“Drop the Pen!”: An Interview with Laura Poitras

By Jon WienerOctober 23, 2014

LAURA POITRAS’S film Citizenfour opens October 24 — it documents the week she and Glenn Greenwald met Edward Snowden in Hong Kong and he revealed the existence of mass NSA surveillance. Poitras received a MacArthur “genius” grant in 2012. Her previous documentaries include My Country, My Country (2006), which was nominated for an Academy Award, and The Oath (2010), for the PBS series POV. The reports on NSA surveillance she wrote with Glenn Greenwald and Barton Gellman received a Pulitzer Prize in 2014.


JON WIENER: Edward Snowden contacted you because he read an article about you by Glenn Greenwald. What in the article made him think you would be interested in his story?

LAURA POITRAS: In the spring of 2012 I was coming home through Newark airport, and was stopped getting off the plane by Homeland Security — something that had happened to me many times starting in 2006. In 2012 I started doing what I had been advised to do by lawyers, which was to take notes on everything: who’s stopping me, what time, what questions they ask. So I took out my pen and started taking notes on what was happening, and one Homeland Security agent says, “Put the pen down! Drop the pen! If you don’t stop taking notes, we’re going to handcuff you.” I ask why, and they say my pen potentially was a weapon. I am facing two Homeland Security agents with guns, and they are shouting, “Drop the pen! Drop the pen!”

I ask to speak to a supervisor. He comes in, and everyone again yells, “Put the pen down! Drop the pen!” More threats of handcuffs. This goes on for a long time. I ask the supervisor for crayons so that I could write down all their names. They won’t give me crayons. At some point their story changes to “we’re the ones asking questions, not you. Pay attention to us and answer our questions.” I say, “I’m a journalist, I’m not going to engage with your questions.” I was there for a long time — an hour and a half.

Finally I got home and emailed Glenn Greenwald, who had known I had been stopped at the border for many years, had my computer and notes taken away, and he had wanted to write about it. Then I hadn’t wanted him to, because I work under the radar, and it’s good that I can go to countries where I don’t flag anything and don’t get assigned minders. That’s the way I got the access I did in Baghdad and in Yemen. But this time had been so crazy. So I said yes to Glenn, and he wrote that piece for Salon.

Edward Snowden read it — this is January 2013 — and reached out to me. He had been trying to reach out to Glenn Greenwald, but that hadn’t worked. Glenn’s article led him to think I was somebody who had some opinions about the surveillance state, and also someone with knowledge of how encryption worked. He signed his emails “Citizenfour.”

How many times were you detained at airports?

Returning to the US, at least 37 times — border agents met my plane and made everyone show their passports until they found me. Plus another 15 times in transit. Plus I was stopped and searched domestically, a complete pat-down — that was another 50 times.

What happened after Glenn Greenwald wrote about the airport harassment?

It stopped. Right after Glenn’s piece.

Is there a lesson here?

[Laughing] There is. It took me a long time to learn it: go public. I guess going under the radar is not really an option for me at this point.

How did you decide the guy emailing you as "Citizenfour" was not one of those people who can prove that 9/11 was an inside job — or an agent trying to entrap you?

Of course those were concerns. I said, “How do I know you’re not crazy, or an agent?” He wrote back, “You’ll know I’m not crazy because you’ll get the documents and you’ll see. You’ll know it’s not entrapment because I’m never going to ask you anything that would lead to that. I’ll be providing information. All the risk is mine.” I maintained a skeptical caution, particularly around the entrapment thing, but my gut feeling pretty early was that this was legitimate.

It must have been a challenge to make a feature-length documentary where all the action is shot by a single camera in a single cramped white hotel room.

This anonymous source wanted to meet. I said, “Can we do this NOT in a hotel room?” He said, “I’m not sure I can deliver on that.”

But there are constraints that become blessings. That hotel room is a claustrophobic space where a few people are doing work that will transform everything outside. And then, when we break out, you see the shock waves. But when I first saw the room, my feeling was “White? Really, white?”

One of the biggest issues for Snowden was whether to let the public know who he was and why he was doing it. In the film you show Glenn Greenwald arguing that he should NOT go public, but rather let the FBI and the CIA try to figure out who he was: "Don’t do their job for them," Glenn said. "Don’t help them find you." That’s not what Snowden did. What was his argument about going public — and what did you think?

There was a real contradiction there, because on the one hand Snowden did not want to hide. He didn’t want a leak investigation that might bring down other people. He wanted to say, “This is what I’ve done, this is why I’ve done it.” He was resolute about that. I knew before leaving for Hong Kong that he was going to claim responsibility. So I asked to film him. His first response was “no” — because he didn’t want the story to be about him. He wanted the reporting focused on the issues. And remember that the first stories Glenn published in The Guardian — on Verizon and then on PRISM — had anonymous sources. Then on June 9, with Snowden’s consent, we posted a 12-minute video at The Guardian where he introduced himself to the world and outlined his motivation.

