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The Woman Who Captured Snowden

A few years ago, the artist and filmmaker Laura Poitras began a documentary about spying. She couldn't have imagined what she would end up seeing.

Oct 20 2014, 3:27pm

Laura Poitras. Image: Olaf Blecker

I get my face photographed and printed on a temporary ID card that I deposit into a slot and I get on an elevator and am led down a hallway. On a desk, I spot a signed letter with the Vice President's seal. I'm brought into a windowless room, and there is the filmmaker Laura Poitras. On a coffee table is a MacBook Pro with a sticker that says "National Security Agency—Monitored Device." Behind her, there's a framed Ricky Gervais poster. We are at the offices of HBO, which began discussions to acquire the TV rights to her new film, "Citizenfour," even before it was finished, which was not long before it premiered at the New York Film Festival to a standing ovation. We shake hands and I display my recorder. "Mind if I record?" I ask.

She laughs briefly and agrees. "That's very respectful, given the context."

The context is quite serious. It was a 12-minute video made by Poitras in June 2013 that attached a name and a face to disclosures of a massive secret and legally dubious global surveillance system. A year earlier, Poitras became the first journalist to communicate with the NSA contractor Edward J. Snowden, then anonymously. While she shared bylines on stories in the Guardian, the Washington Post, the Times and Der Spiegel, much of the print reporting was done by Glenn Greenwald and others, most recently at The Intercept, the upstart outlet where Poitras is also now also a founding editor. She has been in more of a hide-out mode, working on her much-anticipated documentary on multiple computers out of a bunker-like editing studio in Berlin. She moved there from New York in 2012, after years of being stopped at the airport nearly every time she tried to fly; starting in 2006, her airplane tickets were marked "SSSS" for Secondary Security Screening Selection, subjecting her to extra scrutiny at the borders.

She is no longer stopped, but wagers that she is still watched by her own government. She uses her cell phone sparingly and has become an expert in encrypted communications. "I really do feel that there are some really angry powerful people, mad at the reporting that we're doing," she told me. "I should expect they're paying attention to my communications and who I spend time with."

At the film's arresting end, there is a revelation about the scale of the US government's terrorist watchlist. I asked her if she thought that by speaking with her, I would also end up on such a list.

Poitras smiled for a moment. "When Snowden was talking to me, I did warn my friends. I said, 'if it's real, there's going to be a massive investigation into this leak. And all the people I know and am in touch with might be pulled into it. They might not even know it, they might not be called." But, she assured me, "I don't think you're included in that category."

Despite the heaviness, some of the most powerful moments of "Citizenfour," which arrives in theaters on October 24, are the little bits of intimacy Poitras captures in the midst of emergency, a wound-up tension hovering in the air—moments that are mundane, boring, and even funny.

"Pro tip," Snowden says at one point as he sits on a rumpled queen-size bed and discovers Greenwald has left an SD card with classified documents inside his laptop. "Let's remember to change this out every once in a while." The funny here is a nervous-laughter kind of funny. It's funny because it's not really that funny. Here's an IT guy admonishing a journalist for poor security hygiene—familiar enough. But the stakes are somewhat greater, absurdly, comically greater.

Pro tips: Snowden and Greenwald in the hotel room. Image: TwC/Radius

Greenwald's expression is somewhere between befuddlement and doom—of information overload, of the momentousness of the story, of confusion over a young man who SEEMS TO BE condemning himself to a life of pain.

And then Snowden drapes a red hood over himself and his computer screen—this is to avoid visual surveillance—and starts typing. It's a moment of near tinfoil-hat paranoia that contains its own incredulousness and self-parody. The camera pans to the puzzled, anxious look on Greenwald's face, which expresses everything about the enormity and surreality of the situation. ("This isn't science fiction," Snowden tells Greenwald at one point. "It's really happening.") Here in this room, history is being made, and these people are right in the middle of it, and we are too. Greenwald's is an expression for us, somewhere between befuddlement and doom—of information overload, of the momentousness of the story, of confusion over a young man who seems to be condemning himself to a life of pain.

Snowden reached out to Poitras, in part, he said, because he had seen "The Program," a short film she had made about the NSA mathematician Bill Binney and his attempts to end the agency's post-9/11 approach to domestic surveillance by working "within the system." In 2007, his house was raided by armed FBI agents during an investigation into a 2005 New York Times exposé on the agency's warrantless eavesdropping program. "The Program" was an unusual film for Poitras. Instead of action, it is comprised of an interview with a man sitting in a chair and shots of a construction site in Utah. Still, it manages to be gripping and dramatic.

