CRF Blog

The Holder of Secrets

by Bill Hayes

In The Holder of Secrets for the New Yorker, George Packer profiles documentary filmmaker Laura Poitras, who was one of the journalists Edward Snowden chose to reveal his secrets to.

Snowden settled on Poitras because he respected her films, but also because he admired her opposition to surveillance and her mastery of computer security. She was staggered by the scope and the dangerousness of what he claimed to know, and at first, fearing entrapment, she demanded that he prove his bona fides. They began an encrypted correspondence, which went on for several months, and she became intensely bound to the anonymous stranger. “It clearly pulled me in in every way — emotionally, psychologically,” she said. “It was something I was thinking about all the time.” She stopped turning her phone on in her apartment, to keep her location secret, and she read Snowden’s e-mails in other places, without Wi-Fi, on a spare computer bought with cash.

In language that had the stilted feel of a manifesto written in isolation, Snowden told Poitras of his intention to sacrifice himself for the public good. She would be the means to this noble end. Learning that he planned to make his identity public, Poitras told Snowden that she wanted to meet him and film him. “He said, ‘It’s too dangerous, and it’s not about me — I don’t want to be the story,’ ” she recalled. “I said, ‘Like it or not, you’re going to be the story, so you might as well get your voice in.’ After that point, I became a filmmaker.”

Snowden urged her to find a collaborator for publishing the documents, which were complex and voluminous, and she agreed to do so. She didn’t care about sharing, or even losing, a scoop — the documents were a print story. She was interested in Snowden. She wanted to know what drove him to risk everything. “Unlike my previous films, this was somebody I had built a dialogue with, and wanted to meet,” she told me. “Because I cared.” In May, 2013, Poitras flew to New York and awaited word from Snowden, who told her to meet him in Hong Kong. The trip, she felt, would in some ways be more dangerous than going to Iraq. “If you think about it, I’m already on the watch list, I’ve already been detained at least forty times,” she said. “If I go alone, without an institution behind me, and they decide to come in and arrest us both, how’s it going to look?”

Poitras wanted a third person in the room when she filmed Snowden. She never shot herself conducting interviews — it broke one of the tenets of cinéma vérité. When she had trouble enlisting someone, she began to panic.

Snowden asked her to involve Greenwald, who at the time was a columnist for the Guardian. In fact, he had approached Greenwald before Poitras, but Greenwald hadn’t made the effort to install encryption software for e-mails, and Snowden had moved on. Greenwald was contacted again, and in late May he flew from Rio to New York. Now Poitras had a partner. “Glenn, to his credit, as soon as he was in the loop, he was on the plane,” Poitras said.

In a Hong Kong hotel room, she filmed Snowden for some twenty hours, in the course of eight days. Greenwald began publishing stories in the Guardian that stunned readers — perhaps the most explosive of which revealed an order from a secret U.S. intelligence court compelling Verizon to turn over its customers’ phone records to the N.S.A. The articles cited an anonymous source. Then Poitras filmed the short video of Snowden, in which he answered questions posed by Greenwald. It was posted on the Guardian’s Web site on June 9th. Poitras had no plan except to stay as close as possible to her protagonist, feeling that at any moment they could be stopped. Snowden didn’t have a plan, either — until, with the help of local lawyers, he slipped out of the hotel and disappeared into Hong Kong. [more]