Technical issues and social justice are tied together when we talk about mass surveillance. Cryptography – that is, mathematics and computer science – has a liberating possibility for us. At the core, I don’t think policy really helps us. [Denmark’s] government and my government participate in a program called RAMPART A – a partner-based fiber optic cable-tapping program. Law enforcement and telecommunications companies partner all around the world, along with the US National Security Agency, to help tap fiber optic cables. A huge amount of data is collected sometimes from our phone calls or emails and all that data goes through these cables. The NSA and your spy services work together against you. And me. And they spy on all of us.
– Jacob Appelbaum, Crytoparty at CPH:DOX 2014 (1)
In an excerpted interview from 1976 with Emile de Antonio and Mary Lampson about their film entitled Underground on the eve of the film’s debut in Madison, Wisconsin, the interviewer in an apparent homage to the film’s subjects appears as an anonymous collective calling itself Free For All. FFA asks the filmmakers, “How much of the process itself was a collective process – writing the movie and directing it – involving the Weather Underground?” (2)
De Antonio answers: “They are the film’s actors, its protagonists. They exercised a strong sense of security over us. They laid down all the ground rules, how the film should be done, where, when, and how much of their faces could be shown. All this had to be agreed upon before there could be any contact. One of their demands from the beginning was a hard, principled stand against the government, against any cooperation with a grand jury [italics are the author’s]. …We fought a long war that emerged as a collective victory for us, for them, and for the film. To answer your question, there is no director of this film, no writer, no producer. The credits are alphabetical.”
Besides Underground, there were only two other films on offer in American filmmaker Laura Poitras’ curation for this year’s edition of CPH:DOX – the Copenhagen International Documentary Film Festival that took place last month. As well as screening her new documentary Citizenfour as a selection in the DOX:AWARD competition, Poitras was invited by the festival’s programmers to put together a special sidebar section, the latest in a line of (in)famous artistic personalities invited by this festival to present a bespoke selection of cinematic works that have deeply influenced his or her own milieu. The other films in her selection, which she called Astro Noise, were first-time director Johanna Hamilton’s 1971 (2014) about an anonymous group of people calling themselves the Citizens’ Commission to Investigate the FBI. These everyday people broke into an FBI field office in the backwater of Media, Pennsylvania and stole thousands of secret government documents that revealed that the agency, under the leadership of J. Edgar Hoover, was spying on citizens and participating in a broad range of illegal activities to neutralise any and all critical voices on American policy. Poitras is the film’s executive producer. The other film made by the masterful Finnish director, Pirjo Honkasalo, was The 3 Rooms of Melancholia (Melancholian 3 huonetta)from 2004, a film in three chapters – Longing, Breathing and Remembering – which documents the devastating ruin brought on by the Second Chechen War, specifically, its effects on the children of Chechnya and Russia. This film has consistently been on my own top-ten-best-nonfiction-films-of-all-time list ever since seeing it.
Instead of a program consisting entirely of film works, Poitras also curated a group of people to bring with her to Copenhagen, select members of her core team to appear with her throughout the week in various talks, workshops and exhibitions. These men are the ones that have been by Poitras’ side through what has been a thrilling and harrowing journey, by turns, filled with unsettling encounters with her own country’s border patrol for close to a decade. With the help of other investigative journalists, she found her own intrepid “adversarial” voice, distinctive from that of her other films wherein her presence was much more enigmatic. In her latest film, for the first time, we actually experience her as a physical presence on screen, albeit briefly. She, along with her protagonist, Edward Snowden, is an identifiable teller of this tale, a protagonist in her own story.
As a reporter, she has had many prestigious awards and citations bestowed upon her for displays of downright bravery accompanied by stellar reportage, targeting the same government that has been targeting her. The most recent citation is the 2014 I.F. Stone Medal for Journalistic Independence awarded each year by the Nieman Foundation for Journalism at Harvard University; Poitras will be honoured along with Amy Goodman, host and executive producer of “Democracy Now!” at a ceremony in Boston in February 2015. Poitras’ journey from being a chef at L’Espalier, a French restaurant located in Boston’s Back Bay, to studying under experimental filmmaker Ernie Gehr at the San Francisco Art Institute to her move to New York in the early ‘90s to pursue filmmaking to her first trip to Iraq in 2004 to start what has become a deep and abiding investigation into post-9/11 America, has been wide-ranging and profound. And up until now, an extremely lonely road.