"When I started receiving these emails, I had a sense, 'Okay, this was going to find its way into a film or some other art project,' but it was clear I was being pulled into a journey that felt a lot like a drama, in terms of what he was communicating to me and the risks it was clear that were being taken." Despite having made long tours in Iraq and Yemen during the height of the War on Terror for the two previous films in her post-9/11 saga, "My Country My Country" and "The Oath," Poitras said that by the end, "Citizenfour" felt to her "like the most dangerous film I've ever made. And I made films in Iraq when there were bombings and beheadings. It was pretty clear we were going to anger some very powerful people."

With Snowden at its center, "Citizenfour" brings into relief a central paradox of the story. To validate the evidence he has, Snowden must come forward and not "lurk in the shadows," he says. But in coming out, he risks overshadowing the evidence he's sought to expose. He knows he's turning the spotlight onto himself. Snowden's paradox echoes Poitras's too: how to tell a story you're part of without becoming the focus, without distracting from the story at hand.

"You ask why I picked you," Snowden wrote to her early on, in a missive that sounds poetic when she reads it in her hushed voice. "I didn't. You did. The surveillance you've experienced means you've been selected," which means that "From now, know that every border you cross, every purchase you make, every call you dial, every cell phone tower you pass, friend you keep, article you write, site you visit, subject line you type, and packet you route, is in the hands of a system whose reach is unlimited but whose safeguards are not." He concluded, "This is a story that few but you can tell."

A still from Poitras's "O'Say Can You See" (2011)

"Citizenfour" is, like her previous films, a study in crisis. In the first piece she filmed after 9/11, a 2011 video installation called "O'Say Can You See," anonymous faces on screen are staring at something. The video and soundtrack are slowed down to an eerie, haunting crawl. It turns out to be footage of tourists at Ground Zero in October of 2001, set to the distorted sound of the National Anthem recorded at the Yankees' World Series Game 4 that month. Poitras's deep-eyed expression sometimes looks like these faces, as if staring into something with wistfulness and horror.

Since 2001, she's made three other feature-length documentaries: "Flag Wars," about tensions between gay and black communities in a gentrifying Columbus, Ohio, and the first two of her post-9/11 films. Poitras seems to spend so much time with her subjects that they forget she's there, and we nearly do too. In "Citizenfour" Poitras appears only fleetingly on screen. But the film is also more personal essay than her other movies, starting with the first frame: text she reads about her own experience getting stopped at borders. She may be an unobtrusive fly on the wall, but in a world of surveillance, the story Snowden tells her is a drama she is already a character in.

Because Snowden communicated with her, she said, "it had to be a subjective film in that sense. But all my films kind of do that. They follow people, and what you learn is what are the choices that people make in the midst of conflict, and how do they respond to that. That's what drama is about."

Rather than showing and discussing the leaked documents themselves—they are largely absent from the film—Poitras's patient camera dwells on small, quiet human moments that tell of an unresolved inner turmoil. The hotel room scenes—the eye of the film's storm—are a prime example of her methodical, slow approach to a subject. They're also some of the most nail-biting moments I've seen in a documentary. Poitras captures the scene without disrupting it, which is all the more difficult because she was also right in the middle of it.

Her focus is the citizen of the film's title, the codename Snowden used in emails to Poitras to indicate the lineage of NSA whistleblowers who have come before (Binney, J. Kirk Wiebe, and Thomas Drake). Snowden is eloquent, thoughtful, sharp-witted, resolute, and cool, but he also shows a glimmer of lament for the girlfriend he left at home and a concern about his own rapidly unfolding fate. Snowden typing unseen messages to his girlfriend from the hotel room; Snowden watching CNN as the revelations emerge; Snowden shaving, trying to figure out a getaway disguise. Poitras's camera is front and center for other little bits of history in the making too: at an Occupy Wall Street surveillance workshop with Jacob Appelbaum, in a courtroom for an NSA lawsuit, and at the airport, with the rest of the media scrum, after Glenn Greenwald's husband David was detained on terrorism charges.

"I'm more interested in being with Glenn at the airport to pick up David when it's actually happening than I am interested in sitting him down in a chair and lighting him and asking him what it was like when David was detained," she said. "If you read any play or go to any Hollywood movie, they usually happen in the moment. It's about action. Action. What choice do you make now with these set of conflicts you're trying to narrate. It's not about people saying, 'well, I grew up here...' There's something about how we look at the past which has a kind of finality and closure to it, where life doesn't usually happen that way."

