Birth of a Whistle-Blower

An interview with Laura Poitras, director of the Oscar-winning documentary Citizenfour about Edward Snowden.

Citizenfour

Edward Snowden (left) talks with journalist Glenn Greenwald in a scene from Laura Poitras' documentary "Citizenfour."

Photo courtesy of the filmmaker

Content Tools

The strange trajectory of Edward Snowden—the former National Security Agency (NSA) contractor who went from being an obscure Ron Paul enthusiast with pronounced libertarian leanings to one of the world’s most prominent whistle-blowers and a perceived threat to the American government and its ever-burgeoning surveillance state—presents an irresistible opportunity for filmmakers. One of the most remarkable aspects of Citizenfour, Laura Poitras’ celebrated and Oscar-winning documentary on Snowden’s “self-outing” as a whistle-blower, is its resistance to facile pigeonholing. Almost every critic and commentator has mentioned the film’s resemblance to a Hollywood thriller.

Although Snowden, who initially is merely embodied by encrypted email messages on Poitras’ computer (the “citizenfour” of the film’s title), eventually surfaces as an appealing protagonist, the film’s canniest maneuver is to delay his appearance by introducing an array of personalities who share his belief that the NSA’s surveillance program has moved on from focusing exclusively on suspected terrorists to making every American with a computer or cell phone a potential target of invasive snooping. Poitras makes clear that a small constellation of activists paved the way for Snowden’s revelations. During an extended prologue, William Binney, a former NSA employee who became a victim of the government’s wrath after revealing the agency’s plans to monitor average Americans’ internet searches in the wake of 2001, is shown to be as intransigent as Snowden in his opposition to Orwellian surveillance. Jacob Appelbaum demonstrates how a few simple transactions by New York City subway riders—the purchase of a transit pass with a credit or debit card—can produce “metadata” that allows authorities to track a traveler’s every move. Since erroneous conclusions can be derived from the accumulated data, the scenario suggests a possible realization of the late science-fiction writer Philip K. Dick’s notion of “pre-crime”—the arrest of individuals for crimes not yet committed.

When Poitras, accompanied by journalists Glenn Greenwald and Ewen MacAskill, finally catches up with Snowden at Hong Kong’s Mira Hotel, he rails against “modern media” and its focus on “personalities, not the story.” By opening the film with a procession of Snowden’s allies (as well as ominous glimpses of America’s largest “spy center,” an NSA outpost in Bluffdale, Utah), and delaying the appearance of the “star,” Poitras honors her subject’s desire to avoid the vacuity of celebrity journalism.

Despite our awareness of the outcome, genuine tension ensues when Poitras, Greenwald, and MacAskill camp out in Snowden’s hotel room and prepare to reveal his identity to the international media. There is a palpable sense of paranoia as Snowden, who fears that the room may be raided at any moment and the hotel phones could be used as surveillance devices, covers his laptop with a blanket in order to prevent access to the computer’s camera and forestall detection of highly sensitive documents. He also chides Greenwald for failing to formulate passwords complex enough to evade being deciphered by the powers that be. On the one hand, it’s arguable that adhering to these procedures might transform us all into potential paranoids. Alternately, it’s equally reasonable to conclude that these simple precautions will become obligatory as the very notion of privacy becomes a quaint remnant of the past. Those who believe they have “nothing to hide” are sadly mistaken.

Rather oddly, one of the most shattering moments in Citzenfour occurs when Poitras interrupts Snowden’s saga to refamiliarize us with footage of President Obama denouncing “Mr. Snowden” and assailing notions that the whistle-blower might be deemed a hero. While most of us remember Obama’s platitudes, it’s disturbing to hear them once more within the context of a film that affirms Snowden’s basic decency and earnestness. Some skeptics, of course, remain unconvinced. In the previous incarnation of The New Republic, Yishai Schwartz scoffed at the depiction of Snowden in Citzenfour and branded him a “lawbreaker” and a “liar” who “perhaps” is “Putin’s useful idiot.” Snowden’s own calm lucidity, on the other hand, places him within a long tradition of dissidence, perhaps best characterized by one of the concluding sentences of Henry David Thoreau’s essay “Civil Disobedience”—“There will never be a really free and enlightened State until the State comes to recognize the individual as a higher and independent power, from which all its own power and authority are derived, and treats him accordingly.”

Cineaste interviewed Poitras about a month after Citizenfour’s theatrical release last fall. For a director who has been continually detained and interrogated by federal agents at American airports and feels more confident working abroad, she proved surprisingly optimistic and seemed convinced that principled dissent might well eventually triumph over the encroachments of the American surveillance state.

Cineaste: Now that Citizenfour has been out for a while, has there been any response from the NSA or any other governmental agency?

Laura Poitras: No, not directly. And I wasn’t contacted about the film or my NSA reporting by any branch of the U.S. government. Although I have not been approached, it doesn’t mean there was no response—it just means the response was not apparent to me.

Cineaste: Has Snowden seen the film?

Poitras: We screened not a locked, but close to locked, cut for him in September. Mathilde Bonnefoy, my editor and producer, and I traveled to Russia. We screened it for Snowden and his partner Lindsay Mills. It was the first time I had met Lindsay. During that visit, we filmed the sequence that you see at the end of the movie where they are cooking.

Cineaste: I’m curious about how the structure of the film evolved. One of the intriguing aspects of this documentary is the fact that you delay Snowden’s eventual appearance in a Hong Kong hotel room. He’s only part of the puzzle and you set up his revelations by introducing us to other activists and whistle-blowers such as William Binney and Jacob Appelbaum. How did that structure evolve?

Poitras: I had been working on a film on the topics of the NSA, surveillance, and journalism before Snowden contacted me. In the first act of the film, before we get to Hong Kong, Mathilde and I wanted to provide some context for what was happening before—what people were saying and what the government was saying, and how they were lying. We just wanted to paint a picture of the landscape pre-Snowden, particularly the situation for whistle-blowers. That’s why William Binney was important for the film. Here’s a man who worked for the NSA for over three decades. He was the NSA’s Technical Director. The FBI showed up at his house with guns drawn after he raised questions internally about NSA domestic surveillance. The fact that we’re living in times like these is pretty extreme. It’s incredible that someone entrusted with protecting the country from nuclear annihilation would be targeted by the FBI for raising questions about a program the government knew was illegal.

So we wanted to paint a portrait of the environment that prompted Snowden to come forward with the documents, leave the country, and seek political asylum. It also had a lot to do with what happened in that courtroom scene. Another important context we wanted to show was the use of the state secrets privilege to evade legal challenges to post-9/11 policies.

Cineaste: Was that footage you shot?

Poitras: Yes, that was footage I shot. The legalese made it a very complicated thing to shoot and edit. What’s most shocking about the courtroom scene is that the U.S. government is arguing that there will be damage to national security if the American public knows it’s being spied upon. That’s a pretty extreme position to hold in a democracy. We still have the Constitution, we have the Fourth Amendment, and what the government was saying here was  ...

Cineaste: Nullifying the right to privacy?

Poitras: Exactly. And not only that, they were claiming the government has the right to make these decisions in secret and to have secret interpretations of laws. I find that this is one of the most frightening aspects—not only of the NSA story—but also of the entire post-9/11 era. The government is hiding behind state secrets to prevent any legal challenges to its programs. It’s been a consistent playbook and it had never been used to the extent that it’s been used since 9/11; just like the Espionage Act.

Cineaste: And then there are the excesses of the Patriot Act.

Poitras: Yes, there are all of these things that create more and more secrecy and less and less accountability. So what we wanted to do in the film, before getting to Hong Kong, was to set the stage, presenting both the legal context and the context for whistle-blowers. And also to show what was happening with activists and people who voiced dissent. This is why Jacob Appelbaum is shown training Occupy Wall Street. What he’s saying is that “you guys are the canaries in the coal mines.” What happens to activists presages what will eventually happen to the population in general.

Cineaste: His demonstration of how metadata can be accessed through the purchase of a Metrocard is very concrete and easy to grasp.

Poitras: He’s really masterful in explaining abstract concepts in concrete terms. He’s functioning as a teacher in the film.

Cineaste: You also give us as glimpse of the NSA’s Data Center in Bluffdale, Utah.

Poitras: The Bluffdale footage shows the architecture of the surveillance state—this is the building where our communications will soon live—and it’s also to show that this is expanding. In the editing room, we knew that the Hong Kong material was going to be the heart of the film. But we wanted to take time to arrive at the destination, mirroring the fact that it took time for me to meet Snowden. I knew from the beginning that the emails from Snowden would be important for the film and I wanted them to narrate the first act.

Cineaste: They give the film a dramatic arc.

Poitras: Yes, they give it an arc, and a mystery, and a buildup. They also evoke a mental state—just as the shot of the tunnel at the beginning of the film points to some sort of mystery. It indicates that we’re going on a journey full of danger and uncertainty. I certainly felt danger when I was receiving these emails. I knew, if the source was for real, that the risks would be enormous. There would be very powerful people coming down on the source and the journalist reporting the story.

