Truthdigger of the Week: Laura Poitras
Every week the Truthdig editorial staff selects a Truthdigger of the Week, a group or person worthy of recognition for speaking truth to power, breaking the story or blowing the whistle. It is not a lifetime achievement award. Rather, we’re looking for newsmakers whose actions in a given week are worth celebrating. Nominate our next Truthdigger here.
At some point in the last decade we entered a new era of investigative journalism. Ubiquitous government surveillance made possible by the pervasiveness of digital communication has made the task of cultivating unauthorized sources inside official organizations more difficult and dangerous than perhaps it’s ever been.
For evidence of this, ask Pfc. Bradley Manning, who faces possible life imprisonment for giving classified records showing government wrongdoing to the watchdog publisher WikiLeaks. Or ask Barrett Brown, the journalist who has been in prison for almost a year without trial for linking to an archive of 5 million emails that happened to contain credit card information stolen from a hack on the intelligence contractor Stratfor. Or ask documentary filmmaker Laura Poitras.
Poitras is the reporter who along with Guardian columnist Glenn Greenwald began breaking stories of bulk domestic and international NSA surveillance at the beginning of the summer. I first met her one year ago at a hacker’s conference in Manhattan, where she was intently focused on filming NSA whistle-blower William Binney for a new documentary on leaks and government surveillance. It was Poitras whom the source of this summer’s NSA reports, Booz Allen Hamilton contractor-turned-whistle-blower and fugitive Edward Snowden, contacted when he failed to get Greenwald to take him seriously. Snowden had read an article by Greenwald saying the U.S. had detained Poitras more than 40 times at airports for interrogations related to her work. In a lengthy profile of Poitras published last week, New York Times writer Peter Maass — who spent time with Poitras and Greenwald at Greenwald’s home in Rio de Janeiro — wrote that Snowden “figured that [Poitras] would understand the programs he wanted to leak about and would know how to communicate in a secure way.”
Snowden was right. Since Poitras began filming U.S. abuses of power in Iraq in 2004, she has been routinely harassed by authorities. In 2006 the government began marking her tickets on domestic flights with “SSSS” — Secondary Security Screening Selection. The designation means Poitras faces extra scrutiny. On one occasion in Vienna she was briefed by an airport security agent who dared to speak openly about what was happening to Poitras. While officers seized and examined her bags, she says one of the guards told her: “You’re flagged. You have a threat score that is off the Richter scale. You are at 400 out of 400.” Poitras responded: “Is this a scoring system that works throughout all of Europe, or is this an American scoring system?” He said no, “this is your government that has this and has told us to stop you.”
The filmmaker was placed on something like the terrorist watch list the government began compiling after 9/11, a roster that was estimated at one point to contain nearly a million names. Officials have seized and held her computers, cellphones, paper documents and other equipment for weeks. Poitras has written to members of Congress and submitted multiple Freedom of Information Act requests, but she has never received any explanation as to why she was put on a list.
“It’s infuriating that I have to speculate why,” Maass quotes her as saying. “When did that universe begin, that people are put on a list and are never told and are stopped for six years? I have no idea why they did it. It’s the complete suspension of due process.” She added: “I’ve been told nothing, I’ve been asked nothing, and I’ve done nothing. It’s like Kafka. Nobody ever tells you what the accusation is.”
These intrusions into Poitras’ life and work caused her to begin thinking about how to protect herself. She would ask traveling companions to carry her laptop, leave notebooks with friends overseas or in safe deposit boxes, and wipe her computers and cellphones clean so the authorities wouldn’t be able to get at anything when they grabbed them. Soon enough she began encrypting her data. Then she cut down use of her cellphone, which gives monitors a user’s location at any given point in time. When Snowden began contacting her in 2013, she developed new precautions. “[S]he began using different computers for editing film, for communicating and for reading sensitive documents (the one for sensitive documents is air-gapped, meaning it has never been connected to the Internet),” Maass writes.In the 1930s and ’40s, German intellectuals, artists and liberals fled their country to seek sanctuary and freedom of expression in the United States. Today, Poitras lives in social democratic Berlin where she can work on her sixth film, the documentary about government surveillance, without worrying about the FBI showing up at her apartment with a search warrant for her hard drives. “I’m not stopping what I’m doing,” she told Maass, “but I have left the country. I literally didn’t feel like I could protect my material in the United States, and this was before I was contacted by Snowden. If you promise someone you’re going to protect them as a source and you know the government is monitoring you or seizing your laptop, you can’t actually physically do it.”
Maass describes Greenwald and Poitras’ work as being “organized like an intelligence operation, with Poitras as the mastermind.” In Maass’ article, Greenwald credits Poitras with making their work safe. “Operational security — she dictated all of that,” Greenwald said. “Which computers I used, how I communicated, how I safeguarded the information, where copies were kept, with whom they were kept, in which places. She has this complete expert level of understanding of how to do a story like this with total technical and operational safety. None of this would have happened with anything near the efficacy and impact it did, had she not been working with me in every sense and really taking the lead in coordinating most of it.”
Combined with her editorial independence, Poitras’ rare experience successfully evading official surveillance at the frontier of the digital information wars makes her an exemplar of the new model of investigative journalist scrutinizing and criticizing government power. Maass writes: “Poitras possesses a new skill set that is particularly vital — and far from the journalistic norm — in an era of pervasive government spying: she knows, as well as any computer-security expert, how to protect against surveillance.” That skill has come at a cost, however: “Our lives will never be the same,” Poitras told Maass of herself and Greenwald. “I don’t know if I’ll ever be able to live someplace and feel like I have my privacy. That might be just completely gone.”
Maass’ endorsement should drive a new generation of brave journalists to acquire the skills Poitras has had to learn on her own. If in the future Americans are going to have any knowledge of what their elected leaders are doing to them and others in their name, it will be because of people like her. For her courage, dedication and cleverness in risking her life to inform the rest of us, we honor Laura Poitras as our Truthdigger of the Week.