Citizen, Defend Thyself

Originally published in Deutsche Welle

“the government can’t protect people in their bedrooms” the prime minister angrily retorted when questioned about the brutal murder of a young couple, both journalists, in their own home. three years later the police have not made any progress in their investigation. no charges have been brought. after the murder of the bloggers it seems, the government is unable to protect you in the streets, at a book fair or even on the doorstep of your own home.

Protesters demonstrate against the killing of blogger Ananta Bijoy Das in Bangladesh. Mr Das was hacked to death by masked assailants in the third such killing in the country in less than three months. Photograph: EPA/STR
Protesters demonstrate against the killing of blogger Ananta Bijoy Das in Bangladesh. Mr Das was hacked to death by masked assailants in the third such killing in the country in less than three months. Photograph: EPA/STR

Intolerance appears to be the order of the day in Bangladesh, impunity the general rule and denial the default  response. Since the government and the entire state machinery have been so occupied with arresting, killing and or arranging for the disappearance of opposition activists, any citizen not directly linked to the power structures is a potential target not only for the state machinery, but also for a host of racketeers, extortionists, fundamentalists or plain opportunists.  The judiciary no longer allows anyone to challenge the government even more worryingly the police are demanding that torture be made legal.
Continue reading “Citizen, Defend Thyself”

Tolerating Death in a Culture of Intolerance

Another blogger. Ananta Bijoy Das, murdered today. Police too busy beating up students to notice:
Anonto blogger killed with text———————————————————————————————————-
Tolerating Death in a Culture of Intolerance | Economic and Political Weekly.

COMMENTARY Economic & Political Weekly EPW MARCH 21, 2015 vol l no 12 11 by Shahidul Alam

The daylight murder of Bangladeshi blogger Avijit Roy in Dhaka on 26 February reflects the culture of fear and intolerance that has built up in the country over the last few decades. As a result, the middle ground between the extremes has disappeared.

Returning home with your wife, from a book fair where you have been signing autographs, seems a peaceful enough activity. It was in the heart of the university area, and it was not late. The footpath next to Ramna Park, where the 1971 surrender document had been signed, was full of people. Shahbagh Police Thana was nearby, and a police barricade designed to keep visitors to the mela safe, was only a few yards away. Hardly the scene crime stories are made of.

Location of murder of Dr. Avijit Roy near Dhaka University Teachers Students Centre (TSC) roundabout. Photo: Shahidul Alam/Drik/Majority World Continue reading “Tolerating Death in a Culture of Intolerance”

By Amy Goodman

Award-winning journalist and Democracy Now! host Amy Goodman records a podcast in conjunction with her weekly column, which you can read here: www.democracynow.org/blog
July 31, 2014
By Amy Goodman with Denis Moynihan
The Israeli assault on the Palestinian people in the Gaza Strip has entered its fourth week. This military attack, waged by land, sea and air, has been going on longer than the devastating assault in 2008/2009, which killed more than 1,400 Palestinians. The death toll in this current attack is at least 1,300, overwhelmingly civilians. As this column was being written, the United Nations confirmed that a U.N. school in Gaza, where thousands of civilians were seeking shelter, was bombed by the Israeli Defense Forces, killing at least 20 people. The United Nations said it reported the exact coordinates of the shelter to the Israeli military 17 times. Continue reading “”

Sneaking Social Media into the Classroom

In professional circles our school of photography Pathshala is considered to be one of the finest in the world. So it is no surprise that our students are excellent at their craft. However, having been in the profession for over 30 years and having worked in over 60 countries, I know full well that it takes more than photographic skills to become a successful photographer. People skills are essential and having a good online presence is mandatory.

So in the class I take for final year students, I no longer teach photography. There are plenty of other teachers who do that well. I help develop students’ career prospects. We talk about presentation, writing grant applications, negotiating with clients and about having a strong online presence.