Pro tip: bring a printer

On the morning of June 3, Poitras and Greenwald met Snowden at a restaurant in Hong Kong and quietly followed him to his hotel room. Filming started soon after the door closed. The Rubik's cube he used to signal his identity can be seen on the nightstand.

"I did take my camera out really quick," she said. "I knew Glenn would hit the ground running. I didn't want to come all this way and miss something because I am trying to be polite and not document what was happening. And I really wanted to document this encounter. Because I thought that this is something that is going to be one of the rarest things you're ever going to see. It's a moment in journalism that is usually told after the fact."

The schedule was accelerated and helter-skelter. "From landing to meeting, to getting a briefing of documents, to Glenn publishing, to his girlfriend getting a visit, to the media impact, to filming the interview and editing the interview and publishing, there wasn't a lot of time to second guess. We went by our gut."

Snowden was skeptical. 'So I made an argument of why it would be of importance to have a record. It's not every day that somebody risks so much.'

Getting to that moment took careful planning and some argument. Given the government's recent scrutiny of reporters like James Rosen and James Risen in leak cases, Poitras consulted with lawyers in New York before traveling to Hong Kong. In April, her anonymous source surprised her by saying that eventually, he did not want to remain anonymous: once the disclosures happened, he would be unmasked by the government anyway. "My personal desire is that you paint the target directly on my back," Snowden told Poitras in an early email that appears in the film. Instead of letting the government identify him or feed speculation that his actions were sinister, Snowden insists on "immediately nailing me to the cross instead of protecting me as a source." On the idea of leaking anonymously, Snowden says at one point, "Fuck that."

After he made his decision, Poitras proposed that he appear on camera. Snowden was skeptical.

"There were two reasons," she said. "One was that he didn't want to become the story. But also, he was worried about us being in the same place at the same time. If they"—government agents—"had come in and they shut us down, how to make sure that the risks he had taken to reveal information didn't end there?"

Poitras, who was already more than a year into her surveillance documentary, pushed back. "I said that 'really, it's important for you to articulate your motivations and for me to understand your motivation. It's important because people are going to speculate.'" Snowden, she added, "had taken every risk there was to be taken." A video camera "added risk, but added risk to what? He risked pretty much everything. So I made an argument of why it would be of importance to have a record. It's not every day that somebody risks so much."

Being on camera took adjustment for Greenwald and Snowden. "As one might imagine, normally spies allergically avoid contact with reporters or media, so I was a virgin source — everything was a surprise," Snowden told the Times last year. "But we all knew what was at stake. The weight of the situation actually made it easier to focus on what was in the public interest rather than our own. I think we all knew there was no going back once she turned the camera on."

Poitras also promised excellent security for the source material. In Hong Kong, she said, "I had a contact locally, I was doing a drop-off. I had encrypted drives I was backing up to. I was destroying the original media because you can't encrypt it when you record it. I had backup drives in case anybody knocked on the door." She also had encryption tools, multiple computers, and a camera, the Sony FS-100 and a light tripod. "When we met, I wanted to look like I was not carrying a bunch of camera gear, so I just had a bag, all my camera gear fit inside something about that size," she said, pointing at a leather handbag on the floor.

She also brought a small printer. "I wanted to be able to ask questions and print them out and not have to go to some random print location, leaving trails of the questions I was going to be asking."

The tension of those days is captured in Greenwald's uneasy looks. The experience of Hong Kong was "sort of like being in free fall," she said. "We don't know where this was going or what was going to happen, and just hoped that the skills I had as a filmmaker and Glenn had as journalist would serve us well to do this work."

I thought her argument to Snowden about why he should appear on camera echoed the challenge of journalism in an age when journalists themselves are embattled—how much is too much risk in telling a story? And also: the challenges of disclosing classified information, and of conducting widespread surveillance too: on balance, do the benefits of doing a thing outweigh the costs? And who should decide?

Poitras isn't completely opposed to surveillance or government secrecy, but believes there is far too much of both. "The critique that Snowden has made, that Glenn has made, and I agree with, is this mass, bulk, global, suspicion-less taking in everything," she said. "The dangers of it, the rights it violates—and, I would argue, it also makes intelligence harder, to find the people to worry about."