Being validated by the international journalistic community has much meaning for Poitras. In an interview with me from 2008, she mentioned that she had read an article by George Packer called “War After the War” that was the trigger for making her film, My Country, My Country. “Packer captured the tragedy of it. His piece was incredibly moving and, in a sense, cathartic. There was all this debate and polarisation, but he was grappling with what was going on – this history – in an expressive and complicated way. His writing says something not just politically, but artistically, emotionally, struggling to express something human and personal. And I, in turn, was motivated by a desire to do the same thing about this tragic war.” (3)
While working on the final installment of her proposed film trilogy at the beginning of 2013, Poitras was unexpectedly handpicked to receive direct access to a young man who was planning to sound a mighty strong whistle blow of warning, one that should have led to one of the most radical governmental exposés in US history. But have these ripples reached the security agencies and corporate businesses that stand accused in this “scandal”? And if so, what are the impacts, the fallouts, and responses? Across the board, it’s been somewhat quiet in terms of reactions, no spokespeople coming forward to set the record straight in any clear and defined terms. Henrik Moltke, a close associate of Poitras’ and a Danish digital activist who has been working on various accesses to knowledge and copyright-reform projects – including one entitled Follow the Cables that he presented in Copenhagen as part of Poitras’ program – was asked by an audience member about any official statements from the US Embassy in Denmark. He said the official response had been, “We have no reason to assume there is any interest in spying on Danish citizens or the country of Denmark.” Punkt. Even the social democratic havens of Western Europe have discomfiting and unsavoury histories when it comes to spying on their own citizenry.
Poitras and company took Danish audiences through what amounted to a boot camp on the realities of the world in which we all are “surfing the cables,” (4) at one point, at a Cryptoparty hosted by Poitras, Appelbaum and William Binney, offering one-on-one tutorials between the astute and solid hacker/watchdog community in Denmark (there is actually a union there called PROSA) and anyone who brought his or her laptop and wanted to learn about the various free encryption software programs available to keep prying eyes from their stuff. Journalists were especially keen on the ability to guard sources that need to remain anonymous for everyone’s security, most vitally that of the journalist’s.
The group included Moltke who is also working with Edward Snowden’s documents in Copenhagen – and bicycles regularly from Copenhagen to Berlin and back, taking some interesting photos of clandestine structures in isolated places on his journeys; the aforementioned Jacob Appelbaum, an independent computer security researcher and investigative journalist, and also the person who initially taught Poitras, at her request, how to use the encryption software that came in mighty handy when someone with the handle Citizenfour started sending her encrypted emails in January 2013 and asking to exchange internet keys; and, William Binney, a 36-year National Security Agency veteran, a cryptanalyst-mathematician who also became a whistleblower on his own employer after discovering that elements of a data-monitoring program he had helped develop in the 1990s named ThinThread were being used to spy on Americans.
The other person closest to Poitras in this work, investigative journalist Glenn Greenwald, did not appear in person. But he was front and centre as one of the protagonists in Citizenfour. The film’s screenings at CPH:DOX – as they have been everywhere else – were so impactful for Danish audiences and journalists that after the Q&A on the eve of the film’s premiere, Tine Fischer, CPH:DOX’s founder and artistic director, announced that the festival would work with distributors to ensure that the film would be released in cinemas all across Denmark in the weeks following the festival.
The final installment of Poitras’ documentary trilogy on post-9/11 America following My Country, My Country and The Oath, is a distinct change of course in many ways for the filmmaker. The collective effort to get the piece made was very much in the same spirit as that of de Antonio and Lampson and the cooperation they received from their renegade subjects, an American revolutionary group that had already gone underground when the team of de Antonio, Lampson and DOP Haskell Wexler got them to talk in 1975. The group was behind several domestic bombings, its stated goal that of armed conflict with the State. The FBI considered them a terrorist cell and there was an attempt to confiscate the film to be used as evidence against them in court.