While I showed them graphs and statistics about how photographs and videos increase their reach and engagement in social media, I was still having trouble getting them to use social media (SM) effectively. They were active on facebook and did share things amongst one another, but it wasn’t part of a systematic online strategy. Several of the students had done badly in their exams in my last batch, and as a teacher I had to share part of the blame. Then I came across Empire Avenue (EA). The best thing about EA was that it was a game. They might not see the value of having virtual stocks and virtual money, but winning at a game is what many young people enjoy, and the ruse worked.

Empire Avenue leaderboard for stock prices for Bangladesh on 27th July 2014

Empire Avenue leaderboard for stock prices for Bangladesh on 27th July 2014Debashish Chakrabarty (DEBASHISH) quickly made it to number four in the Bangladesh leaders table and several other students made it to the leaders list. By setting up and completing missions, they were expanding their network, promoting themselves and their pet projects, actively engaging online and using the Internet more effectively. Soon all students had set up accounts at the most popular SM sites. They were posting more, running and completing missions, and in general terms much more active online.

A side benefit for me as a tutor was that all their activities were measurable. I could see changes in their SM scores and we could together analyse what worked and what didn’t. Soon they were giving me a run for my money. It also meant that their Klout rating went up. As engagement in the most popular platforms helped both their EA score as well as their Klout score. It was easy to mark their exams as EA did most of the work for me. It also set up a mild competition in the classroom where they tried to outdo each other, encouraged by the changes in their scores based directly upon their online activity.

There was a direct benefit to me too. Not only were they engaging with each other and making new online friends, they were engaging with my content as well! The surprise came yesterday as I saw my own Klout ranking soar from 74.43 to 76.86 in a single day. As it is, I am the second highest ranked Bangladeshi on Klout after the Nobel Laureate Professor Muhammad Yunus, and way above the online rankings of our Prime Minister or the leader of the opposition! But having a Nobel Prize does give you an advantage, and while Professor Yunus is an old friend whom I admire, catching up with him on Klout wasn’t going to be easy. Until now.

The students had an edge. Being photographers, submitting good content on instagramflickr and pinterest was easy. They also quickly realized that if they provided an interesting image to go with their text, it was much more likely to be picked up, discussed and generally engaged with. Those producing video had a further edge. Some were even making their mark as curators.

But I had the most fun. By letting them play a game, in one full swoop, I had transformed my classroom into an immersive teaching environment, and I didn’t even have to mark exam papers afterwards! And while you have students pushing up your score, who needs a Nobel Prize?

How to Recognize Bias in a Newspaper Article

Source: Wikihow

When all you want is the facts, navigating the newspaper might be a tricky ordeal. Sometimes bias is the result of laziness, and sometimes it’s a deliberate attempt to push a particular point of view. Either way, you should always be on the lookout for bias.

  1. Research the newspaper. Some papers have a reputation for giving a particular slant on the news, in addition to the news itself. But don’t assume that views expressed on the editorial pages have any influence on coverage; reputable newspapers strictly separate the news and editorial staffs. Also, take note of how many ads the paper runs (not including inserts which are often added after the fact). If there are large number of printed ads that may indicate a paper is beholden to numerous entities such as special interest groups, local and/or federal governments, corporations etc. for funding.

Viral Occupation

Cameras and Networked Human Rights in the West Bank

by Rebecca L. Stein | published March 20, 2013

When I film, I feel like the camera protects me. But it’s an illusion.
—Emad Burnat, West Bank Palestinian and co-director, 5 Broken Cameras

A commander or an officer sees a camera and becomes a diplomat, calculating every rubber bullet, every step. It’s intolerable; we’re left utterly exposed. The cameras are our kryptonite.
—Israeli soldier, infantry brigade

To some degree, the conflict in Judea and Samaria has become a camera war.
—West Bank settler

When Israeli security forces arrived in the middle of the night at the Tamimi house in Nabi Salih, the occupied West Bank, the family was already in bed. The raid was not unexpected, as news had traveled around the village on that day in January 2011: Soldiers were coming to houses at night, demanding that young children be roused from sleep to be photographed for military records (to assist, they said, in the identification of stone throwers). Bilal Tamimi, Nabi Salih’s most experienced videographer, had his own camcorder at the ready by his bedside table when he was awoken by the knock on the door. His sometimes shaky footage, drowsiness and concern for his children making his hand unsteady, subsequently ran on Israel’s evening news programs, the video provided by the Israeli human rights organization B’Tselem as part of its effort to document army abuses in the Occupied Territories. The footage told two stories, testifying to the increasing use of photography both by the army as a means of counterinsurgency and by Palestinians under occupation for evidence and self-protection. In the West Bank today, cameras are ubiquitous, as is the usage of social media as a means of online witnessing. Both are deemed nothing less than political necessities, the sine qua non of political claims in the networked court of public opinion.