But let’s face it: he’s the main protagonist of the film I’ve made. I did it that way because what happened in that hotel room was an extraordinary historical moment, in terms of how we understand surveillance. And it’s also an extraordinary historical moment for journalism, because in the film you get to see how journalism worked in this case. So I feel I’ve done the right thing. But it wasn’t something that he invited or asked me to do.

The last we see of Snowden is when he walks out the door of the hotel room. In the Hollywood version of this story, which apparently is in the works, the escape of Edward Snowden would provide the exciting climax — no doubt there will be police cars chasing his plane down the runway as it’s taking off. In your film we don’t get to see his dramatic escape from Hong Kong. How did you feel about him going out the door and you not going with him?

I stayed in Hong Kong for several days after that, documenting the repercussions and hoping to meet him again and continue filming. Glenn had left and The Guardian had left and I was in Hong Kong alone. I realized I was being followed and creating a risk to Snowden. I was chatting with Glenn at that point, and he said, “You’re still there? You need to leave.” He was right, so I did.

I tried to do some filming when Snowden arrived at the airport in Moscow, but I wasn’t able to get permission. My general principle is that I try not to collect footage from everything, but to stay close to what I’m able to document and let that drive the story.

People who criticize you and Glenn Greenwald and Edward Snowden say, "You’re against secrecy — but some things should be kept secret."

On the list of things that should not be kept secret, let’s put how the government interprets laws. We have secret interpretations of laws — that should never be secret. Edward Snowden was very clear: some of his documents were legitimately classified, and he didn’t want to be the decision-maker about what to release — he wanted the journalists to do that through an editorial process. Which is what we’ve done. There are a lot of names in the documents we have. We haven’t made them public. I’m not interested in revealing the identity of people who work for the NSA.

Another argument of your critics: Edward Snowden shouldn’t have given these materials to you; instead he should have taken advantage of the laws protecting whistleblowers and reported his concerns to his superiors.

If we look at the case of William Binney, a 30-year veteran of the NSA who was in charge of protecting us from nuclear annihilation — you don’t get any more senior than that, or any more trusted — when he voiced concerns about domestic spying in the aftermath of 9/11, the government showed up at his door with guns. We have a string of cases where whistleblowers were subject to really harsh intimidation tactics and prosecution under the Espionage Act. There was a clear sense that working inside was not going to lead to change. And Snowden understood that you needed evidence. Having documents was a game-changer. And finally, with the Espionage Act, no public interest defense is permitted — you can’t say, “I did this to expose wrongdoing.”

Another argument of your critics: why should you and Glenn Greenwald be the ones who decide what the world should see and what needs to be kept secret?

That’s how journalism often works. A source decides who they want to entrust with their materials, and in this case he’s chosen me and Glenn. It’s not our role to question that decision, but rather to use our judgment to report. I am sympathetic to the argument that we should be sharing our reporting with more journalists. But Glenn and I can’t be sources, we can’t just hand off the material to others — that would create a lot of legal exposure for us.

In the film you show a clip of Obama saying, "My preference […] would have been for a lawful, orderly examination of these laws; a thoughtful, fact-based debate that would then lead us to a better place."

[Laughing] I think that “thoughtful, fact-based” is how I would describe Glenn Greenwald. I think we could definitely say we had a lot of documents to substantiate facts in this debate.

Bill Maher said about Edward Snowden, "Every time he opens his mouth, he […] says something completely nuts." You spent a week with Snowden — did he say nutty things that you left out of the film? 

I thought he was pretty articulate. If Bill Maher sees the film, I’m curious about what he would think of what Snowden says. Remember that, when Glenn and I were there, this was the first time he had talked to any journalists, so you get this unfiltered articulation of what he stands for and why he’s taking these risks. Maybe now, when he’s been interviewed many times, it’s different. But in that hotel room he had made a decision, he had accepted the consequences, he was at peace with it, and he was there to help us. Because of those circumstances, the way he says it in that moment is unique. He doesn’t know if the next day someone would knock on the door. He’s on the precipice.


Jon Wiener is a contributing editor and on the board of directors at the Los Angeles Review of Books.

LARB Contributor

Jon Wiener is a professor of history emeritus at UC Irvine. His most recent books are Set the Night on Fire: L. A. in the Sixties, co-authored with Mike Davis, and  Historians in Trouble: Plagiarism, Fraud, and Politics in the Ivory TowerHe is a contributing editor to and on the board of directors of Los Angeles Review of Books,  a contributing editor to The Nation, and host of a weekly afternoon drive-time interview show on KPFK 90.7 FM in Los Angeles.


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