sources prefer to share their secrets not with the biggest vehicles and their reporters, but with reporters with whom they have a political affinity and who manage to receive the leaks without anyone noticing.
In the chat that I had with him, an exchange of encrypted messages in real time, Snowden explained why he decided to look for Laura: “Laura and Glenn are among the few who have fearlessly investigated controversial issues throughout this period. , even facing personal criticism, which in Laura’s case ended up making her the target of the same programs involved in the recent revelations. She has demonstrated that she has the courage, personal experience and ability to tackle what is perhaps the most dangerous mission a journalist can ever be given – revealing secret wrongdoings by the most powerful government in the world. So it was an obvious choice.”
Snowden’s revelations have become the center of Laura Poitras’ documentary on surveillance and espionage, but she has also found herself involved in a new dynamic, as she cannot avoid appearing as a character in her own film. She has never narrated her previous films or appeared in them, and says she intends to continue acting that way, but realizes she will need to be represented in some way, and has been wondering how she can do it.
At the same time, Laura has been assessing her legal vulnerability. She and Greenwald haven’t been charged with anything yet, at least so far. The two do not intend to stay out of the United States forever, but neither has immediate plans to return to the country. A member of Congress has already compared what the two did to a form of treason, and both are well aware of the unprecedented harassment by the Obama administration of not only those responsible for information leaks but also the journalists who receive those leaks. While I was with them, they talked about the possibilities to come back. Greenwald says arresting them would be unwise for the government, given the bad publicity it would produce. Furthermore, it would not stop the flow of information.
He spoke when we were returning to his house in a taxi, at the end of a busy day. It was dark outside. Greenwald asked Laura: “Since this all started, have you ever had no NSA?”
“And what is this?” she asked. “I think we need a day like this,” said Greenwald. “Not that I’ll be able to get it out.”
Laura talked about going back to yoga classes. Greenwald said he intended to resume his regular tennis practice. “I’m willing to get old because of this story,” he said, “but not to get fat.”
The conversation between the two turned to the question of returning to the United States. Greenwald said, half jokingly, that if he were arrested WikiLeaks would be the next to publish the NSA documents. “I just need to say: ‘Okay, this is my friend Julian Assange, who’s going to take my place. Have fun dealing with it.”
And Laura asked him, “You mean you’re going back to the United States?”
He laughed and recalled that, unfortunately, the government didn’t always make the wisest decisions. “If they had any sense,” he replied, “I would come back.”
Laura smiled, even though the subject was difficult for her. Laura is not as outgoing or relaxed a person as Greenwald, which makes the pair’s chemistry even more unusual. She worries about their physical safety. And he’s also concerned, of course, with espionage. “Your location on the planet is most important of all,” she says. “I want to stay out of their coverage as much as possible. I don’t intend to make it easy for them. If they want to follow me, they’re going to have to work hard. I won’t go around flashing any GPS. Where I am is important to me. Important in a new way that I didn’t know before.”
There are a lot of people angry at the two, and a lot of governments, as well as private entities, who wouldn’t bother at all to get their hands on the thousands of NSA documents that the pair still control. The two have only published a handful of them – a top secret handful capable of generating headlines and congressional audiences – and it seems unlikely that they will ever publish them all, in the style of WikiLeaks. Laura and Greenwald continue to keep more secrets than they reveal, at least for now.
“We have an open window to this world that we are still trying to understand,” said Laura Poitras in one of our last conversations. “We don’t want to keep it all a secret, we want to assemble the puzzle. It’s a project that will take time. Our intention is to reveal what is of public interest, but also to gain a good understanding of what this world is, and then try to make it known.”
The deeper paradox, of course, is that the effort the two have been making to understand and denounce government espionage may have doomed both to being perpetually monitored.
“Our lives will never be the same again,” Laura said. “I don’t know if I’ll ever be able to live somewhere and feel like I have privacy. This may have become totally impossible.”””
Peter Maass was born in 1960 and raised in Los Angeles. After graduating from the University of California at Berkeley, he went to Brussels as a copy editor for The Wall Street Journal/Europe. He left the Journal in 1985 to write for The New York Times and The International Herald Tribune, covering NATO and the European Union. In 1987 he moved to Seoul, South Korea, where he wrote primarily for The Washington Post. After three years in Asia he moved to Budapest to cover Eastern Europe and the Balkans. He spent most of 1992 and 1993 covering the war in Bosnia for the Post. In 1997, after working for a year in Washington as a staff writer for the Post, he left the paper and moved to New York City, where he has written for The New York Times Magazine, The New Yorker, The New York Review of Books and Foreign Policy, among others. His latest book is Crude World: The Violent Twilight of Oil, published by Knopf. He is currently working on a book for Knopf about video, surveillance and revolution in an era of drones and cellphones.