Cameras have long played a central role in the Israeli military occupation of the Palestinian territories — their importance dramatized in 5 Broken Cameras, the joint Palestinian-Israeli production nominated for an Academy Award for best documentary. Today, one finds cameras of various kinds and degrees of technological sophistication in the hands of the Israeli army, whose film unit dates to the occupation’s early years; Palestinian residents; activists and NGOs operating in the territories; Israeli human rights groups and anti-occupation activists; and organized bands of Israeli settlers (enabled by a rabbinical ruling that authorized filming on Shabbat). [1] Cameras, of course, are also embedded in the surveillance infrastructure of the military occupation itself, mounted on drones, checkpoints and the separation barrier. As the above list suggests, cameras serve many competing political agendas, employed by the military for both official security measures and personal displays of militarized bravado (as evidenced by the February viral Instagram scandal, when a soldier posted aestheticized photos of a Palestinian boy in a rifle’s crosshairs), and by Palestinians under occupation and their anti-occupation allies as a means of deterrence and protest.

As in other political theaters, most players in the Israeli-Palestinian media field shoot video, chiefly with camera phones, and disseminate the footage via social media such as Twitter, Facebook and YouTube. Video is deemed not merely a political advantage within this theater but a requirement — despite the debates about video veracity that almost always ensue, often fueled by charges of technical manipulation or politically motivated editing. [2] The technological playing field is highly uneven. Israel boasts some of the world’s highest rates of Internet penetration and social media savvy, while Palestinians are constrained by the regulation of their telecommunications infrastructure, over which Israel exercises considerable control by the terms of the Oslo accords.

B’Tselem launched its camera project in 2007 in the West Bank city of Hebron, site of some of the fiercest confrontations between Palestinian residents and militant settlers. Unexpectedly, the Hebron footage went viral. Since that initial success, the organization has distributed hundreds of video cameras to Palestinians living in high-conflict areas of the Occupied Territories, enabling them to record firsthand their frequent abuse at the hands of Israeli security forces and neighboring settler populations.

Today, the proliferation of camera equipment in activist theaters across the globe usually yields a tale of “liberation technology” — a variant of the digital democracy narrative echoed so frequently in the first months of the Arab revolts, positing new media technologies as naturally suited to progressive grassroots activism. The case of Israel-Palestine, with cameras on all sides of the occupation’s political divides, tells a more complicated story, suggesting the highly variable political functions and futures that new technologies can serve.

“Document Everything”

The village of Nabi Salih in the occupied West Bank is a focal point of Palestinian protest against the Israeli separation barrier. Since 2009, the village has held a weekly non-violent demonstration that, on any given Friday, draws residents from across Palestine, as well as tens of Israeli and international solidarity activists. International journalists also number heavily at these demonstrations, their presence sometimes outmatching that of the foreign activists. Given the political import and visibility of this weekly demonstration, and the global media coverage that can result, the Israeli security forces have endeavored to stop it and violent dispersals with tear gas, pepper spray and beatings are common, as are raids on households suspected of participation. [3]

Bilal Tamimi, 46, affiliated with B’Tselem in 2010. At the time, he was the only active cameraman in Nabi Salih, as few residents had camera phones or Internet access. He began filming in clandestine fashion, perhaps shielded by a porch or awning, in an effort to avoid detection. Soon, political necessity dictated a retreat from the shadows, and Bilal began filming demonstrations and arrests from the ground, in full view of the military. Thereafter, Bilal’s camera was always at the ready, sitting next to his bed, in accordance with his personal pledge to “document everything” pertaining to the village’s struggle with the security forces.

