Laura Poitras

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Laura Poitras


Laura Poitras is an Oscar-and Emmy-nominated filmmaker and journalist. She resided in New York City. She is a 2012 MacArthur Fellow and one of the initial supporters of the Freedom of the Press Foundation.

She has attended the Sundance Institute Documentary Storytelling Lab as both a fellow and creative advisor. She has taught documentary filmmaking at Yale University, and is currently a visiting artist at the Center for Documentary Studies at Duke University. Before making films she worked as a professional chef.[1]

Films

In 2004 and 2005, Poitras spent many months in Iraq filming a documentary that, as The New York Times put it in its review, “exposed the emotional toll of occupation on Iraqis and American soldiers alike.” The film, “My Country, My Country,” focused on a Sunni physician and 2005 candidate for the Iraqi Congress as he did things like protest the imprisonment of a 9-year-old boy by the U.S. military. At the time Poitras made this film, Iraqi Sunnis formed the core of the anti-American insurgency and she spent substantial time filming and reporting on the epicenter of that resistance. Poitras’ film was released in 2006 and nominated for the 2007 Academy Award for Best Documentary.

In 2010, she produced and directed “The Oath,” which chronicled the lives of two Yemenis caught up in America’s War on Terror: Salim Hamdan, the accused driver of Osama bin Laden whose years-long imprisonment at Guantanamo led to the 2006 Supreme Court case, bearing his name, that declared military commissions to be a violation of domestic and international law; and Hamdan’s brother-in-law, a former bin Laden bodyguard. The film provides incredible insight into the mindset of these two Yemenis. The NYT feature on “The Oath” stated that, along with “My Country, My Country,” Poitras has produced ”two of the most searching documentaries of the post-9/11 era, on-the-ground chronicles that are sensitive to both the political and the human consequences of American foreign policy.” At the 2010 Sundance film festival, “The Oath” won the award for Best Cinematography.

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 Glenn Greenwald, ,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).[2]

Pre-knowledge of ambush?

John R. Bruning's 2006 book, The Devil's Sandbox: With the 2nd Battalion, 162nd Infantry at War in Iraq. Contary to Greenwald's claim that Poitras has never been accused of any wrongdoing, Devil's Sandbox details the explosive allegation that Poitras had foreknowledge of a November 20, 2004 ambush of U.S. troops but did nothing to warn them.

Brandon Ditto led the platoon that came under fire that day. Speaking Tuesday evening by phone with THE WEEKLY STANDARD, Ditto said it seemed that Poitras "had pre-knowledge" of the ambush. He recalled the events he witnessed that day, confirming the details described in Devil's Sandbox.

During a patrol of Adhamiya early in the morning of November 20, two soldiers in Ditto's platoon noticed a woman standing on a rooftop next to a man while holding a camera. They found that very odd. "Usually when you see someone planted on a rooftop with a camera, they're waiting for something, and right after that is when we got ambushed just down the road," Ditto told me Tuesday night. "So it seems that she had pre-knowledge that our convoy, or our patrol, was going to get hit."

"We took multiple casualties," Ditto said. "Things kind of erupted."

Prior to the attack, the streets were eerily quiet. "There was nothing else going on," Ditto said. "People had left the streets, which was pretty common when there was an attack about to happen. It was kind of one of the things we would look for. When things got too quiet it's because the locals were alerted that there was going to be an attack. And to see anybody up with a camera about to film something it's because they were waiting" for an attack to happen.

"It was later we had found out that Zarqawi's soldiers, basically in response to a raid on a mosque the night prior, sort of wanted to try to get revenge there," Ditto said, referring to the deceased leader of Al Qaeda in Iraq.

According to Devil's Sandbox, Poitras met with three commanding U.S. Army officers two days after the ambush: "The [Brigade Commander] turned to Laura Poitras and ask her if she had seen and filmed the attack on his men. Ditto's platoon had reported seeing windows taped around Adhamiya, a sure sign that the local civilians knew of the ambushes in advance. The fact that the shops were all secured, gates were locked, and nobody was out on the streets that morning also strongly indicated that the locals had foreknowledge of the engagements. The [Brigade Commander] and Major Warington wanted to know if Poitras had advance knowledge of the attacks. It stood to reason that she did, because she was living with Doctor Aladhadh's family in the middle of one of the kill zones."

Bruning, who was not embedded with the 2nd Battalion but conducted numerous interviews with the troops who were, told me Tuesday night that Doctor Riyadh Aladhadh, the main subject of Poitras's documentary, "was strongly suspected of being one of the key insurgent leaders for the Sunni insurgency of that particular district of Baghdad."