Lest one think there is little comparison to that of these so-called terrorists and the perceived dangers of de Antonio and Lampson’s film to Citizenfour and the soft-spoken, bespectacled Ed Snowden – who in one of his first missives to Poitras told her that he was going to come forward with his identity and that he wanted her “to paint a target on my back” – here’s William Binney to set the record straight in that blunt way he has of someone who has nothing more to lose so he says whatever the hell he wants:
The US wanted to apply the Espionage Act from 1917 against Snowden – which has the death penalty attached, okay? In order to do that, he has to have a foreign country that he’s working for. That’s where this allegation [that he will work for Russia in exchange for asylum in Moscow] comes from. This was used against Tom Drake and others in my country, like Daniel Ellsberg. They can’t get away with that anymore. But there’s a law on the books that can still accuse someone as a spy if they work for a foreign enterprise.
Here’s Appelbaum with his response to the idea that Snowden would have supplied the Russian government with information in exchange for asylum: “That which is presented without evidence may be dismissed without argument. There is no evidence that supports that. Actually what happened is that for the first time in my lifetime, Russia did the right thing with regard to human rights. That must burn so badly for everyone who is in a position to criticise Russia.”
Besides the film, the projects Poitras, Binney, Appelbaum, Greenwald and others have embarked upon are specifically to uncover and report on a vast range of issues that the exposure of the National Security Agency’s (NSA) wide-scale surveillance on private citizens has spawned. This includes the founding of The Intercept, (5) a publication created by Greenwald, Poitras, and Jeremy Scahill, its short-term mission to provide a platform to report on the documents provided by Snowden, the co-master mind of Poitras’ film. Citizenfour, the movie, acts as a type of piñata-breaker, the last collective whack at a sacred cow that is sending showers of exposed secrets raining down on us all, clearing a space in the public discourse, if one so chooses – if one cares – to scramble to collect as many pieces of information as possible to try and make sense of something many of us, at least subconsciously, felt was happening. If it wasn’t the distinct knowledge that much of the innocuous (but personal) missives from our email boxes and phones – including the metadata of our social media profiles – were being collected by the NSA in collaboration with law enforcement agencies the world over, then we certainly suspected it was Big Business nosing around, uncannily tracking our potential buying impulses, as in: “How does Facebook know I’ve been looking at Oster Fusion blenders in Brushed Nickel?”
One of the things that I learned over the course of the week spent in the company of Poitras, Appelbaum, Binney and Moltke is that this triad of national security agency, international law enforcement, and big telecommunications companies is tied so inextricably together, they’re all engaged in perpetual intercourse – literally, an orgy of stealing personal and private information on tax-paying citizens, capitalising on this knowledge, and watching major money roll in. Or, perhaps, being given a nice big fat contract at the vice-presidential level at a top privately held corporation for some former governmental employee, say from the NSA. Are we still talking about “The 1%” or is that already passé?
Here’s Poitras at the post-screening Q&A at the premiere of Citizenfour in Copenhagen:
Snowden’s main concern in the beginning was that the world wouldn’t really care about the information he had decided to share. We surpassed that fear in Hong Kong when people started publishing the things he had uncovered. … This film tells a story about why my country has gone so far off track in terms of its policies and what it stands for. People are willing to risk so much to inform the public about what’s happening. I’m not trying to step back and tell an objective story – I’m interested in the people like Bill Binney and Ed Snowden that have stepped into this whistleblower position to inform people. We can understand what’s at stake more, I think, through the lives of individuals.
Why is it that a 29-year-old would take the risk that he took and give up so much? If we can understand that, then maybe we can understand why these issues are so vital. There are many, many sources contributing to the reporting that’s been done and continues to be. That’s not the pertinent question. The question should be what’s happening in our government and why it’s becoming increasingly secretive so that people who note this wrongdoing have to take these risks. The fact is that whistleblowers are being targeted in the US, as are the journalists who are being pulled into leak investigations. The risks are ongoing and very real.
Let’s shift our attention now to this (now 31-year-old) protagonist of Poitras’ film and that question she’s asking about his motives. Who exactly is this guy and why did he take such a risk and give up so much? After meeting him in Poitras’ film, I still don’t have the foggiest. The last glimpse of him we are allowed to see is one of him and his girlfriend, who has joined him in Moscow, filmed by Poitras through the picture window of their kitchen cooking dinner together, the young couple lit up in a domestic diorama, our last glimpse of this mysterious cipher we’ve been allowed so close to in that hotel room as he’s providing Poitras and Greenwald with the goods on their own government. It says so much about Poitras as a film director and as a person – as well as the nod to her own experiences as a private US citizen being put on a watch list by her own government – that she decided not to invade his privacy further and sit down with him in his living room for a long cozy chat about life underground in the former USSR, and how does it feel? We’ll have to wait for the Barbara Walters special.