The technological landscape has changed dramatically since 2010 — an interval which produced a marked shift in technological literacy and penetration within the village. B’Tselem now has three camera volunteers working in the village, each with his or her own camcorder, equipped with a memory stick to speed the transfer of files. Thanks to camera phones and donations from an independent NGO, nearly every Nabi Salih household now has photographic capabilities and most have their own Internet connection (many sharing routers with neighbors to lower cost), enabling social media circulation. Having taught himself to edit video, Bilal also self-publishes on a dedicated YouTube account (only one of those active in the village, where social media savvy is high), documenting several years of local demonstrations. [4] Because Bilal is one of the most experienced volunteers working in the West Bank, the formal and arguably aesthetic dimensions of his footage are something of a B’Tselem exception. For unlike his footage, most of the video shot by volunteers adheres to the now conventional norms of amateur video production amid acute political crisis, with shaking lens and subjects that move in and out of the frame — aesthetics that are the byproduct of both videographer inexperience and a context of danger and fear.

Sitting with Bilal in his shared office at the Palestinian Ministry of Education in Ramallah, where he works as a graphic designer, we screen some of his most influential videos. Footage of the weekly demonstrations predominates, including the beating of Israeli and international activists by Israeli security forces. Among the most widely viewed by the Israeli public was that of the raid described above that began at Bilal’s own home. It is a disarming portrayal of the violent intimacy that such raids occasion, in the confrontation between armed soldiers and a terrified family jolted from sleep, all within the walls of the private family home. “Here, you see my hand is shaking,” Bilal says, “because it was the first night raid on my house.” Still in his bedclothes, Bilal and his camcorder accompanied the soldiers as they continued their evening patrol, knocking on the doors of neighboring households to wake startled residents and photograph their children. The footage betrays the complexity of Bilal’s relationship to the scene; the looks exchanged between him and his neighbors suggest that his presence as videographer is both welcomed and expected, his camcorder providing a modicum of security in this highly insecure situation. It is a battle of lenses: the camera as humanitarian witness pitted against the camera as state tool of counterinsurgency. The military spokesman, called upon to respond to the footage following its airing in the Israeli media, defended the camera practices and nighttime raid as a security necessity.

B’Tselem’s Camera Project

In the summer of 2012, some 150 B’Tselem camera volunteers were operating in the occupied West Bank. It is a volunteer population organized by region and overseen by local fieldworkers, themselves Palestinian residents of the area. Cameras are deemed most necessary in sites of heightened conflict, typically, in households living on the edge of town and adjacent to aggressive Jewish settler populations. Settler attacks constitute the majority of footage filmed by volunteers, rivaled only by demonstrations. Each volunteer and/or household is provided with a digital camera (a step up from the videocassettes used in the past, which made transmission of footage cumbersome) and given rudimentary training in camera techniques: how to hold the camera, how to record and shoot, how to use the zoom. To prepare participants for the challenges of filming an episode of conflict, the day-long workshop engages them in a simulated soccer game, with volunteers asked to follow the ball and players with their lens. The game approximates the rapid, unpredictable movement characteristic of a scene of violent confrontation. Interestingly, fieldworkers report that local Palestinian suspicion of B’Tselem, on the grounds of its Israeli identity, is unusual; on the contrary, there are many more West Bank requests for cameras than the organization can accommodate. Despite the ubiquity of citizen journalism in Palestine, Palestine’s robust NGO sector lacks an equivalent initiative on this scale. And arguably, a Palestinian analogue would struggle for a hearing among the Israeli and international public that B’Tselem targets.

