Muckraking Journalist Filmmaker Laura Poitras: Ahead of Surveillance Scandal, Making War on Terror Doc with Assange (VIDEO)

Muckraking Journalist Filmmaker Laura Poitras: Ahead of Surveillance Scandal, Making War on Terror Doc with Assange (VIDEO)
Muckraking Journalist Filmmaker Laura Poitras: Ahead of Surveillance Scandal, Making War on Terror Doc with Assange (VIDEO)

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:

As members of the nonfiction filmmaking community, we want to express our outrage over the ongoing harassment of our colleague Laura Poitras by the US government and the Department of Homeland Security.  We call on the Obama administration to investigate this abuse of power and to bring an end to this persistent violation of America’s bedrock principle of a free press.

Laura Poitras is one of America’s most important nonfiction filmmakers, the recipient of the 2011 Cinema Eye Honor for Outstanding Achievement in Direction for her landmark film, The Oath, and the chair of our Filmmaker Advisory Board.  She was nominated for a Best Documentary Feature Oscar and twice has been nominated for an Independent Spirit Award for her work.  Her long list of credits, awards and impeccable credentials would be easy for anyone to verify.

Over the course of the last several years, as Laura has been working to chronicle the post-9/11 world and the effect of American policies here and abroad, she has been repeatedly harassed, detained, interrogated and has had her cameras and computers seized by Homeland Security officials as she attempts to re-enter her home country.

Not once in more than three dozen detentions and interrogations has Homeland Security found anything to justify this chronic abuse of power.

Within the last week, as Laura was returning from a recent trip abroad, she was once again detained.  This time, however, she was also threatened with being handcuffed for attempting to take notes during her interrogation.

Nonfiction filmmakers perform a vital role in a democratic society, serving as observers and investigators of the world around us.  It is unacceptable for any American nonfiction filmmaker or journalist to be treated in this manner.  They must be able to return to their own country without fear of arrest or fear that their work product will be seized, solely because they are investigating or chronicling subject matter that may be sensitive or controversial.

We ask other members of the nonfiction film and journalism communities to protest this affront to a free press and we reiterate our call on the Obama administration to end these draconian and un-American policies once and for all.


Sean Farnel
Andrea Meditch
Esther Robinson
AJ Schnack
Nathan Truesdell
Cinema Eye Honors Executive Board

Greenwald’s piece only hinted at the subject of Laura’s third film in the trilogy, but this New Zealand  Crikey story revealed that the film is focused on Julian Assange and WikiLeaks:

Laura Poitras is a documentary filmmaker and journalist based in New York. Her work focusing on America post-9/11, has been nominated for an Academy Award and an Emmy Award for outstanding investigative journalism. The films also earned Poitras the enmity of the Department of Homeland Security, which since 2006 has stopped her on virtually every occasion on her return to the US and interrogated her about her activities while out of the country. Her electronic equipment, notes and other documents have also been seized. On one occasion, armed officials demanded she stop taking notes of their treatment of her because her pen was a threatening weapon, and threatened to handcuff her to stop her. Glenn Greenwald at Salon, DemocracyNow and The New York Times in 2010 have all covered DHS’s treatment of an American journalist for the offence of making documentaries that don’t accord with Washington’s view of reality.

This year, once she started working on a project with Assange, DHS’s harassment of Poitras shifted and she starting being detained by DHS agents before boarding flights in London, Amsterdam, and Paris, rather than on arrival in the US. The most recent occasion was on June 1 before a Virgin Atlantic flight from Heathrow to the US, when she was “interviewed” about her activities and where she has been staying, before being patted down and allowed to board the flight. Preflight interviewing is consistent with the DHS protocol for passengers on an “inhibited” list. Poitras has been stopped several times at Heathrow while flying Virgin Atlantic to the US, such that she is now on first name terms with Virgin’s Heathrow head of security. “Your name is on a ‘target’ list,” he told Poitras on June 1, before a DHS official arrived to speak to her. “It’s rare for a US citizen.”

While the apparent extension of harassment reinforces the case that, contra the willful blindness of the Australian government, the Obama administration is accelerating its investigation of Julian Assange, Poitras has been enduring such treatment for six years, all due to her journalism. And at the hands of a government that notionally guarantees freedom of the press.

