Snowden's Closest Confidant Reveals What It Was Like Spilling the NSA's Secrets

Laura Poitras Laura Poitras Charles Sykes/Invision/AP

There's a prolonged scene in Laura Poitras' new documentary, Citizenfour, when Edward Snowden looks in his hotel room's mirror and tussles his hair in a nervous—and, ultimately fruitless—attempt to defeat bedhead.

The shot is a revealing and humanizing moment for Snowden, the former National Security Agency contractor who became known the world over last summer after his leaks exposed the agency's vast phone and Internet surveillance programs.

Despite his notoriety, such an intimate look at Snowden has been missing from the story of arguably the greatest heist and disclosure ever of U.S. government secrets—until now.

"The film isn't trying to break news," Poitras said during a sit-down with National Journal following Citizenfour's premiere this weekend at the New York Film Festival. "It's really a story about people, and what happens when people take personal sacrifice to expose what they think is wrongdoing."

The final installment in a trilogy examining civil-liberties sacrifices made in a post-9/11 world,Citizenfour provides a real-time look at Snowden as he spills the NSA's secrets to her and journalist Glenn Greenwald in a claustrophobic Hong Kong hotel room. It contains its own batch of new reveals, including documents that expose another NSA surveillance program and that Snowden's long-lost girlfriend, Lindsay Mills, has moved to Moscow to be with him. A gripping final scene also confirms that a second NSA leaker has followed in Snowden's footsteps and appears to be a higher-ranking official still employed with the agency.

In the conversation that follows, Poitras discusses her motivations for making the film, how she came to trust Snowden and why she has lost faith in elected leaders—even those who are the most vocal champions of surveillance reform.

Citizenfour will have a limited release in the U.S. on Oct. 24. The interview that follows has been lightly edited for clarity and brevity.

National Journal: This is such an interesting film because it's these eight days in Hong Kong that the world knows about, but we've never seen before this intimate portrayal of it. Did you know going into it and once you got to the Mira Hotel that this was going to become something major that ultimately turned into this film?

Poitras: It's not every day that you have a journalistic encounter that usually happens in dark alleys happen on camera. So, yeah, I've been doing this long enough to know that what happened in that hotel room was something I wanted to document and that would inform the core of the film. I did also learn in the editing process that I probably shot two films, but we weren't going to say, "Let's make Hong Kong happen in 15 minutes so we can fit in the other stuff." It was clear that what happened there was rare to ever be filmed again. And the combination of Snowden already making the decision that he would not remain anonymous made it a unique circumstance.

NJ: Was it as tense there as it seemed in the film?

Poitras: As soon as Snowden started emailing me in the winter of 2013, I felt that this was very dangerous waters. This is way deeper than I've ever been. It made [filming in] Iraq seem just whatever by comparison. We knew we were going to piss off the most powerful people in the world, which we have. And I was also very aware that the source I was talking to was also putting his life on the line. That was clear. So the fact that I had someone's life on the line added to the level of anxiety and stress. If I fucked up in operational security or something, the consequences could be very negative for someone else.

I was very aware of both the magnitude of anger that we were going to cause and also the magnitude of risk as we did it. In Hong Kong, the feeling was sort of being in a state of freefall. We all decided that, OK, we're going to do this reporting, and we don't know what the outcome is going to be for any of us. Obviously, the risk was of magnitudes greater for Snowden than the journalists in the room, but there were risks all around. The U.K. and the Official Secrets Act makes the work that [Guardian journalist] Ewen [MacAskill] does really risky. And the fact that I've already been on a watch-list for years and I'm doing this reporting, there was a range of risks. There's subpoena, material witness, indictment.

When [Bolivian President Evo] Morales's plane was downed, I was actually in Rio with Glenn. There were a lot of people sitting around rooms in Washington trying to figure out how to shut this down. And we've heard that. I've heard stories that people talked about doing simultaneous raids of our houses to try to contain us.

National Journal: What made you trust Snowden when he first reached out to you?

Poitras: Partly it's a gut check. Your gut just says, OK, this seems legit. But I have to say this was not in an area of work I typically do. As a documentary filmmaker, I approach people, they don't approach me. And I'm not always doing breaking news on the national security scene. He came to me hoping I had the skills to communicate securely, and I did. That was totally an unusual encounter for me. I don't get sources knocking on my door all the time. But my first instinct was to be cautious, because I was put on this government watch-list for years. I thought, OK, this could be an elaborate setup, and it could be targeting me or it could be targeting people I know and I'm being used as a conduit to get to those people, to entrap them.

But my gut told me that it was legit. And there was a level of specificity that is hard to fake.

NJ: There is still a debate going on with surveillance. There's still not been major reform enacted. Even Snowden has talked about this idea of "NSA fatigue" and wondering whether people would just acquiesce to surveillance. Is this film a way to reenergize that debate?

