How Laura Poitras helped Edward Snowden spill his secrets

This is the profile of documentary filmmaker Laura Poitras I’ve been linking to, a portrait of the woman whom NSA whistleblower Edward Snowden first convinced to listen to him.

It was Poitras who brought in Glenn Greenwald, Poitras who shot and edited the video of Snowden in Hong Kong. Poitras stays connected to the story, though deliberately in the background. But as the linked article says:

Their work [the work of Snowden, Greenwald, Poitras] was organized like an intelligence operation, with Poitras as the mastermind.

Laura Poitras, her mind, energy and creativity, is a huge part of this story. The New York Times portrait begins with this tantalizing information (some added emphasis and reparagraphing throughout):

How Laura Poitras Helped Snowden Spill His Secrets

Filmmaker Laura Poitras

Filmmaker Laura Poitras

This past January, Laura Poitras received a curious e-mail from an anonymous stranger requesting her public encryption key. For almost two years, Poitras had been working on a documentary about surveillance, and she occasionally received queries from strangers. She replied to this one and sent her public key — allowing him or her to send an encrypted e-mail that only Poitras could open, with her private key — but she didn’t think much would come of it.

The stranger responded with instructions for creating an even more secure system to protect their exchanges. Promising sensitive information, the stranger told Poitras to select long pass phrases that could withstand a brute-force attack by networked computers. “Assume that your adversary is capable of a trillion guesses per second,” the stranger wrote.

Before long, Poitras received an encrypted message that outlined a number of secret surveillance programs run by the government. She had heard of one of them but not the others. After describing each program, the stranger wrote some version of the phrase, “This I can prove.”

Seconds after she decrypted and read the e-mail, Poitras disconnected from the Internet and removed the message from her computer. “I thought, O.K., if this is true, my life just changed,” she told me last month. “It was staggering, what he claimed to know and be able to provide. I just knew that I had to change everything.”

Poitras remained wary of whoever it was she was communicating with. She worried especially that a government agent might be trying to trick her into disclosing information about the people she interviewed for her documentary, including Julian Assange, the editor of WikiLeaks. “I called him out,” Poitras recalled. “I said either you have this information and you are taking huge risks or you are trying to entrap me and the people I know, or you’re crazy.”

The answers were reassuring but not definitive. Poitras did not know the stranger’s name, sex, age or employer (C.I.A.? N.S.A.? Pentagon?). In early June, she finally got the answers.

Along with her reporting partner, Glenn Greenwald, a former lawyer and a columnist for The Guardian, Poitras flew to Hong Kong and met the N.S.A. contractor Edward J. Snowden, who gave them thousands of classified documents, setting off a major controversy over the extent and legality of government surveillance.

Poitras was right that, among other things, her life would never be the same.

The piece is long and interesting, so I’m giving you a solid taste above. Please do read.

“It’s like Kafka”

You’ll find out, for example, about what happens to people who hit the “security” radar, and how that radar works. Poitras appears to have hit that radar because she, a documentary filmmaker, was on the roof of a clinic in Baghdad filming an insurgency attack in the neighborhood, when she was seen by members of the Oregon National Guard and reported — on no evidence at all — as having had advance knowledge of the attack.

That radar-hit appears to have gotten her stopped at airports when she later traveled to screen her film (a 2006 Academy Award nominee, by the way):

When she flew out of Sarajevo and landed in Vienna, she was paged on the airport loudspeaker and told to go to a security desk; from there she was led to a van and driven to another part of the airport, then taken into a room where luggage was examined.

“They took my bags and checked them,” Poitras said. “They asked me what I was doing, and I said I was showing a movie in Sarajevo about the Iraq war.And then I sort of befriended the security guy. I asked what was going on.

“He said: ‘You’re flagged. You have a threat score that is off the Richter scale. You are at 400 out of 400.’ I said, ‘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.’ ” …

In Vienna, Poitras was eventually cleared to board her connecting flight to New York, but when she landed at J.F.K., she was met at the gate by two armed law-enforcement agents and taken to a room for questioning. …

Initially, she said, the authorities were interested in the paper she carried, copying her receipts and, once, her notebook. After she stopped carrying her notes, they focused on her electronics instead, telling her that if she didn’t answer their questions, they would confiscate her gear and get their answers that way. …

She was also told that her refusal to answer questions was itself a suspicious act.