Typically, B’Tselem works with a single volunteer within a household — usually the male head of house (with that designation made by the family itself). Yet in practice, cameras often circulate within the broader family unit, shared by several members. Young women are often initiated into the role of filmmaker in this circuitous manner, their role dictated by necessity. When men leave the house to confront approaching settlers, as occurs in many households, women are left to pick up the camera, and often without formal training. Thus it is that many powerful and subsequently viral videos of settler attacks have been shot by women — sometimes the daughters, sometimes the wives of the designated volunteers. [5]

The footage produced by the volunteers is highly varied in content, vantage and filmic quality. Such variations correlate with the geographic location of the filmmaker or household and with the skills and personality of the cameraperson. Some volunteers are relatively experienced behind the camera (Bilal being among the most veteran). He is known to, and now often tolerated by, the security forces, enabling him to capture scenes of routine army violence without the need for covert filming tactics. More typically, when settler violence erupts suddenly, volunteers shoot from roofs and behind windows, the resultant footage marked by sudden movements and partially obscured by window grates and bars. Like Bilal, most volunteers keep their cameras charged and at the ready.

The B’Tselem project is driven by the need to produce visible evidence of human rights abuses in the Occupied Territories. But the local security rationale is equally crucial. Volunteers attest to the powerful protective function of their cameras, many describing a gradual decline in settler incursions since the cameras’ arrival and the lighter hand of Israeli security forces when cameras are raised. This development has been slow and uneven. Initially, the security forces demanded that volunteers stop filming, despite army regulations permitting cameras in the field, and attempts to confiscate cameras, videocassettes and memory cards were frequent. More recently, volunteers report greater army toleration of the lens (a shift which the army, when queried by me, has been reluctant to discuss). For their part, settlers are not deterred; rather, they have responded with their own camera initiatives. Settler attacks documented by B’Tselem volunteers show that these assailants are now armed with two kinds of weapons: clubs, rocks and/or guns — and cameras of their own. [6]

Circulation of volunteer footage within Israeli media networks is laborious and its outcome uncertain. In addition to self-publishing on the organization’s website and YouTube page, B’Tselem sends several videos per week to Israeli evening news programs — those videos deemed visually powerful and clear proof of human rights breaches. Despite the Israeli public’s growing intolerance for human rights work in the territories, several clips get a nationwide screening every month, sometimes to viral effect. Indeed, so prevalent are these amateur videos that they have achieved a kind of brand status. “When they see the West Bank and the shaking camera,” says the project’s Israeli coordinator, “they know it’s B’Tselem.” Some videos also serve a legal function, providing the evidentiary basis for complaints filed by the organization with the Israeli government.

The ease with which such clips circulate via social networking obscures the complex routes that the video material must travel before arriving at the B’Tselem central offices in West Jerusalem. Much of this material must be delivered by hand — for reasons related to the underdeveloped Palestinian telecommunications economy, itself a byproduct of the military occupation. And delivery is highly contingent. Will the fieldworker’s car break down on the West Bank’s unpaved roads? Will soldiers at the checkpoint permit the cassette transfer — or will cameras and video be confiscated, or even destroyed, to prevent incrimination? Or, in the rare case where electronic file transfer is possible, will power outages prevent the FTP server from functioning? Coupled with the intolerance for human rights claims, these physical obstacles mean that the visibility of the B’Tselem footage is never guaranteed.

Viral Violence

In the southern Hebron hills, in the West Bank, confrontations between Palestinians and militant settlers are frequent and heated. The settlers are engaged in what human rights organizations call “land grabs,” efforts to expand territorial holdings into neighboring Palestinian lands, often by violent means, and justified by biblical claims to Jewish ownership. The raids often damage Palestinian orchards and livestock, and Palestinians have often been hurt. On June 8, 2008, several Palestinian shepherds were tending their flocks in the village of Susiya when Jewish settlers arrived from a neighboring settlement and demanded the shepherds’ departure. The Palestinians refused and the settlers departed, returning minutes later in larger numbers, their faces masked, and their hands wielding clubs. A shepherd’s young wife captured the scene on film, her camera provided by the B’Tselem project.

The short video she produced, just over a minute in length, is vivid in its detail. Her camera faces the oncoming settlers as they walk, with a slow, confident gait, toward their target. Their heads are draped with colored fabric, with only their eyes visible. One is bare-chested and all carry clubs and large sticks, and as the camera shifts position to capture their approach, the neighboring settlement, with its signature red roofs, comes slowly into view at their backs. An elderly Palestinian man and woman are fleetingly seen in the foreground, dressed traditionally with arms at their sides and rocks in hands. Only partially captured by the camera’s viewfinder, the man turns suddenly from his impending attackers, standing his ground in defiance, averting his eyes. The settlers approach and meet him, and the shepherd speaks, his words drowned out by a heavy wind. Then the beating begins.

With its sudden movements, its subjects only partially captured by the viewfinder, this video partakes in a well-established B’Tselem genre — that of footage imprinted by the somatic terror of its producer, shot with a shaking hand and overlaid with quickened breath, or the audible footsteps of flight, or the startled cry of the unexpected eyewitness. Footage of this kind is often filmed in hiding, shot through windows and sometimes behind grates, all visible in the image. And as in the Susiya material, the image of heightened confrontation is often foreclosed, interrupted by a fallen camera, dropped in fright at the moment of attack. Such cuts in the video narrative, a standard feature of amateur production in conditions of abject terror, create numerous challenges when such footage is used in the legal arena. [7]

This footage went viral in Israel in the summer of 2008. It was screened repeatedly on the evening news, and became the subject of numerous media commentaries and radio call-in shows. Stills of the advancing perpetrators appeared on the front pages of Israeli newspapers. “It was the first time that Israelis saw masked Jews,” B’Tselem staff noted (since that time, settler masking has become common). These images conjured up others — first and foremost, the iconic kaffiyya-swathed Palestinian activist, a visual staple of first Palestinian uprising in 1987-1991. Indeed, in those days, masking practices often incurred live fire from Israeli soldiers. But another set of stock scenes was also conjured in the process, as noted by many staff at B’Tselem: “It was just like a scene from the Wild West,” like something pulled straight from a Hollywood script.

The Challenge of Being Seen

The Israeli political climate creates numerous difficulties for the B’Tselem camera project, particularly since Israeli the public is now the organization’s primary audience. Today, the separation barrier has rendered the military occupation, and Palestinians living under occupation, nearly invisible to most Israeli Jews. In tandem, the Palestinian aspiration to a territorially contiguous, sovereign state has been all but ignored by the Netanyahu government, as settler politics continue to encroach on the ideology of the center-left. At the same time, the very notion of human rights has been framed by the Israeli state as an existential threat to national security — a framing campaign that has been remarkably successful among many strata of Israeli society. In this political climate, the B’Tselem project confronts a nearly impossible question: What are the conditions under which Israeli human rights abuses in the Occupied Territories, and the Palestinian victims thereof, might be made visible to Israeli Jews? This is a challenge that B’Tselem confronts nearly every day, with varying degrees of success where the video project is concerned. Indeed, the organization’s occasional viral success within Israeli media networks may not reflect an Israeli appetite for eyewitness footage from the Occupied Territories. At times, the viral video in question may have a cinematic appeal (as was the case with the Susiya footage) that makes the political message more palatable, if not altogether invisible. And while social media helps with circulation, the insertion of these clips into a prolific body of global networked images can dull the human rights message. When assimilated into the YouTube platform and algorithm, B’Tselem footage can register as just another scene of amateur spectacle.

There are hundreds of videos uploaded to the B’Tselem website. But there are thousands more in the video archives in West Jerusalem, clips considered unworthy of media attention or self-publication, including footage of political demonstrations, settler incursions and abuses by security forces. The rationales for relegation to the archive are several: Perhaps the images are unclear, perhaps the assailant is beyond camera range or the offense too poorly lit. Or perhaps the depicted violence is simply deemed too mundane for an Israeli viewing public saturated with images of conflict and now weary of them. This archive, which is frequently mined by documentarians and scholars, is a rich visual compendium of daily Israeli human rights abuses in the occupied West Bank, those that were not spectacular enough for the national airwaves. Indeed, as one of the video project’s Israeli curators proposes, this portrait of the everyday occupation may be the video project’s most powerful contribution.

Author’s Note: Many thanks to my colleagues at B’Tselem for their generous collaboration with this research project. This project was made possible with the assistance of the Wenner-Gren Foundation.