"If she had advance knowledge, she did not call and warn the battalion. Major Warrington had given her his contact information" 10 days prior to the attack, Bruning wrote in Devil's Sandbox. "She had the ability to report the pending attacks to her fellow countrymen. She did not do this."

During her November 22 meeting with Army officers, Poitras denied that she had been on the rooftop, and the two U.S. soldiers who saw the woman on the rooftop failed to positively identify her, so she was let go, according to the book. Bruning told me Tuesday night that if the commanding officer had known for sure she was on the roof, "he would have arrested her right there on the spot."

Bruning claims in his book that Poitras later admitted to him in an email that she had in fact been on the roof that day. Bruning revealed to THE WEEKLY STANDARD that he provided a copy of the email to a U.S. soldier, who in turn contacted U.S. law enforcement, which allegedly led to a Joint Terrorism Task Force investigation. "That triggered a JTTF investigation in New York," Bruning told me. "The JTTF guys flew out here. They interviewed me. They interviewed the guys from the platoon. I turned over all the documentation I had."

No charges have ever been filed against Poitras, but Bruning and Ditto say the soldiers ambushed in Adhamiya on November 20, 2004 found the circumstantial evidence to be compelling. "To be exactly positioned to capture a vehicular ambush in the middle of Baghdad is either a huge fluke or you have foreknowledge that that was coming," Bruning said.

"The fact that she was standing there with [Aladhadh], the guy who everybody suspected was responsible for orchestrating the attack and had been living with him was proof enough for everybody in [Battalion] 2-162 to believe that she had foreknowledge," Bruning said. "It just defied all logic that she wouldn't have known it was coming."[3]

Government harrassment

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).

Poitras is now forced to take extreme steps — ones that hamper her ability to do her work — to ensure that she can engage in her journalism and produce her films without the U.S. Government intruding into everything she is doing. She now avoids traveling with any electronic devices. She uses alternative methods to deliver the most sensitive parts of her work — raw film and interview notes — to secure locations. She spends substantial time and resources protecting her computers with encryption and password defenses. Especially when she is in the U.S., she avoids talking on the phone about her work, particularly to sources. And she simply will not edit her films at her home out of fear — obviously well-grounded — that government agents will attempt to search and seize the raw footage.[4]

A coalition of nonfiction filmmakers, including Albert Maysles, Alex Gibney and Morgan Spurlock, signed an open letter protesting Poitras’ treatment at borders and calling her “one of America’s most important nonfiction filmmakers.”[5]

Newark incident

In April 2012, Poitras arrived at Newark International Airport from Britain. Prior to issuing her a boarding pass in London, the ticket agent called a Customs and Border Patrol (CBP) agent (Yost) who questioned her about whom she met and what she did. Upon arriving in Newark, DHS/CBP agents, as always, met her plane, detained her, and took her to an interrogation room. Each time this has happened in the past, Poitras has taken notes during the entire process: in order to chronicle what is being done to her, document the journalistic privileges she asserts and her express lack of consent, obtain the names of the agents involved, and just generally to cling to some level of agency.

This time, however, she was told by multiple CBP agents that she was prohibited from taking notes on the ground that her pen could be used as a weapon. After she advised them that she was a journalist and that her lawyer had advised her to keep notes of her interrogations, one of them, CBP agent Wassum, threatened to handcuff her if she did not immediately stop taking notes. A CBP Deputy Chief (Lopez) also told her she was barred from taking notes, and then accused her of “refusing to cooperate with an investigation” if she continued to refuse to answer their questions (he later clarified that there was no “investigation” per se, but only a “questioning”).[6]

NSA leaks

Poitras achieved the unusual distinction of sharing a byline both with Barton Gellman on the June 6 Washington Post story on PRISM and with Glenn Greenwald and Ewan MacAskill on the June 8 Guardian story naming Edward Snowden as a source. In the accompanying video interview of Snowden, Greenwald is credited as “interviewer” and Poitras as “filmmaker.” Greenwald claims, “The reality is that Laura Poitras and I have been working with [Snowden] since February, long before anyone spoke to Bart Gellman.”[7]

Timeline

Calling from Hong Kong, where she was filming the story behind the story — including her co-author on the Guardian story and former Salon columnist Glenn Greenwald — for her forthcoming documentary on whistle-blowers and leaks. Poitras explained to Salon, how she first made contact with Edward Snowden, her reaction to the possible future investigation into his leaks, and why Snowden didn’t go to the New York Times.

So how did this all begin?

I was originally contacted in January, anonymously.

