By Laura Poitras
On Sunday, August 18, I woke up in Berlin to an email from Glenn Greenwald with only one sentence: “I need to talk to you ASAP.”
For the past three months, Glenn and I have been reporting on the NSA disclosures revealed to us by Edward Snowden.
I went online to the encrypted channel that Glenn and I use to
communicate. He told me that he had just received a call telling him
that his partner David Miranda was being detained at London’s Heathrow
airport under the Terrorism Act. David was traveling from Berlin where
he had come to work with me. For the next six hours I was online with
Glenn as he tried to find out what was happening to the person he
loves most in the world.
Glenn’s reporting on the NSA story is made possible by the love and
courage of David. When Glenn and I traveled to Hong Kong to meet
Edward Snowden, Glenn and David spoke daily. Reporting on the most
secret abuses of governments does not come without moments of fear.
There was a turning point in Hong Kong before Glenn published the
first story about the Verizon court order that exposed the NSA’s
spying on Americans. It was David who told Glenn: “You need to do
this. If you don’t do this, you will never be able to live with
As Glenn and I exchanged messages between Rio and Berlin, David was
being interrogated in London about our NSA reporting. Glenn said
several times: “I actually cannot believe they are doing this.” I kept
thinking I wish it were me. Having documented and reported on abuses
of government power post 9/11, we both thought we’d reached a point
where nothing would shock us. We were wrong — using pernicious
terrorism laws to target the people we love and work with, this
Attack on Press Freedom
Reporting on this story means some things can only be said in person,
and still it is hard to know you can escape surveillance. David was
traveling to meet me on behalf of the Guardian newspaper, which has
taken the lead on publishing the NSA stories. We now know that David’s
detention was ordered at the highest levels of the British government,
including the Prime Minister. We also know the US government was given
advance warning that David would be detained and interrogated.
The NSA has special relationships with the spy agencies from the
so-called “Five-Eyes” nations, which include Britain’s GCHQ. Weeks
before David was detained, agents from GCHQ entered the offices of the
Guardian newspaper and oversaw the destruction of several hard drives
which contained disclosures made by Snowden. This action was also
authorized at the highest levels of the UK government. Included on
those drives were documents detailing GCHQ’s massive domestic spying
program called “Tempora.”
This program deploys NSA’s XKeyscore “DeepDive” internet buffer
technology which slows down the internet to allow GCHQ to spy on
global communications, including those of UK citizens. Tempora relies
on the “corporate partnership” of UK telecoms, including British
Telecommunications and Vodafone. Revealing the secret partnerships
between spy agencies and telecoms entrusted with the private
communications of citizens is journalism, not terrorism.
The UK government’s destruction of material provided by a source to a
news organization will surely be remembered as of the most blatant
government attacks on press freedom.
As the hours went by on Sunday, Guardian lawyers searched to find
where David was being held; the Brazilian ambassador in London could
get no information; and Glenn struggled with whether he should go
public or work behind the scenes to make sure David would be released
and not arrested. I have never been through a hostage negotiation, but
this certainly felt like one. David was finally released after nine
hours. He was forced to hand over all electronics.
Using border crossings to target journalism is not new to me. I
experienced it for the first time in 2006 in Vienna, when I was
traveling from the Sarajevo Film Festival back to New York. I was put
in a van and driven to a security room, searched, and interrogated.
The Austrian security agents told me I was stopped at the request of
the US government. When I landed in New York I was again searched and
Since then I have lost count of how many times I have been
interrogated at the US border all because of my reporting on post 9/11
issues. I’ve had electronics seized, notebooks photocopied, and have
been threatened with handcuffs for taking notes. I moved to Berlin to
edit my next film because I do not feel I can keep source material
safe in my own country.
At the moment I live in what used to be East Berlin. It feels strange
to come to the former home of the Stasi to expose the dangers of
government surveillance, but being here gives me hope. There is a deep
historical memory among Germans of what happens to societies when its
government targets and spies on its own citizens. The public outcry in
Germany to the NSA disclosures has been enormous.
Threat To Democracy
Because of the disclosures made by Edward Snowden, we have for the
first time an international debate on the scope of government
surveillance. Almost daily for the past three months citizens learn of
new unlawful surveillance programs being secretly run by their
governments. All of our reporting has been in the public interest, and
none has caused harm.
David’s detention and the destruction of the hard drives in the
Guardian’s basement reveal one thing: Our governments do not want
citizens to be informed when it comes to the topic of surveillance.
The governments of the United States, Britain, Germany, and others
would like this debate to go away. It won’t.
Glenn and I, with the full support of David and others, will continue
to work on the disclosures made by Snowden, as will the Guardian,
SPIEGEL, the Washington Post, their reporters and their loved ones,
and many other news organizations who believe vast unchecked secret
government surveillance powers are a threat to democracy.Φ