Mark Boal, move over. Documentary filmmaker Laura Poitras is aggressively reporting the National Security Agency surveillance scandal in the international press at the same time that she is filming material for her documentary on the subject, which also includes the participation of WikiLeaks' Julian Assange.
Poitras first posted an op-ed and video interview with NSA whistleblower Bill Binney last August in the New York Times. This past week she not only shared a byline on the June 6 Washington Post story announcing the NSA tracking of nine internet companies, which detailed the NSA's Prism domestic surveillance project, but shared a byline and shot the interview that accompanied Glenn Greenwald's piece in The Guardian that unveiled NSA whistleblower Edward Snowden. Some think that Poitras herself may have found him; she, Greenwald and Ewan MacAskill were summoned to Hong Kong by Snowdon for his big Guardian reveal.
Poitras knows whereof she speaks. Here's what the filmmaker wrote in last August's NYT op-ed:
To those who understand state surveillance as an abstraction, I will try to describe a little about how it has affected me. The United States apparently placed me on a “watch-list” in 2006 after I completed a film about the Iraq war. I have been detained at the border more than 40 times. Once, in 2011, when I was stopped at John F. Kennedy International Airport in New York and asserted my First Amendment right not to answer questions about my work, the border agent replied, “If you don’t answer our questions, we’ll find our answers on your electronics.”’ As a filmmaker and journalist entrusted to protect the people who share information with me, it is becoming increasingly difficult for me to work in the United States. Although I take every effort to secure my material, I know the N.S.A. has technical abilities that are nearly impossible to defend against if you are targeted.
Greenwald wrote the initial Salon piece when Poitras went public last year on her ongoing harassment at the border by the Department of Homeland Security. Here she first lays bare what kept happening to her after filming Oscar-nominated "My Country, My Country" (2006) and Sundance prize-winner "The Oath" (2010), the first two docs in a planned trilogy of War on Terror films:
Poitras’ intent all along with these two documentaries was to produce a trilogy of War on Terror films, and she is currently at work on the third installment. As Poitras described it to me, this next film will examine the way in which The War on Terror has been imported onto U.S. soil, with a focus on the U.S. Government’s increasing powers of domestic surveillance, its expanding covert domestic NSA activities (including construction of a massive new NSA facility in Bluffdale, Utah), its attacks on whistleblowers, and the movement to foster government transparency and to safeguard Internet anonymity. In sum, Poitras produces some of the best, bravest and most important filmmaking and journalism of the past decade, often exposing truths that are adverse to U.S. government policy, concerning the most sensitive and consequential matters (a 2004 film she produced for PBS on gentrification of an Ohio town won the Peabody Award and was nominated for an Emmy).
But Poitras’ work has been hampered, and continues to be hampered, by the constant harassment, invasive searches, and intimidation tactics to which she is routinely subjected whenever she re-enters her own country. Since the 2006 release of “My Country, My Country,” Poitras has left and re-entered the U.S. roughly 40 times. Virtually every time during that six-year-period that she has returned to the U.S., her plane has been met by DHS agents who stand at the airplane door or tarmac and inspect the passports of every de-planing passenger until they find her (on the handful of occasions where they did not meet her at the plane, agents were called when she arrived at immigration). Each time, they detain her, and then interrogate her at length about where she went and with whom she met or spoke. They have exhibited a particular interest in finding out for whom she works.
She has had her laptop, camera and cellphone seized, and not returned for weeks, with the contents presumably copied. On several occasions, her reporter’s notebooks were seized and their contents copied, even as she objected that doing so would invade her journalist-source relationship. Her credit cards and receipts have been copied on numerous occasions. In many instances, DHS agents also detain and interrogate her in the foreign airport before her return, on one trip telling her that she would be barred from boarding her flight back home, only to let her board at the last minute. When she arrived at JFK Airport on Thanksgiving weekend of 2010, she was told by one DHS agent — after she asserted her privileges as a journalist to refuse to answer questions about the individuals with whom she met on her trip — that he “finds it very suspicious that you’re not willing to help your country by answering our questions.” They sometimes keep her detained for three to four hours (all while telling her that she will be released more quickly if she answers all their questions and consents to full searches).
Documentary association The Cinema Eye made a statement at the time in defense of Poitras: