A New Documentary Followed Edward Snowden from the Moment He Blew the Whistle

We spoke to director Laura Poitras about her new film, <i>Citizenfour</i>.

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30 oktober 2014, 3:07pm

NSA whistleblower Edward Snowden (Photo via)

As an NSA systems operator, Edward Snowden – as we well know – was privy to plenty of information the American government didn’t want in the public domain. However, as an NSA systems operator, and not a journalist, Snowden wasn’t particularly well versed in how he should spread that information.

Searching for someone who could help, he came across the documentary-maker Laura Poitras – who’d produced a number of films that were critical of the War on Terror – at the beginning of 2013 and began to share what he knew. In June of that year, Poitras flew to Hong Kong with the Guardian journalist Glenn Greenwald to meet with Snowden. There, they made a short film in which the NSA whistleblower introduced himself to the world.

Laura Poitras (Photo via)

Poitras kept her camera on from there, documenting what followed in real-time, from Snowden making contact with the three journalists who would help him to uncover the American government’s secretive surveillance programme, to his escape after receiving political asylum in Russia.

All that footage – edited down into a succinct 114 minutes – is about to be released in a new documentary named Citizenfour. Earlier this week I spoke to Poitras about the experience and her thoughts on the surveillance state.

The trailer for Citizenfour

VICE: Hi Laura. In your film, Snowden says that "the modern media has too much of a focus on personalities [...] I’m not the story". Looking back, do you think it would have been better for him to maintain his anonymity?
Laura Poitras:
Edward made the decision that he would come forward as the source of the information – that was a choice he'd made before we met in Hong Kong. The curiosity and public speculation about him was inevitable, which is why I said that I wanted to meet with him and film. I felt that his personal motivation did matter, and only he could articulate why he made the choice that he did. I’m interested in exploring why someone so young – who has so much to lose – is willing to risk so much.

All NSA employees sign a contract pledging an oath to secrecy. What would your response be to people who fault Snowden for going back on his word?
I think that, yes, he crossed the line. But what he exposed were much greater violations of public trust. The government was lying about what it was doing in terms of surveillance. The film shows footage of James Clapper, the director of National Intelligence, specifically stating that the NSA is not collecting data on US citizens.

We learn in Hong Kong that, in fact, they are. I think the wrongs that Edward has exposed are much worse than the violation of the contract he signed when he was hired. He’s somebody who believes in the constitution, and he felt that what he was seeing were violations of law.

What do you think would have happened if Snowden hadn’t come forward?
They're collecting the metadata of all calls in the United States, but clearly they don’t suspect every US citizen of being complicit in crime. The reason is that they want to be able to sift through the information and go back in time, which is ultimately a violation of our constitution; we have a rule of law, The Fourth Amendment, which states that you need probable cause to search someone’s communications property. So why are they doing it? I think this is really a question to be directed at the US government. 

Some people have said they don’t mind if their phone calls are monitored if it helps to maintain a high level of security. Perhaps these are people who think, ‘I’m not a criminal, so what have I got to hide?’ But where it becomes more complex is the grey area where you have actions that aren’t necessarily against the law, but are against the government. For example, demonstrations, or protests, which every community should have a right to partake in.

Yeah, and authorities now have the ability to crack down on participants harder than ever.
You have local law enforcements that are putting up what are called "empty catchers", which are fake cell phone towers that can collect the phone records of people who gather at a protest. These kinds of things do create a chilling effect in society. Also, I think that if you were to ask the same people who make that argument, "Can I have the password for your email account and the keys to your house, and do you mind if I put a camera in your home and activate the camera in your laptop?" they would say no.

A protester at Berlin's annual "Freedom Not Fear" demonstration in August of 2014 (Photo via)

How prevalent is the use of laptop cameras for surveillance?
Well, they are using them, which The Guardian has reported on. There have also been investigations into people’s private Skype communications, also reported by The Guardian. I think these really are intrusions into people’s privacy, and if you present these cases to most people, they agree that the government shouldn't have that kind of access or power.

I do think that one concern is related to their perception of the state and whether the state would target them. So as a journalist, for instance, it's very disconcerting that the government can find out who I speak to on the telephone. In the US we also have journalists who are being subpoenaed to find out who their sources are; it’s becoming increasingly hard for journalists to do their jobs and protect sources, which will then affect the ability of the press to do their job, which is to, I believe, hold power accountable.

Do you think America's moving towards having less of a free press, then?
No, I wouldn’t say that. I’m able to report. I don’t feel like I’m threatened in terms of anyone trying to stop me. But I do feel that there has been a crackdown and that the US government has been more aggressive against investigative journalism forces than they have ever been. The Obama administration has been targeting the sources of whistleblowers and using the Espionage Act to prosecute them, which is very disturbing – but I don’t think that equals not having a free press.

What about in the UK?
I think the environment in the UK is really very problematic. You have The Official Secrets Act, which has made the reporting that The Guardian has done on GCHQ and the NSA very difficult, and you have the use of DA-notices, which seems to have kept other news outlets from reporting on surveillance intelligence. The UK government put a lot of pressure on The Guardian, overseeing the destruction of their computers and hard drives. The paper was threatened with an injunction and were attacked with very serious threats. I think the US is a better environment to work on these issues right now, and I’ve been advised by my lawyers not to travel to the UK at the moment.

A "Thank You Edward Snowden" bus in Washington, DC (Photo via)

Do you believe mass surveillance is an effective way of counteracting terrorism?
The problem with bulk collecting is that the intelligence agencies are literally swimming in data; they’re missing leads. We’ve seen this happen time and time again when something happens, and looking back there's actually a very concrete lead – a warning that was given that wasn't paid attention to. So I think the fact that the governments of the US and the UK are collecting so much information [doesn't mean] that they're actually making us safer. They're not focusing on legitimate leads, but instead are sifting through millions of people’s data.

What do you think has changed since the Snowden leaks?
I think there's been a change in consciousness, but there have also been legal challenges, particularly in the US. People are now challenging the collection of metadata as being a violation of the constitution. Some judges have agreed, although there’s one who hasn’t. But now we have documentation it’s working its way through the court system, and that’s ongoing. However, right now the programmes do still exist.

What precautions do you personally take against surveillance?
The precautions I take for encryption and privacy are maybe not the ones that everyone needs to take, but there are some really basic tools that everyone can use that are free. The Electronic Frontier Foundation, which is an organisation in the US, has just posted a surveillance self defence guide, where you can look at the threats that specifically affect you. So it says, "If you’re an activist you should worry about these things; if you’re a journalist you should worry about these thing, and here are tools to use." The tools free and easy to use. There are ways to encrypt cell phone calls, texts, emails and chats, and all these things would take an average person less than a day to figure out.

What's next for you?
I’ve been working for a while on American post 9/11 issues. Unfortunately the US government has been engaging in policies that I find contrary to what the fundamental principles of the country are. An example of that is the drone programme. I'll continue to keep working on these kinds of themes because I think, as a journalist and a documentarian, they are important. It’s our role to look closely at what our government is doing.

Thanks, Laura.

Citizenfour opens in UK cinemas tomorrow, on the 31st of October. For more information visit citizenfourfilm.com

More stories about surveillance:

How the Surveillance State Changes Our Everyday Lives

This Is How Londoners React to a Flying Drone in 2014

The Town Promising to Shoot Surveillance Drones Out of the Sky