Interview: Laura Poitras of the Edward Snowden Documentary “Citizenfour”

Posted on November 5, 2014 at 12:00 pm

I normally begin my interviews by asking for permission to record the conversation for my notes.  But there was something eerily resonant about that routine request when I spoke to journalist Laura Poitras, director of the new documentary “Citizenfour,” about Edward Snowden, a contractor for the NSA who leaked massive amounts of confidential information about the pervasive and invasive intrusion of government spies into private exchanges by phone or email, even without any evidence of a threat to national security.  Snowden first contacted Poitras, identifying himself only as “citizenfour.”  They agreed to meet in Hong Kong, and most of the film takes place in his hotel room, as, joined by Guardian reporter Glenn Greenwald, they prepare for the release of the information and their stories about it.  Even though we know what happened, it is tense, gripping, and mesmerizing to see those last few moments before Snowden’s face was on front pages and every newscast around the world.

Poitras agreed to be taped, noting that she had to assume she was always being recorded.  I began by asking her about the limitations she felt as a filmmaker in making a visually dynamic film while being confined to just one room.   “At first when I walked in, it was like ‘oh wow, this represents limitations here. We are still stuck in this room, the walls, there is so much white in the room, there is no space.’  That was my first impression but I think actually in the editing room I realized that there are ways in which it was really a blessing, that you get this kind of claustrophobic feeling that increases over the days and that time sort of stops and then slowly we feel the outside world coming in.  So I do think in the end it turned out to be a positive thing. And then in terms of the dynamics that happened, it was pretty extraordinary for the building of events – from the first meeting to the publication to the global reaction, and then ultimately to Snowden leaving and going underground so I feel it was really interesting in the fact that is kind of awkward in this contained place. Honestly I was thinking there is a lot of white in this room.  White is not easy to work with but I think in retrospect I am appreciative of that circumstance.”

I asked how to achieve the right balance between secrecy and privacy.  “From what I’ve seen since 9/11, we’ve eroded civil liberties in the name of national security and I think that the government is becoming increasingly secretive about what it is doing. People know less and less and so for instance in terms of NSA surveillance, there is a public law, and then the government has the secret law or secret interpretation of that law. And I think that is really problematic.  I don’t think that these kinds of policies or decisions should be made behind the scenes by people in secret with no public debates or inner knowledge.  I think that is problematic and I think we’ve been drifting more and more into increasing secrecy in the government. It’s a problem. Elected officials are there on our behalf and we should know what our government is doing. I think is also false to say it is making us more secure because what we have right now is a situation where the U.S. is going around the world and making more enemies than it is making friends.  We should re-think our policies.  James Risen has a book, Pay Any Price: Greed, Power, and Endless War. This idea of the endless war — we have been at war since 2001 with these various countries and now we are seeing some of the unintended consequences of that. I would question whether or not the policy direction that the U.S. is going is actually making us any safer and I think there are lots of evidence to suggest that it is not. And collecting information on people who are suspected of nothing on a large massive scale doesn’t make us safer either because then here we have intelligence agencies that are drowning in too much information plus we are violating fundamental rights of our citizens around the world.”

She disputes the argument that the massive collection of data makes it less personally invasive. “I don’t think so at all, I think if you look at for instance journalists, if you’re collecting the call records of all journalists and you want to know who are their sources then you just query their phone records and so I think that it can be used in very invasive ways. I don’t think that because they collect so much it means that it is less invasive.” And she does not think that this level of surveillance would have prevented 9/11. “The CIA knew that there were people who came into this country and they didn’t pass the information to the FBI. So that is not example that they are swimming information it is that they didn’t communicate it to the people who could have prevented what happened.

Poitras is concerned that the depth and breadth of the information collected is itself a security risk. “There are people saying something like five million people have security clearances in this country. That is a lot of people. And there is more and more contracting out to other people who are not even working for the government. They are working for private companies and all have access to this amount of information.” I asked her to compare the intrusion of government with the apparently even more massive use of personal data by corporations like Google and Facebook. ” I think it is different. The power that the government has is very different than the power that the private company has. So I think there are actual big differences in terms of how this information can be used. But I think they people should also questions about how much information these companies have about us.” And, she pointed out, the government can use the information collected by Google and Facebook as well. “I also think there is a question of consent. When do you consent to share information and what is not consent.”

She respects the work of Senators Ron Wyden and Mark Udall in trying to establish more accountability and better policies, “but I also think that they could go further. They have immunity, so that they can come forward and let the public know what is happening if they have concerns about the scope and extent of these kind of programs. I’d love to see a real inquiry into the extent of surveillance and I think that those two senators are the forefront of pushing for that, but I urge them to do more.” And is Edward Snowden a hero? “That is not a question I engage in. I just find it a bit reductive and so I will pass on that question.”

Documentary filmmaking is now one of the most dynamic and compelling forms of journalism, so I asked Poitras what a movie can do in reporting that print cannot. Her answer was more about the timing issue than the format.
“They are totally different. They are both bound by by journalistic principles of making sure you do your fact checking and all that kind of stuff but it also needs to have more lasting meaning and raise more universal questions. Otherwise it is not going to be interesting. When I work on a news story, it has a certain impact but in a documentary, we were very clear in editing room our job is not to break news. That I can continue to report on this material and work on the news but the film needs to say something that is not just interesting for a certain amount of time but that will have lasting resonance and so for me, it is a question about individuals who take personal risks and that becomes more of a universal story. Yes, it is about NSA and NSA surveillance but it’s about human nature in different ways.”

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