By Edward Snowden?

Well, I didn’t know who it was.

What was the format?

Via email. It said, I want to get your encryption key and let’s get on a secure channel.

And he didn’t say what it was about?

He just said — that was the first, and the second was, I have some information in the intelligence community, and it won’t be a waste of your time.

Did you immediately know what was the best, most secure protocol to go about it?

I actually did. I have a lot of experience because I’ve been working with — as you note in your thing, I’ve done filming with WikiLeaks, I know Jacob Appelbaum. I already had encryption keys but what he was asking for was beyond what I was using in terms of security and anonymity.

How did it proceed from there?

So that’s where I’m not going into a lot of details, but sort of ongoing correspondence. I didn’t know, I didn’t have any biographical details or where he worked, had no idea. He made claims and said he had documentation. At that point it was all completely theoretical, but I had a feeling it was legit.

Why do you think he contacted you? Were you the first person he contacted?

I can’t speak for him. Glenn and I just touched base about, what was your story, because we connected later in the spring. He, I think, got an email in February. But I didn’t know he’d gotten an email.

He told me he’d contacted me because my border harassment meant that I’d been a person who had been selected. To be selected –and he went through a whole litany of things — means that everything you do, every friend you have, every purchase you make, every street you cross means you’re being watched. “You probably don’t like how this system works, I think you can tell the story.” … Of course I was suspicious, I worried that it was entrapment, it’s crazy, all the normal responses you have to someone reaching out making, claims. He said he’d seen a piece that I’d done on Bill Binney in the Times.

I can say from conversations I had with him after that, I think he had a suspicion of mainstream media. And particularly what happened with the New York Times and the warrantless wiretapping story, which as we know was shelved for a year. So he expressed that to me but I think also in his choices of who he contacted. I didn’t know he was reaching out to Glenn at that point.

And you and Glenn were already colleagues, right, you sit on a board together?

At that point the foundation had just opened. So we knew each other and we were colleagues and friends.

How did it get to the point where you knew it was going to be a story, and how did you decide where it was going to be published?

Those are the details I’m not going to go into. What I can say is that once I had a few pieces of correspondence, I said, let me ask a couple of people about this, people who have experience, and I sat down with a couple of people, one of whom was Bart Gellman … and he said, it looks like this person could be legit. And that was probably February.

These disputes that have been played out on the internet about who got in touch with whom and who needed assurances –

In a situation like this, this is a confidential source and has been until very, very recently, actually has been a person whose identity I did not know. To actually go on the record and talk about — it seems to be a violation of a lot of relationships with someone who’s trusted you. There’s partly that, so I’ve been hesitant. I’ve asked, you know, like, Bart, don’t go try and tell my story. I’ll tell my story, you know, about my reporting. I don’t need reporters reporting on my reporting. So maybe that stuff contributed to different timelines. But that seems now — I’m not quite sure, what makes the most sense. Because I don’t want to tell the whole story now, I don’t think it’s the right time. And I want to tell it in my own words. I’m a storyteller. I’ll tell it when I’m ready to tell it, in detail.

But it makes sense to go on the record to explain why I was attached to both of those stories.

So you ended up getting in touch with Bart and Glenn because you wanted their help to vet the claims in documents?

There weren’t documents yet … I wanted to know if this correspondent — it was possible something else would be entrapment or just crazy, that’s always an option. I had an instinct that it was legit. I wanted to talk to people who knew.

So how did it then become two separate stories in the Washington Post and the Guardian?

The source also has a relationship with Glenn. Which I can’t speak to.

I know that Glenn said he had more stories to come. Do you have more footage you’re planning on using in your documentary?

Of course. I’m here working.

Are you still in touch with him?

I’m not going to comment on that.

Do you know where he is?

Not going to comment.

Are you going to be working on more stories in print before your documentary comes out?

I really can’t predict.

Are you going to be sticking around Hong Kong for awhile or do you think you’ll come to the U.S.?

I haven’t decided. I’m trying to figure that out right now. But I’m actually based right now outside the U.S.

Are you worried about retaliation in any investigation that goes forward?

You know what? I’m not. I’ve been harassed for a long time, I wouldn’t be surprised if that continues. Being here and seeing the kind of — actually, Glenn was really inspiring. Really incredible courage in journalism and just saying, we need to talk to him about these things. It’s not OK that we have a secret court that has secret interpretations of secret laws; what kind of democracy is that? I felt like, this is a fight worth having. If there’s fallout, if there’s blowback, I would absolutely do it again, because I think this information should be public. Whatever part I had in helping to do that I think is a service.