Julian Assange himself has acknowledged to DemocracyNow that while he did not cooperate with Alex Gibney on his “We Steal Secrets: The Story of WikiLeaks” documentary, he is participating with Poitras on her film. He also addresses Bill Condon’s upcoming feature “Fifth Estate,” which like
Gibney’s film does not appear to be a positive portrait of which Assange

JULIAN ASSANGE: WikiLeaks, as an organization, did not cooperate with the film at all. We cooperated instead with an upcoming film by Laura Poitras and another one that is being co-produced by Ken Loach’s Sixteen Films. Alex Gibney apparently is very unhappy with that, and it seems to have affected his objectivity and sense of perspective in a result—as a result of it.

NERMEEN SHAIKH: Julian Assange, you mentioned two other films coming up by Ken Loach and Laura Poitras. Could you say, are those documentaries? Are they feature films?

JULIAN ASSANGE: Those are feature documentaries.

NERMEEN SHAIKH: And there is another film releasing on WikiLeaks called The Fifth Estate. I believe it’s coming out in the fall or in November. Do you know anything about that?

JULIAN ASSANGE: Yes, although the most recent thing that I’ve seen about that says it’s coming out in October. That is a pretty nasty feature documentary—sorry, a feature film by DreamWorks, Spielberg’s outfit. It is based upon the two most hostile anti-WikiLeaks books that have ever been made. And it opens with a scene in Iran, in a nuclear complex in Iran, which has a—what the film describes as a U.S. informant in there informing on the Iranian nuclear program. They have the Iranians 15 minutes away from an atomic weapon. The Iranians, in that, are loading the atomic weapon into a Shahab-3 missile. And according to this piece of fiction, WikiLeaks publications exposes this Iranian U.S. intelligence source, and that’s why—that’s why the U.S. administration is not able to say that Iran is really 15 minutes away from an atomic weapon. That also brackets the film at the end. That source is—flees. The Iranians find out as a result of our publications, and he flees. So you can see what the setup is. I mean, it’s pretty nasty. But apparently, demonizing Iran and, I guess, WikiLeaks is how you win an Academy Award these days. It should be presented, of course, by none other than Michelle Obama.

AMY GOODMAN: Julian Assange, Alex Gibney said, quote, “Finally, we had a six-hour meeting.” He’s talking about you. He says, “He told me the market rate for an interview was a million dollars. I told him I don’t pay for interviews,” said Alex Gibney. And he went on to say that you said, “That’s too bad. In that case, you might do something else for me.” And Gibney said, “He wanted me to spy on our other interview subjects, which I found a rather odd request from someone concerned about source protection.” Is that true?

JULIAN ASSANGE: No. I don’t see why, Amy, you need to repeat the embarrassing talking points by a documentary filmmaker who makes a film about WikiLeaks without anyone from WikiLeaks in it. Of course, Alex is trying to cover from that critical, critical flaw. But we have released the entire transcript, including a description of that conversation. We have that conversation on tape, unlike Alex Gibney. And you can go to  to read all about it. This is a case of a reasonably sleazy U.S. documentary filmmaker coming up against scientific journalism, and you know he’s not liking the results. I mean, you can see by his comments. We published the whole transcript. We analyzed the whole thing. We record interviews. We show every sleight of hand in the editing that has been conducted. It’s interesting to speculate, if we move beyond the personal and back to the political, why it is that that is done. Well, in a way, thematically, it used these tricks in order to increase the dramatic tension, the character tension, and so on. But it’s clear that Gibney also has a bit of a personal vendetta that we went with—we decided not to go with him, and we went instead with Laura Poitras.

Amusingly, Assange’s posted “transcript”
of “We Steal Secrets” leaves out all of Bradley Manning’s words, Gibney points
out to me in an email: “His ‘leak’ is likely a transcription of an audio recording
(or two) of film screenings… His “transcript” completely
eliminates all of Bradley Manning’s words.  An audiotape recording would
not pick up words printed – but not spoken – on screen. Many other mistakes. His ‘annotations’ are a joke.  He’s trying to wrap himself in the flag of Bradley Manning while he writes him out of the story.” (My interview with Gibney is here.)

Greenwald posted on Google Plus: “Laura Poitras’ stunning 5-minute
documentary on Bradley Manning’s statement now has more than 200,000
views.” (See below.)

In December, Assange gave an interview in which he mentioned NSA whistleblower Binney, the man who was profiled by Poitras at the NYT in her excellent, biting short film “The Program.” Then Binney and Poitras put on a seminar/performance on surveillance at the Whitney Biennial, also last August (see video below).

As doc filmmaker and Cinema Eye founder AJ Schnack sums up:

“I’m happy to be proven wrong, but I honestly can’t think of a case when a doc filmmaker was simultaneously making a film and sharing byline on huge breaking news stories on the subject.  Certainly not when the filmmaker was also being systematically targeted by the US government.  I’m truly in awe of her.”

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