Laura Poitras and some of the "Citizenfour" cast, along with the Snowden family, at the New York Film Festival. Image: Alex Pasternack

The story around the story

"Citizenfour" is not just a piece of journalism about a giant surveillance system and the man who disclosed it, in what former CIA deputy director Michael Morell has called the "most serious compromise of classified information in the history of the U.S. intelligence community." It is also a kind of primary source, a subjective view of a historical story. And in its telling of the telling, it's also about journalism, and the new and bewildering ways it's done now.

"Part of the impact of these stories is not just the content of the information, but that it sort of unfolded in a different way," Poitras said. "The combination of the accelerated speed at which Glenn was working, and also being able to put video out there. I think it kind of put the establishment on their heels in every way. Everybody is scrambling to deal with how we're approaching it. And for us it was very organic. We didn't have some big master plan, like we're gonna release this document or this one. We did it in a way that didn't play by the rule books."

For Poitras and Greenwald, who reviewed some of the documents on the airplane to Hong Kong, Snowden seemed like a trustworthy source. But he was much younger—and much calmer—than they could have imagined. "It was remarkable," she said. "We arrived nervous, disoriented, and we were also surprised at how young he was. And he was just completely calm. He was just totally at peace. He was like, okay, I trust you guys."

A glimmer of skepticism appears in the form of veteran Guardian journalist Ewen MacAskill, who shows up a day later to play the "babysitter" and ensure Snowden is who he says he is. His game face, as he squints at the source and clicks his ballpoint pen into submission, is telling. After Snowden describes a part of the British surveillance mechanism, MacAskill says, "So I don't know anything about you." There's a slight accusation in his tone. "I don't even know your name."

"I spent two hours trying to establish who he was," MacAskill told me. It wasn't until Snowden showed him his IDs did MacAskill start to believe him. Later, after Snowden described breaking his legs while training for the US Special Forces, MacAskill said he thought, "this is absurd, this guy is nuts." His trust in Snowden "wasn't constant" until he and editors at the newspaper received confirmation from the NSA and the White House that the documents were real.

The tenseness is tightened even more by Snowden's supernaturally cool look when he's on camera. "I'm more willing to risk imprisonment than curtailment of my intellectual freedom," said Snowden. "I remember what the internet was like before it was being watched. There's never been anything like it in the world."

While the film leaves a number of aspects of the story unexplored—Snowden's life in Russia, concerns about the extent of the disclosures, and what does and doesn't deserve to be secret—documenting Snowden in the moment allows Poitras to address questions about his character and his motives. It also humanizes him in a way that resists the valorizing and vilifying tones that have colored his portrayal in the media.

"She's made him a likeable personality, for whom these principles are important," MacAskill said. "He's got a sense of humor, and he's part of that generation, living in the digital age."

Lonnie Snowden, Edward's father, attended the film's premiere at the New York Film Festival; on-stage afterwards, Poitras invited him up, and he thanked her. I asked him later if he thought the movie added a new dimension to the public's understanding of his son.

"Time will tell," he said. But, he added "there is no new dimension, so to speak. Edward Snowden is consistent and stable. That's why so many of us knew from minute one, for him to do that, to make that Guardian video, that he was exposed to something that absolutely was a moral hazard that he could not live with. There was no question. All of the talk of 'fame seeking'—anybody who knows him would laugh at the characterization of him being a narcissist."

"The bottom line is we're having this debate—this false debate," he said. "'Is he a hero or a patriot or a traitor?' We like to use words like 'whistleblower' or 'leaker.' He's a truth-teller. They're persecuting him because he told the truth."

"Documentaries are a powerful distribution channel for the truth," he added. "When you have powerful people in society who fear the truth, you have a real problem."

Poitras was born in Boston, Massachusetts, and after high school moved to San Francisco to work as a chef, making French food at upscale restaurants. After the restaurant workers were unionized, Poitras's long days shrunk to eight hours, leaving her time to take classes at the San Francisco Art Institute. There, she studied filmmaking with the avant-garde filmmakers Ernie Gehr and George Kuchar. In 1992, she moved to New York to study political theory and documentary filmmaking at the New School for Social Research. On 9/11 she was in Manhattan. Intrigued by the aftermath of that day, she began traveling to Iraq in 2004 to film "My Country My Country." In 2006, she would be stopped and searched at the border, in the first of more than 40 instances.

