When we sit down in her New York office on the evening of February 14, I wish Laura Poitras a happy Valentine’s Day. “Oh, is that today?” she replies. The filmmaker has ample reasons to be unaware of ordinary reality. It has been two years since, while making a documentary about government surveillance of citizens, she received an encrypted email from a correspondent who identified himself only as “citizenfour.” The anonymous emailer turned out, of course, to be Edward Snowden. Since Citizenfour was released to great acclaim last October, she has been in constant motion, mostly outside the U.S. Two nights before we meet, she and Glenn Greenwald were joined, via satellite link from Moscow, by a smiling, relaxed Snowden for discussions at New York’s IFC Center and the New School. The current week contains two more milestones in the film’s remarkable career: It is the odds-on favorite to win Best Documentary at the Oscars this Sunday; the following night, it will have its first telecast on HBO.
Citizenfour was made under a lot of pressure at every stage. What has it been like for you to see it come out and meet the world?
It’s been overwhelming. And I have to thank the people who got behind releasing the film, because we were all so nervous. There were a lot of meetings with lawyers, about what would happen if the government tried to attack the film. And it didn’t happen, so that’s really great.
I understand that when you started corresponding with Edward Snowden, he was not expecting a film to be made. You convinced him and Glenn Greenwald to let you make the film later. Was that when you were in Hong Kong?
It was before that. Actually, the meeting [in Hong Kong] probably wouldn’t have happened if I hadn’t asked Snowden to allow me to film. There would have been other ways for him to give us information without doing a face-to-face meeting. It wasn’t just that he didn’t want to be the story, which was something he said consistently, but he also felt there were some dangers for us being in the same place at the same time, if the government tried to stop the reporting.
Looking back on the film, it seems that what’s so important is less the information he imparts than the chance it gives every viewer to evaluate his character, his personality, his motives.
The fact that he had decided to come forward with his identity allowed me to do it. It was a rare opportunity. Usually sources of this nature, you never see them. There was no camera when Ellsberg was copying the Pentagon Papers, there was no camera there when Woodward was in the basement garage meeting with Deep Throat. But I actually had that kind of opportunity, so that’s what motivated me.
It seems that you, Snowden, and Greenwald evolved a strategy of being as public as you could, with the idea that this would give people — especially the government — less cover to attack you.
The decision was for Glenn and I to be public, but that was kind of assumed given the fact that we were journalists working on a story. But Snowden’s decision was actually pretty rare, and it came with a lot of risks. I mean, he could have tried to do this and remain anonymous, but I think he felt that it was important the public know who he is, and he didn’t want to try to hide in the shadows, as he says in the film. That was the game-changer.
The film just sketches in what happened to him after Hong Kong. We know that he got to Moscow with the help of WikiLeaks, that he stayed in the airport transit lounge for about a month, then got asylum in Russia for a year, which has become three years. And his girlfriend eventually joined him. What else can you say about his life now? At the IFC Center event, he seemed in good spirits and healthy.
He doesn’t share, like, daily life kinds of things. But he’s doing a lot of talks. I think today there was an event in Hawaii that he beamed into and answered some questions. I think he’s doing a lot of public speaking around the issue of privacy and why that matters.
Has he followed the success of the film?
We did touch base right after we heard about the Oscar nomination and he said, “Congratulations, great job.”
There’s a point in the film where he says that one of the things that motivated him was disappointment in what Obama has done compared to his campaign promises on these issues. What is your feeling about where Obama now stands and what his place in history will be?
Dealing with these issues that I’ve been focusing on in my work for the past decade, national security and post-9/11 issues, what I think is really frightening about Obama’s policies is the fact that we didn’t reckon with any of the Bush-era programs, for instance using torture, Guantánamo, warrant-less wiretapping, etc. I think what should’ve happened is that we should have convened panels and had investigations into what happened and why it happened, and held people accountable. That’s the way to respond to moments when the country steps beyond legal bounds. And that didn’t happen. Obama has certainly expanded the surveillance state, which I don’t think is going to be good for his record. But what I think is most disturbing is how things that we would once have agreed are transgressions are now being normalized and institutionalized. I think Guantánamo is really radical, that we have this prison where people have been held for over a decade and not charged. That’s a really radical policy, and we have it across two administrations now.