Poitras: I don't think so. I'll tell you what the film isn't. The film isn't trying to break news, because documentary films shouldn't do that, and it's just a waste of time. They have to do something that's going to have more sustained purpose.

And it's not advocacy either. I tend to have political interests or thematic interests and then tell those stories through stories of people. And so I think the ultimate story, although it's about the NSA and what the NSA is doing and the dangers, I think it's really a story about people, and what happens when people take personal sacrifice to expose what they think is wrongdoing. It begins with [former NSA analyst] William Binney coming forward, and you see what happens with him, when they come into his house with guns, and then Snowden comes forward, and then others come forward.

And also I would include in those people Glenn. There was a lot of risk taken. So my answer to the question is that I kind or approach more as an artist or a filmmaker than I do as an advocate.

NJ: You said documentary films are not the place to break news, but one of the bits of news your film did break is that Snowden's girlfriend, Lindsay, is living with him in Moscow now. Why show that personal detail?

Poitras: I visited Snowden several times in Moscow and I think I heard through [ACLU attorney] Ben Wizner that Lindsay had gone over. Being the person in contact with him from the beginning, I knew this was going to have ramifications for the people in his life. And then after I shot the video tape of Snowden and put it online, I saw what the press did to her, just sort of tore up her personal life. She was just really subjected to something brutal. I can't even imagine having your life broadcast like that.

And so it was partly that and also having been in the hotel room and witnessing him realizing at the same time as we're breaking the stories, at the same times as when Glenn is releasing the Verizon document, her house gets a knock on the door from the NSA. So she really suffered, and I had documented that in Hong Kong. When I found out she was there I said, is she ready and willing? And I didn't really want to do an interview. I didn't want to open up a new chapter or go into that but I thought the fact that she was able to move past it was pretty extraordinary. Not to try to make some kind of happy ending, but it was a testament to her and her character.

NJ: Snowden said that he is confident that the Supreme Court will eventually take up the issue of NSA reform and strike it down in some capacity. He seems hopeful that some reform from within can happen. Do you believe that, even though it's been more than a year now, that the post-9/11 tensions between civil liberties and security can be recalibrated?

Poitras: You have to sort of remain hopeful. Otherwise why make the film? Why keep doing this reporting? But the court system works slowly. And I think of—I was executive producer on this film called 1971, which was about the burglary of the FBI office that led to the Church Committee. There were four years, between the disclosure of what happened there, with the reveal of the COINTEL program, and the creation of the Church Committee. So the court system can take time. And I do think there has been some promising decisions made in the court. What the government is relying on in the [United States v.Jones case is so antiquated. It doesn't sustain itself in the technological world we live in in terms of expectations of privacy.

NJ: There's been a lot of hand-wringing about President Obama coming in and not changing surveillance programs. Snowden has said he was hopeful Obama, as a constitutional law professor, he would change things. And yet we've seen these programs continue and in some cases expanded under his presidency. Is anyone in the spectrum of Democrats and Republicans, particularly looking at presidential contenders, who you believe is genuinely committed to reforming the government surveillance apparatus?

Poitras: I feel profoundly let down by our elected officials on this topic and other topics. I don't see lots of hope. But I do think there has been outrage and that Congress is learning about what the government's doing because of the reporting that Glenn and I have been doing. And that is a bit shocking, that elected officials don't know what the government is doing.

Here's a question. If [Sen. Ron] Wyden and [Sen. Mark] Udall are so concerned, why don't they just read the stuff out on the floor of Congress? They have immunity. Why is it that young people, why is it that a 29-year-old has to put their life on the line to expose things that these senators also have concerns about? The risk for them is maybe they'll lose a seat on a committee. I don't understand why people who are informed of these programs and object to them don't do something that really exposes them to zero risk. And therefore whistle-blowers have to come forward and put their lives on the line. We need like a Mr. Smith Goes to Washington moment. (laughs)

NJ: Do you see yourself ever returning to live in the U.S., and is that something you'd like to have happen?

Poitras: I still consider New York home. I consider that I have two homes right now. But it was really, I relocated [to Berlin] to edit because I didn't feel I could bring source material across the U.S. border. I couldn't tell a source that I could protect them. So I've been editing outside the United States. I happened to have been [in Berlin] when Snowden contacted me, which turned out to be a good thing. Obviously, the outtakes that are not in my film I don't think I'll be taking with me across the border anytime soon. But, yeah, I think I'll probably be spending more time in New York now that the film is done. I certainly didn't want to edit the film in the U.S.

NJ: What's next?

Poitras: Still working on it. It's too soon. I don't talk about my work until it's done.

Stay up-to-date with federal news alerts and analysis — Sign up for GovExec's email newsletters.
Close [ x ] More from GovExec