People take risks. And I’m not the one who’s taking the most in this case.

And you feel like the person who is taking the most risk — meaning Snowden — is aware of all the possible ramifications of it?

You can see it in the video, right? I think he is. I think he wanted to reveal his identity because he didn’t want to create a situation where he was anonymous and everyone would have been investigated. In these investigation cases, there are repercussions for many, many people. I think he wanted to take responsibility.

Did he always plan to reveal his identity?

I don’t know. At some point I became aware of that but I don’t know what his intention was.

It’s this complicated situation because we have a source who decided to reveal himself. I still feel like I have journalistic obligations to the source even though they’ve made that choice … There’s something that Glenn said that I actually want to contradict. He said we began “working with” him. There was no working with. We were contacted. It was totally cold contact.

Since he contacted you before he started working at Booz Allen, the implication people were drawing was that he went to Booz Allen with the express intention of leaking this.

That’s completely absurd. I had no dialogue about what the information was — there were claims, that’s all I received.

So the implication that you sent him into Booz Allen to spy was incorrect.

Are you kidding? I didn’t know where he worked, I didn’t know he was NSA, I didn’t know how — nothing. There was no like, Oh do you think you …, no nudging. It’s like the crazy correlations that the NSA does. There’s no connection here. We were contacted, we didn’t know what he was up to, and at some point he came forward with documents.[8]

Assange connection

Julian Assange has said he and WikiLeaks cooperated with Poitras on her upcoming film, the title of which hasn’t been publicized. In March, 2013, Poitras and Jenny Perlin released a video short, “Providence — a short film featuring Bradley Manning’s voice,” in which Manning discussed the 2007 Baghdad Apache airstrike video. [9]

Freedom of the Press Foundation

Potras serves on the board of the Freedom of the Press Foundation, which is “dedicated to helping promote and fund aggressive, public-interest journalism focused on exposing mismanagement, corruption, and law-breaking in government,” alongside Glenn Greenwald, Daniel Ellsberg, John Cusack and Xeni Jardin, among others.[10]

References

  1. [http://www.praxisfilms.org/about/laura-poitras
  2. http://www.salon.com/2012/04/08/u_s_filmmaker_repeatedly_detained_at_border/, Salon.com, Sunday, Apr 8, 2012 10:37 PM NZST U.S. filmmaker repeatedly detained at border, Glenn Greenwald]
  3. [http://www.weeklystandard.com/blogs/soldiers-allege-laura-poitras-co-author-nsa-scoop-had-foreknowledge-2004-iraqi-attack-us-troops_735111.html?page=2, Weekly Standard, The Blog Soldiers Allege Laura Poitras, Co-Author of NSA Scoop, Had Foreknowledge of 2004 Iraqi Attack on U.S. Troops 8:21 AM, Jun 12, 2013 • By JOHN MCCORMACK]
  4. http://www.salon.com/2012/04/08/u_s_filmmaker_repeatedly_detained_at_border/, Salon.com, Sunday, Apr 8, 2012 10:37 PM NZST U.S. filmmaker repeatedly detained at border, Glenn Greenwald]
  5. http://www.salon.com/2012/04/08/u_s_filmmaker_repeatedly_detained_at_border/, Salon.com, Sunday, Apr 8, 2012 10:37 PM NZST U.S. filmmaker repeatedly detained at border, Glenn Greenwald]
  6. http://www.salon.com/2012/04/08/u_s_filmmaker_repeatedly_detained_at_border/, Salon.com, Sunday, Apr 8, 2012 10:37 PM NZST U.S. filmmaker repeatedly detained at border, Glenn Greenwald]
  7. [http://www.salon.com/2013/06/10/the_woman_behind_the_nsa_scoops/ Salon, Tuesday, Jun 11, 2013 07:30 AM NZST The woman behind the NSA scoops, Irin Carmon]
  8. [http://www.salon.com/2013/06/10/qa_with_laura_poitras_the_woman_behind_the_nsa_scoops/ Salon, Tuesday, Jun 11, 2013 09:20 AM NZST How we broke the NSA story By Irin Carmon]
  9. [http://www.salon.com/2013/06/10/the_woman_behind_the_nsa_scoops/ Salon, Tuesday, Jun 11, 2013 07:30 AM NZST The woman behind the NSA scoops, Irin Carmon]
  10. [http://www.salon.com/2013/06/10/the_woman_behind_the_nsa_scoops/ Salon, Tuesday, Jun 11, 2013 07:30 AM NZST The woman behind the NSA scoops, Irin Carmon]