When I interviewed Laura Poitras
,” I asked about how the U.S. government kept harassing her whenever she entered the country as well as foreign airports. More than 50 times over six years, in fact, she had to undergo repeated searches and interrogations. Her ongoing treatment eventually led her to leave the U.S. and live in Germany.
Having not heard back on her 2013 request to obtain documents via the Freedom of Information Act relating to her repeated targeting, Poitras is fighting back. She’s suing the U.S. government.
“I’m filing this lawsuit because the government uses the U.S. border to bypass the rule of law,” Poitras stated, hoping to draw attention to many other people who “are also subjected to years of Kafkaesque harassment at the borders.”
Anne Thompson: In tracking your story, I do not understand exactly what it was you did to trigger the treatment the government gave you, the scrutiny and abuse every time you entered the country.
Laura Poitras: I actually don’t think it’s anything I’ve done, because I actually haven’t done anything.
Was it after the release of Iraqi-set “My Country, My Country”? Because that’s the timeline, right?
My interpretation of it is that it started happening in 2006, in the summer, which was six months after I premiered the film at Berlin. So I started being stalked in 2006. I don’t think there’s some thought police that looks at films, says “we don’t like this film,” and puts people on a watch-list. I don’t believe that. I don’t believe it was the content of my film that triggered anything. But I do think there’s a system we’ve created in the wake of 9/11 — these kinds of secret processes…that flags people, and there are people who are not really looking to review it — therefore, once you get caught in this system, there’s no way out of it. It’s sort of like this Kafkaesque system that exists and is self-perpetuating. Once somebody, like, points at something, nobody ever reviews it, and you’re just there.
So it’s not the FBI or President Obama, per se.
Not only have I never been asked by the government a single question — which is what one thinks would happen if there’s any kind of a due process — but when I started challenging the government’s responses, they wouldn’t even acknowledge the existence of a watch list. Which is pretty Kafka-esque. But I see it more as a self-perpetuating system that, once you get sucked into it, there’s no way to get out of it. Honestly, as an American, there are many people who have much worse experiences: they’re put on no-fly lists and never find out why. I don’t think the question we should be asking is, “How did you get on this list?” It’s, “Why do we have this list? Why do we have a list where people can’t challenge or even learn about their placement so they can challenge it?” What is the due process?
But that must’ve heightened your own sense of insecurity, your own sense of paranoia. It drove you out of the country.
It didn’t heighten my sense of paranoia or insecurity; it heightened my sense of resolve. I have two choices: one is to keep working or do other types of work. I wasn’t going to stop working, so I was going to continue, and I was going to protect my source material so I could keep working. And I’m not going to let that intimidate me so I can’t work. So I did make the decision to locate to Berlin to edit, because I didn’t feel confident, as a journalist, given the harassment I was facing, that I could bring material back across the border. This is pre-Snowden.
To be honest, that’s a pretty extreme condemnation of what the government has done, coming down on whistleblowers and journalists. On one hand, I don’t want to minimize the impact of all the detentions; on the other, I know that I’m still able to work. I don’t think that anyone’s trying to stop me from making films. I still think I’m able to work as a journalist, but I did make the decision that working in the U.S. didn’t make sense, given the kind of harassment I’ve experienced
Has it stopped?
It did stop. It stopped in 2012. There was an incident where I was returning through Newark, and I was taking notes of who was detaining me and the questions they were asking, and they all freaked out and basically threatened to handcuff me for taking notes at Newark Airport. They said my pen was a weapon, and they weren’t joking. They kept yelling at me to put the pen down, and I was taking notes, and multiple people — not just one person — “put the pen down or we will handcuff you.”
That’s a great image. The power.
I have to say, when it was happening and unfolding, I was so furious, because I kept taking my pen out and they kept yelling at me that they were going to handcuff me. But I also knew that I was going to go public. I mean, I’d never really gone public. I mentioned I’d been harassed. It’s been known; I haven’t kept it a secret. But I hadn’t really gone public, and when they were yelling at me that they were going to handcuff me for taking notes… not just taking notes, but that my pen was going to cause them harm. Like somehow I was going to stab them with my pen. I knew I was going to make it public, and I did. Actually, I called Glenn, and Glenn did a big story on it, which then led to a bunch of filmmakers writing a letter in solidarity.
After Greenwald published that article, her harassment ceased, and in 2014 she returned to the U.S. to screen, promote and release “Citizenfour.”