Editor’s Note: Hide in crowd? think again http://ow.ly/pjmQU Pic@2100MP! Fixing on drones 2! dble-clk a few times (or ‘spread’ on device) #surveillance

Endnotes

[1] Joshua Briner, “Not Just B’tselem: Settlers Will Document Clashes with Palestinians,”Walla, September 22, 2011. [Hebrew] Also see Scott Krane, “Separating the Settler Movement from the ‘Price-Taggers,’” Times of Israel, May 28, 2012.
[2] Adi Kuntsman and Rebecca L. Stein, “Digital Suspicion, Politics and the Middle East,”Critical Inquiry (2011).
[3] B’tselem, Show of Force: Israeli Military Conduct in Weekly Demonstrations(Jerusalem, 2011).
[4] The village’s most visible English-language social media presence is the blog calledNabi Saleh Solidarity, linked to a Facebook page. Bilal’s wife, Manal, tweets about the village’s political struggles at @screamingtamimi.
[5] This footage of a 2007 shooting in Ni‘lin, which went viral in Israel, was shot by the daughter of a B’tselem volunteer. So, too, the wife of a B’tselem volunteer shot this footage of a May 2012 attack on the village of ‘Asira al-Qibliyya by settlers from Yitzhar.
[6] For one example, see the B’tselem footage of the May 2012 settler attack at the 3:30 mark.
[7] See Kuntsman and Stein, op cit.

How Laura Poitras Helped Snowden Spill His Secrets

By PETER MAASS, MAURICIO LIMA FOR THE NEW YORK TIMES

Greenwald, a writer for The Guardian, at home in Rio de Janeiro.

This past January, Laura Poitras received a curious e-mail from an anonymous stranger requesting her public encryption key. For almost two years, Poitras had been working on a documentary about surveillance, and she occasionally received queries from strangers. She replied to this one and sent her public key — allowing him or her to send an encrypted e-mail that only Poitras could open, with her private key — but she didn’t think much would come of it.

The stranger responded with instructions for creating an even more secure system to protect their exchanges. Promising sensitive information, the stranger told Poitras to select long pass phrases that could withstand a brute-force attack by networked computers. “Assume that your adversary is capable of a trillion guesses per second,” the stranger wrote.

Before long, Poitras received an encrypted message that outlined a number of secret surveillance programs run by the government. She had heard of one of them but not the others. After describing each program, the stranger wrote some version of the phrase, “This I can prove.”

Seconds after she decrypted and read the e-mail, Poitras disconnected from the Internet and removed the message from her computer. “I thought, O.K., if this is true, my life just changed,” she told me last month. “It was staggering, what he claimed to know and be able to provide. I just knew that I had to change everything.”

Laura Poitras filming the construction of a large N.S.A. facility in Utah.

CONOR PROVENZANO

Poitras remained wary of whoever it was she was communicating with. She worried especially that a government agent might be trying to trick her into disclosing information about the people she interviewed for her documentary, including Julian Assange, the editor of WikiLeaks. “I called him out,” Poitras recalled. “I said either you have this information and you are taking huge risks or you are trying to entrap me and the people I know, or you’re crazy.”

The answers were reassuring but not definitive. Poitras did not know the stranger’s name, sex, age or employer (C.I.A.? N.S.A.? Pentagon?). In early June, she finally got the answers. Along with her reporting partner, Glenn Greenwald, a former lawyer and a columnist for The Guardian, Poitras flew to Hong Kong and met the N.S.A. contractor Edward J. Snowden, who gave them thousands of classified documents, setting off a major controversy over the extent and legality of government surveillance. Poitras was right that, among other things, her life would never be the same.

Greenwald lives and works in a house surrounded by tropical foliage in a remote area of Rio de Janeiro. He shares the home with his Brazilian partner and their 10 dogs and one cat, and the place has the feel of a low-key fraternity that has been dropped down in the jungle. The kitchen clock is off by hours, but no one notices; dishes tend to pile up in the sink; the living room contains a table and a couch and a large TV, an Xbox console and a box of poker chips and not much else. The refrigerator is not always filled with fresh vegetables. A family of monkeys occasionally raids the banana trees in the backyard and engages in shrieking battles with the dogs.