"When I was first stopped, I was naive," she said about her border troubles. "When I began all these films I was naive, and I thought, 'This is going to dial back, it's gonna change. We've taken the wrong course and things will shift.' But over time as years go by and I'm stopped every time and asked the same questions, it became clear that I was caught in a system and it was not one that was rational, and it was a conversation I was going to have without any due process or transparency."

The government had been suspicious about Poitras following a November 2004 firefight in Iraq between insurgents and US soldiers that she had apparently witnessed, leading to speculation by the military that she had had advance warning. She resists this account, or even the notion that the government was retaliating for her verité portraits of the War on Terror. She simply has no idea how she ended up on a watchlist, and that blankness forms the bulk of her concern.

"I don't think I was necessarily targeted because of my filmmaking. I don't think there was some thought police that say, 'Oh she makes a film about the war in Iraq and we're going to flip a switch and start harassing her at the border.' I think it's more about the growth of the intelligence agencies, and once you trigger something there's no way out. It's a bit Kafkaesque. Once you're in it, it just seems completely irrational."

In 'Chokepoint', a short film by Katy Scoggin and Laura Poitras, reporter Marcel Rosenbach informs the staff of a German communications firm that they have been targeted for surveillance by British spies.

There is a chance that Poitras and Greenwald will be implicated in a government case against Snowden, who has been charged with violating the Espionage Act, but she is mostly optimistic. "I'm sure the government has sat around and had conversations about all those possibilities, but to do that there would be a serious backlash among our colleagues in the press. There is a general consensus that this is an important story and that other news outlets would defend us." She said she plans to spend more time in New York, and hopes to release more footage from the hotel room, including a lengthy technical interview with Snowden. But, she said, the footage would remain outside of the country to protect it from the reach of US law.

While Poitras is responsible for the video content of The Intercept, her type of visual journalism—slow, patient, subtle—is not the sort of stuff that tends to capture the internet's short attention spans and the advertising dollars they attract. But the generous backing of PayPal founder Pierre Omidyar—at $250 million, the same amount that Jeff Bezos paid to buy the Washington Post—has given The Intercept and its parent company, First Look Media, some room to experiment.

"I'm really interested in how visual journalism can impact stories and information," Poitras said. "I'm really interested in how an individual feels when they're targeted, the human consequences. We can know for instance that people have been in Guantanamo for over a decade. But what is it actually like? Like, 'okay—can we see it?' What happens if we can see it. And if we can see it, does it change how the public feels about the issue. The same with torture. Let's see the torture video tapes. Not just the knowledge, but what the human consequences are."

Her own targeting by the government clearly fortified her, technologically and psychically, to work without feeling intimidated. Before the Snowden documents, her border stops gave her visceral evidence of a faulty surveillance machine. I suggested to her that it seemed her experience made intimate and personal the power of a secret machine we have long known about but often have trouble thinking about. "Or care about," she added.

Edward Snowden and his girlfriend Lindsey Mills in Russia. Image: "Citizenfour"

For much of the movie Snowden's face, like the others, is largely unexpressive—the look of equanimity in crisis. In a shot at the end, filmed in Russia this year, we see him in repose through a window, cooking in a kitchen along with—surprise!—his girlfriend, who now lives with him for months at a time. And in the film's final scene, a more relaxed-looking Greenwald is sitting with Snowden in what looks like another hotel room, explaining a new revelation from a new government source. Greenwald enthuses about "the fearlessness and the fuck-you" of the whistleblower's spirit. To avoid listening devices, he then writes something down on a piece of paper and passes it over. We gather it is the number is the number of people on the government's terrorist watch list—1.2 million, since reported to be closer to 700,000—and another bit of information that helps identify the source of the leak.

"That could raise the profile of this whole political situation with whistle-blowing to a whole new level," Snowden says. The look on his face is something like thrill and shock.

It is a thrill and a shock for the audience too, and not just because of the apparent revelation. It is also shocking simply to see Snowden shocked—to see, for once, a man who knows so much seem so thrown for a loop by the all-seeing system he was once part of. We still can't see what he sees. The paper is ripped up at the end, foreclosing the possibility of more content. We are left with the human metadata, with Snowden's face. Like the rest of the film, there is so much the moment doesn't say, but it's a precious clue. Staring at it, Poitras' camera forces us to confront the blankness and the chaos of an uncomfortable secret being revealed—the feeling of reckoning with what you know, of knowing how much you don't know, of not knowing what will happen next. In his face—contorted in a way we haven't yet seen—we find a glimmer of human recognition, a shock that anyone could identify with.


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