Also, what is it, exactly, about wanting to know about the people doing the uncovering and the reasons behind why they’re doing so, that makes that question not “pertinent”? I, for one, think it’s extremely pertinent. How can a society that’s been lied to by its major media for so long start to suddenly believe in what we’re being told is happening to our privacy? This is where Citizenfour saves itself from asking these harder questions, because the director also identifies as an artist with the right to interpret, to intervene, to hold a viewer’s attention as she sees fit. She did that in Iraq and in Yemen, and also at Guantánamo. It is the withholding that is most evocative of the subjects she’s chosen to film.
I first met Laura in person in the spring of 2008 in New York, one year after starting a blog that was initially devoted to the female directors who were making groundbreaking work that shone so brightly on the international documentary stage, many of them working pretty much as a solo act. I found it incredibly inspiring to talk to these women with their unwavering gazes and dedication to telling true and vitally important stories. When I think of Laura, I think of qualities like restraint, privacy, reserve, deeply thoughtful articulation, and of a kind of moral exactitude about how she approaches her work. There is also a conscious withholding in the way she chooses to frame her protagonists. Not at all interested in presenting outraged screeds against unseen forces, this privileged Bostonian has crafted films, which have, in fact, become less and less emotional, more precise and exact in their presentation of the Protagonist and the power he wields as the main storyteller – protagonist, a word often interchanged with that of hero. And Poitras has a nose for finding unlikely heroes. This ability is, in large part, the reason Snowden sought her out.
Just as The Weather Underground “exercised a strong sense of security” over the ones telling their story, laying “down ground rules” in hopes of a “collective victory”, Snowden, more than any other real-life protagonist in film in recent memory, presents a similar profile. He was the one who initially contacted Poitras, not the other way around. In that overwhelming week spent with Snowden holed up in that hotel room in Hong Kong, she admits: “Glenn’s and my mistake as journalists was not realising how short of a time there would be between the publishing of the video and the act of finding a place of refuge for Snowden once that broke. We should have gotten him a lawyer much sooner so that it wouldn’t have been such a close call when the press started calling. But Snowden was one step ahead of me ever since we had been talking during the previous six months. So I thought after Hong Kong he had that next step figured out. But his plan stopped at meeting us and giving us the information so we could report. He needed support and help. Sarah Harrison from WikiLeaks was able to broker his political asylum and get him to Moscow. It was an incredibly accelerated timeframe in which we were working. Moscow wasn’t to be his ultimate destination, of course, but his passport was revoked. Harrison stayed with him for over 40 days in the Moscow airport to make sure that there would not be risk of the Russian government turning him in or wanting to question him – that his only cooperation would be with journalists, and not with any government agencies whatsoever.” A strategy lifted straight from the Underground playbook.
In a nod to the two other films she programmed, I also see this homage to restraint and an abiding dedication to representing the protagonists as participating in a joint intervention, ensconced in an atmosphere of fear and risk on all sides that results in the kind of truth-telling one feels in a visceral way. The maker must tangle with a sometimes quite elusive persona – one who is willing to step forward to “tell all” but in a tightly controlled way, fully aware of what the stakes are, sometimes more so than the filmmaker. I am reminded of a film directed by another American, Jessica Yu, called Protagonist from 2007, when I think of Dr Riyadh al-Adhadh, Abu Jandal and Edward Snowden, men who crosscut their tales with that of the painful and deeply personal story Poitras wants to tell about her shifting views towards, and difficult questions about, her own country following the Iraq War. Yu profiled four ordinary men who tell first-person stories of their disillusionment, their search for agency and the hard-won wisdom and redemption they experienced because of crashing through the “traps” of their own perceived fates. (6) Yu’s film, like Poitras’, never explicitly asks us to view the limiting function that absolute certainty might play in our lives, the certainty that’s meant to rationally explain why we do the things we do and the, sometimes, devastating effects that that absolute certainty brings. Saving the world is the farthest thing from their minds. There is never one person – nor one film – that can save the world. But there are some that do change it by stepping forward. Even they are not able to fully explain why.