Our noble guardians of the nation contend that, because she (and those like her) are being interrogated at “international border crossings,” constitutional rights do not apply, and thus, no lawyers for them. Shades of what happened to David Miranda when he was stopped in London; this was in New York though, land of the free.

She wonders how and when we entered a world where you can be put on a list for years and never be notified. “It’s like Kafka,” she said. ” Nobody ever tells you what the accusation is.”

Be sure to read the part of the article that details what happened to William Binney, the NSA whistle-blower after Russell Tice. Just search on “Binney”. Pretty chilling. (For more on Russell Tice, who himself has an amazing NSA tale to tell, start at the link in this sentence.)

Want more? Search for the story that includes the reference to “crayons”. No, she may not have crayons. She tells you why.

Again, there’s much more in this excellent article. After starting the Snowden-Greenwald-Poitras story, the article resumes it at the paragraph that begins “Poitras was not Snowden’s first choice”.

And don’t miss the closing paragraphs, starting with “Poitras smiled”. Yes, Laura, we are all trying to understand this world — deep state, its structure and players, its reach and intent. Its future and ours.

Bottom line

There are a couple of take-aways here. One is simply a portrait of a remarkable, and remarkably brave, woman and artist. Another is the way it fleshes out the Edward Snowden story. That fascinates me as well, just from a story standpoint.

Finally, Poitras’ experience at airports is what happens at the front end, the receiving end, of a grotesquely large and self-enabled national security apparatus. (Read the “It’s like Kafka” section again and imagine that’s you, simply because some hyper-vigilant cop made an unwarranted assumption “just to be sure.”)

Soon we’ll look more closely at the back end, what the muscular security state (“deep state” in some formulations) looks like from the inside. Russell Tice, a massively overlooked and under-appreciated NSA whistle-blower, has a ton more to tell us. That soon.

Are you as interested and concerned as I am? Me too.

GP

To follow or send links: @Gaius_Publius


Gaius Publius is a professional writer living on the West Coast of the United States. Click here for more. Follow him on Twitter @Gaius_Publius and Facebook.

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  • Indigo

    That reads like the script for a movie based on a John Le Carre novel. What fun! or maybe not. This isn’t your grandfather’s America any more but I guess we kindsorta knew that all along. Okay . . . I’m looking forward to your look into “deep state.” Somehow, I feel obliged to warn you against going wading in any dry creek beds. Funny how that works.

  • benb

    A trillion guesses

    = all 8 character passwords (all lowercase or all uppercase)
    = all 6 character passwords from printable characters (English char set)

  • gratuitous

    I’ve long studied and read up on the modern
    security/surveillance state, beginning with the Palmer Raids in 1920,
    continuing through the Red Scare of the 1930s-1960s, and on into more recent
    history as the communist “threat” collapsed, only to be replaced by the “threat”
    of terrorism.

    I recommend seeing a movie called “The Front” with Woody
    Allen and Zero Mostel for a dramatization of some of the more unnerving
    excesses during the 1950s as they affected popular entertainment. The real “pow”
    moment of the movie is the crawl of the closing credits, showing the date of
    blacklisting of so many participants (including Mostel) in the production. And
    it’s not just actors who were deprived of their livelihood, but writers, directors,
    producers and the lesser production people down to lighting folks, key grips
    and best boys.

    It is not clear to me to this day just what sort of threat hiring
    a communist key grip would pose to the United States, but the security state is
    nothing if not vigilant and thorough. Well, except for those unpleasant
    instances where bombs went off in crowds of people, but at least we could rule
    out some commie production assistant.

  • http://AMERICAblog.com/ John Aravosis

    Because I don’t spend my day in the comments, and my moderators, who are paid a grand total of zero, do what they can :) As I’ve said before, it helps if you guys email me directly with a link to the spam comment.

  • emjayay

    Hey spam comment up for two hours at this point.

  • dula

    The privatizing of the prison system was bad enough. Now we have an unregulated corporate surveillance state. Soon we’ll hear that the CEO of one corporation paid to have a business rival detained in order to confiscate his electronic secrets.

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