Cineaste: Why do you think the Obama Administration has been such a disappointment? Before the election, Obama claimed that he would adopt a policy of transparency. But his administration has gone after more whistle-blowers than any previous administration.

Poitras: I wish I had an answer for that. It’s probably just basic cowardice and political compromise. I can’t imagine it’s some conscious bait and switch—“We’re going to say we’re going to close Guantánamo and then do the reverse.” I think it’s more likely they buckled and sold out. It’s really hard to reconcile the rhetoric before the election and the administration that we’ve seen. But, yes, it’s profoundly disappointing. I’d be curious to know what you think, though.

Cineaste: I’m not sure. I have been struck, however, by the fact that some of the most skeptical critics of Snowden consider themselves liberals. It’s almost as if the chilling effects of the post-9/11 era have permanently infected liberalism.

Poitras: Yes, Obama said he would close Guantánamo on his first day in office and I made a short film about that. I believe he said that because he meant it. I think his political advisers came in and argued that if they compromised on some of these principled things, they could get other things through. That was a bad deal to make. It actually did the opposite, proving to their opposition that they weren’t going to stand up for their principles. And this created a backlash.

Cineaste: How would you respond to George Packer’s critique of the film in The New Yorker? Packer makes the claim that William Binney believes that Snowden went “too far” and the film avoids dealing with this.

Poitras: I’ve actually spent a lot of time with Binney and he’s very supportive of what Snowden did. I don’t think that Packer represented Binney’s perspective well at all. He should have interviewed Binney. There was some confusion about what was published regarding China. Binney was responding to something that was not correctly described. If George had talked to Binney for the piece, I believe he would have heard something very different.

Cineaste: In Jane Mayer’s interview with Snowden, he claimed that Binney has revised his opinion.

Poitras: Yes, I think that George could have focused on someone else if he wanted to make that argument. There are plenty of people who opposed what Snowden did—I just don’t think that Binney is one of them.

Cineaste: Since an earlier film of yours, My Country, My Country, was inspired by one of his articles, I presume you have some respect for Packer’s work.

Poitras: Of course. We can have different political worldviews. My views are certainly different than George’s—he supported the war in Iraq and I didn’t. I think, however, that his reporting from Iraq was remarkable and complex. I think good reporting should be open enough that your audience doesn’t have to agree with your political viewpoints. The film I did about Iraq was shown at military colleges. They learned from it—even if we might not agree politically. If you do good journalism, it should provide an opening for people to come away with different conclusions. So I don’t think it’s a contradiction. But, in the case of Binney, George should have dug a bit deeper because Binney, like Thomas Drake, has been pretty consistent in his support for Snowden and doesn’t believe that Snowden had that many options.

Cineaste: Thomas Drake actually met with Snowden in Russia, didn’t he?

Poitras: Yes, we’re living in a time of unprecedented targeting of whistle-blowers and journalists. As you said, the Espionage Act has been used more times against dissidents during the Obama Administration than in any other time in history. That’s the context in which this journalism has happened. In terms of Snowden, he decided to work with journalists. If people want to take issue with what’s been reported, they should talk to the journalists because we are making the calls about what’s in the public interest to publish. Snowden wanted the journalists to make those calls, not himself.

Cineaste: In other words, the skeptical journalists in The New Republic should have talked to the journalists reporting other leaks. Actually, Packer’s objections were rather mild compared to someone like The Wall Street Journal’s Edward Jay Epstein, who has more or less accused Snowden of espionage for a foreign power.

Poitras: If people want to come up with accusations, they have to reveal what facts they’re basing this on. The narrative that he’s working for a foreign power is completely absurd.

Cineaste: It makes no sense.

Poitras: Yes, you see it in the scenes in the hotel. Why would he be meeting with Glenn and me in a hotel room in Hong Kong? I don’t even dignify these accusations.

Cineaste: I think these accusations are absurd, but I felt obligated to ask you about them since they’re in the ether.

Poitras: Yeah, I know. You’re doing your job. But, although I think everyone is free to decide whether Snowden did the right thing or the wrong thing, you can’t fabricate narratives. And those narratives are fabrications.

Cineaste: Our magazine has spilled a lot of ink researching the damage wrought by the legacy of the Hollywood blacklist. In his book, No Place to Hide: Edward Snowden, the NSA, and the U.S. Surveillance State, Glenn Greenwald also sees parallels between the repression of dissent in the post-World War II era and our current surveillance state. Does that make sense to you?