After he left the NSA in 2001, William Binney was one of several people investigated as part of an inquiry into the agency’s eavesdropping program. Even though he was cleared of any wrongdoing after undergoing three interviews with the FBI beginning in March 2007, one morning in July of that year a dozen agents armed with rifles entered his home, one of them coming into his bathroom and pointing his gun at a naked Binney with towel in hand who was just stepping out of the shower. In that raid, the FBI confiscated his desktop computer, disks and personal and business records. His former employer, the NSA, revoked his security clearance. In 2012, Binney and his co-plaintiffs went to federal court to get the items back. (7)
These days, Binney uses a normal landline and does not use encryption software for his emails. When asked why, he says: “I’ve been a target of the NSA, the FBI, the CIA and the DOJ for at least the last twelve years. If I were to use encryption with anybody that would automatically move that person into my category of target. So I don’t do that to people. There’s another primary reason why I don’t do that. Everything I do is out in the open, in the public domain. Because if I was to be charged with anything or taken to court, they can’t hide it like they did with Chelsea Manning or Tom Drake. I keep them honest. If they want to take me to court on a charge, they’re going to have to talk plainly about what it is they’re charging me with.
“… In answer to the question, when will we get our privacy back: If you have nothing to hide, you have nothing to fear. I think Joseph Goebbels said that. It doesn’t matter what you think; it matters what the government thinks. No, not the way things stand now will we get our privacy back. The NSA is in this with many other agencies around the world. They have a lot of help from a lot of friendly governments; there are 33 known parties, the main ones being Great Britain, Canada, Australia and New Zealand. Unless this is dealt with globally, it’s going to be very hard to get your privacy back. I, along with some other advisors, have told President Obama that he cannot trust his intelligence agencies. They also lie to Congress regularly; they lie to one another. We need technical groups like hackers; we need to authorise them to go into any agency and intelligence community at any time and look at anything they want to, to verify that those lying sons of bitches are doing what they’re doing.” Meet the main protagonist of Poitras’ next film.
A couple of months ago, the same George Packer who inspired Poitras’ first foray into Iraq wrote a piece on her work with Snowden for The New Yorker called “The Holder of Secrets”. He describes her as having “brown eyes that habitually have a look of alarm, as if she were staring at something from which she wanted to escape. Her features – strong nose; sensitive mouth; a long wave of dark hair, parted in the middle – bring to mind a Victorian artist, a woman of character whose intensity is kept under wraps.” (8)
I’ll give the final word to this “woman of character” who has wittingly given up huge amounts of her own privacy and struggles daily to preserve what’s left of it. However, her relief at not carrying this burden alone anymore was palpable that week in Copenhagen, the habitual look of alarm in her eyes replaced by a sparkle, wide smiles, easy laughter, and a relaxed and confident demeanour displayed on stage, flanked by her brothers-in-arms:
I won’t say it’s not been hard. I moved to Berlin to edit the film so that I wouldn’t have to deal with the US border, which became a very antagonistic place. Even though it happens every time, when you have two people with guns meet you at the airplane and ask questions about where you’ve been and what you did there, even though you know it’s coming, it’s intimidating.
On the other hand, it’s been the most profound experience of my life to work on this alongside the people that have helped me, people who have all put their lives on the line for something they believe in. That’s incredibly rewarding. It’s a privilege to do this work.
1. CPH:DOX, Curated by Laura Poitras, Cryptoparty feat. Jacob Appelbaum, Copenhagen November 2014.
2, Emile de Antonio, Douglas Kellner and Dan Streible (eds), Emile De Antonio – A Reader, University of Minnesota Press, 2000. Foreword by Haskell Wexler.
3. Pamela Cohn, “Interview: Laura Poitras, Director My Country, My Country”, Still in Motion, 19 April 2008.
4. CPH:DOX, Curated by Laura Poitras, Follow the Cables: Radio documentary and picture proofs with Henrik Moltke, Copenhagen November 2014.
5. The // Intercept, https://firstlook.org/theintercept/.
6. Edwin Turner, “Interviews with Hideous Men – Jessica Yu’s Documentary Protagonist”, Biblioklept , 10 July 2011.
7. The FRONTLINE Interviews, United States of Secrets, William Binney, PBS.org.
8. George Packer, “The Holder of Secrets: Laura Poitras’s closeup view of Edward Snowden”, The New Yorker, 20 October 2014.