One Republican and one Democrat. Do you think these things have become so normalized that there’s no chance of going back?
That’s the scary part, right? After a national crisis, you get this emergency response. As we know, all kinds of things happened in the aftermath of 9/11, but that emergency reaction should not become the status quo, because then you get decades of it. And I don’t know how you wind it back. So I think it’s frightening.
What has happened since the film came out on issues that it should be provoking action on?
There’s just been a meeting between Obama and the tech companies; there’s some distrust there between the government and these companies. They’re worried about their bottom line and they know their customers do care about their privacy and don’t expect them to hand over their information to the government. The good news in all of this is that we don’t need to wait around for the government to make changes because encryption is available, it’s free, and it can be used by anyone. You don’t have to be a brain surgeon to figure out how to use encryption. And I think we’re going to see more and more of that kind of thing, because from the reporting we’ve done, it does seem that as much as the NSA does this mass, indiscriminate collection of information, they don’t have a mathematical solution to solve encryption.
They’re not like the guy in The Imitation Game.
[Laughs.] No, they don’t have the machine yet. They’re looking for it! But right now the math is strong, and as my friend Jacob Applebaum says, “No amount of violence can solve a math problem.”
Snowden is a very potent symbol, and I think it’s understandable on a human level for people to be concerned about his personal future when he’s called by Obama “not a patriot” and many would regard him as very much a patriot.
Yeah, and he’s not the only person who’s been targeted by the government for basically trying to inform the public. I do think we really need to reconsider how we handle whistleblowers in this country. The equating of whistleblowers with spies is pretty outrageous. Chelsea Manning is looking at, like, 35 years of prison time. It’s really not a good sign for society that we’re punishing whistleblowers to this extent.
Snowden says in the film, regarding whistleblowers, that if the government hits one hydra head, then seven others appear. Do you think that since he came out, that has encouraged other whistleblowers, spurred them, or made them more afraid?
What he’s saying I think is it’s human nature that some people will stand up when they see something wrong. Many people go to work for the government because they believe in the fundamental core principles of the Constitution, and when they are confronted with things that violate that, it’s not unexpected that they would come forward.
Can you talk about the reactions to the film in other countries? I know that in places like Germany and Brazil, not only has there been a lot of support for Snowden from citizens but also from members of the governments. It’s different than what we’ve had in the United States so far, right?
Internationally it didn’t have the same spin after Snowden came forward. You know, here we had the government trying to set the narrative. Which has been done in the past: They called Daniel Ellsberg a traitor. It’s sort of what their playbook is. But internationally people perceived it differently. I think they thought they have privacy rights, too, and the U.S. government doesn’t have the right to violate those, and mass, indiscriminate surveillance is not something people are okay with.
So if it got that response in Brazil and Germany, how come there’s no offer of asylum from them?
It’s a good question. I think the governments in both countries don’t want to anger the U.S. government. They’re too intertwined and that’s what we’re seeing. Because there’s lot of popular support for him in those countries and I think he’d be welcomed.
There’s a place in the film where Snowden says that where it used to be the elected and the electorate, now it’s more like the rulers and the ruled. The idea that people who are in the class of the rulers are now this global elite, and they watch out for each other rather than the people they’re supposed to serve: It really is like Big Brother, and their control is so great that it really doesn’t matter what the people think at all. Is that not the most disturbing implication of all this?
It is really disturbing. Having been based in Germany, it is one of the few countries that is powerful enough that they could have made a decision to grant him asylum, and I think that they should have. But yeah, the United States is powerful, and there is so much reliance on the U.S. militarily, in terms of surveillance, that other countries find it difficult [to do other than what the U.S. wants]. But I do know that Snowden’s legal team is continuing to pursue other options, third-country options.