Poitras: Sure, there are parallels in that the government is deliberately targeting people. I’ve experienced the chilling effects of that targeting by being placed on a watchlist. While the tools and capabilities are obviously vastly different today than they were at the time of the blacklist, the impact on free speech, as well as the chilling effect, is identical, and absolutely a threat to our rights.

Cineaste: Why do you think you’ve been detained and interrogated so many times at airports?

Poitras: You have to remember that it’s a secret watchlist. So I don’t get to ask those questions. When I try to explain my experience, it’s not Orwell, it’s Kafka. Orwell would be the thought police looking at my films and saying, “We don’t like what she’s saying.” I do not think that is what is happening. It’s more Kafka in that there’s a system that’s out of control and I kind of got caught up within it. Once you’re in it, you don’t know how to get out of it. There’s a kind of self-perpetuating quality to the way intelligence agencies work in the post-9/11 era. Thanks to a whistle-blower, who came forward to tell us how people get put on the watchlist, we know a lot more about it. And now that there are documents, there are legal challenges. Hopefully, someday I’ll get to see my file. Until then, I don’t think I’m going to know why I was placed on a watchlist. To me, the question is why is there a secret watchlist in a country that supposedly observes the rule of law and due process. When I tried to get more information about the watchlist, the government would not even acknowledge the existence of a watchlist. I had to leave the country in order to work and protect my source material because of being on a watchlist.

Cineaste: But even if you’re not dealing with the “thought police,” this sort of surveillance has the potential to squelch dissent, especially in the Muslim-American community.

Poitras: Absolutely. There’s been way too little reporting on the impact of surveillance in the Muslim-American community. Not only do we know that they’re using physical surveillance, the percentage of people on the watchlist is, after New York, the highest in Dearborn, Michigan. That’s straight-up ethnic profiling. The U.S. government is also sending informants into Muslim-American communities. It’s straight out of ...

Cineaste: COINTELPRO?

Poitras: Exactly.

Cineaste: Toward the end of Citizenfour, you intimate that there might be another whistle-blower coming forward. Do you have any additional information on that matter?

Poitras: You know that I’m not going to say anything about my sources. I obviously can’t say anything about that. Jeremy Scahill is continuing to report on this. Some of the information discussed in the scene, such as the watchlist documents, has now been revealed. And there will be more reporting.

Cineaste: More information will appear on The Intercept? (Editor’s note: The Intercept is a website that Poitras co-founded with Greenwald and Scahill that provides ongoing coverage of the information revealed by Snowden).

Poitras: Yes. My reason for ending the film that way means we’re saying that the programs the government is involved in are ongoing. It’s not just surveillance we should worry about, but also the drone program and other programs that are being conducted in secret. Whistle-blowers are putting their lives on the line to expose information that citizens should know about in a democracy. It shouldn’t take whistle-blowers risking their lives for us to find out what our government is doing in a democracy. Our government and elected officials should be accountable.

Cineaste: Snowden has said that seeing drone strikes in real time provided the catalyst for him coming forward.

Poitras: He talks about drone strikes as a motivation. He also talks about what happened to the internet. He grew up when the internet represented freedom and now it’s become something to be used against people. Something with such potential for human communication and leveling the playing field is now being flipped to being a tool for control and surveillance. I think that was actually his biggest motivator, although he definitely talked about seeing real-time drone feeds at the NSA.

Cineaste: How do you see Citizenfour fitting into your trilogy on the “war on terror?”

Poitras: It’s my hope that all of the films stand on their own. They also chart a history. When I was filming in Iraq during My Country, My Country, who knew we would eventually be killing people with drones? There’s a history that unfolds through all of the films. Unfortunately, instead of the pendulum swinging back toward the rule of law, we seem to be drifting away from fundamental principles into a moral vacuum. I don’t think historians will end up looking favorably at this chapter of U.S. history. We’re 13 years into war. How does all of this make us any safer? On a positive note, the film shows people who think these things are wrong and are willing to take a stand.

Cineaste: It will probably have a pedagogical function since students will see this film and learn about the morass we’re in.

Poitras: I hope so. This era of perpetual war is really frightening.

Cineaste: If the war on terror is like the war on drugs, it will go on forever.

Poitras: I hope you’re wrong.


Richard Porton is a Cineaste editor and author of Film and the Anarchist Imagination. Reprinted from Cineaste (Spring 2015), America’s leading magazine on the art and politics of the cinema.