Greenwald does most of his work on a shaded porch, usually dressed in a T-shirt, surfer shorts and flip-flops. Over the four days I spent there, he was in perpetual motion, speaking on the phone in Portuguese and English, rushing out the door to be interviewed in the city below, answering calls and e-mails from people seeking information about Snowden, tweeting to his 225,000 followers (and conducting intense arguments with a number of them), then sitting down to write more N.S.A. articles for The Guardian, all while pleading with his dogs to stay quiet. During one especially fever-pitched moment, he hollered, “Shut up, everyone,” but they didn’t seem to care.

A protest in Hong Kong in support of Edward Snowden on June 15.

PHILIPPE LOPEZ / AFP / GETTY IMAGES

Amid the chaos, Poitras, an intense-looking woman of 49, sat in a spare bedroom or at the table in the living room, working in concentrated silence in front of her multiple computers. Once in a while she would walk over to the porch to talk with Greenwald about the article he was working on, or he would sometimes stop what he was doing to look at the latest version of a new video she was editing about Snowden. They would talk intensely — Greenwald far louder and more rapid-fire than Poitras — and occasionally break out laughing at some shared joke or absurd memory. The Snowden story, they both said, was a battle they were waging together, a fight against powers of surveillance that they both believe are a threat to fundamental American liberties.

Two reporters for The Guardian were in town to assist Greenwald, so some of our time was spent in the hotel where they were staying along Copacabana Beach, the toned Brazilians playing volleyball in the sand below lending the whole thing an added layer of surreality. Poitras has shared the byline on some of Greenwald’s articles, but for the most part she has preferred to stay in the background, letting him do the writing and talking. As a result, Greenwald is the one hailed as either a fearless defender of individual rights or a nefarious traitor, depending on your perspective. “I keep calling her the Keyser Soze of the story, because she’s at once completely invisible and yet ubiquitous,” Greenwald said, referring to the character in “The Usual Suspects” played by Kevin Spacey, a mastermind masquerading as a nobody. “She’s been at the center of all of this, and yet no one knows anything about her.”

As dusk fell one evening, I followed Poitras and Greenwald to the newsroom of O Globo, one of the largest newspapers in Brazil. Greenwald had just published an article there detailing how the N.S.A. was spying on Brazilian phone calls and e-mails. The article caused a huge scandal in Brazil, as similar articles have done in other countries around the world, and Greenwald was a celebrity in the newsroom. The editor in chief pumped his hand and asked him to write a regular column; reporters took souvenir pictures with their cellphones. Poitras filmed some of this, then put her camera down and looked on. I noted that nobody was paying attention to her, that all eyes were on Greenwald, and she smiled. “That’s right,” she said. “That’s perfect.”

Poitras seems to work at blending in, a function more of strategy than of shyness. She can actually be remarkably forceful when it comes to managing information. During a conversation in which I began to ask her a few questions about her personal life, she remarked, “This is like visiting the dentist.” The thumbnail portrait is this: She was raised in a well-off family outside Boston, and after high school, she moved to San Francisco to work as a chef in upscale restaurants. She also took classes at the San Francisco Art Institute, where she studied under the experimental filmmaker Ernie Gehr. In 1992, she moved to New York and began to make her way in the film world, while also enrolling in graduate classes in social and political theory at the New School. Since then she has made five films, most recently “The Oath,” about the Guantánamo prisoner Salim Hamdan and his brother-in-law back in Yemen, and has been the recipient of a Peabody Award and a MacArthur award.

On Sept. 11, 2001, Poitras was on the Upper West Side of Manhattan when the towers were attacked. Like most New Yorkers, in the weeks that followed she was swept up in both mourning and a feeling of unity. It was a moment, she said, when “people could have done anything, in a positive sense.” When that moment led to the pre-emptive invasion of Iraq, she felt that her country had lost its way. “We always wonder how countries can veer off course,” she said. “How do people let it happen, how do people sit by during this slipping of boundaries?” Poitras had no experience in conflict zones, but in June 2004, she went to Iraq and began documenting the occupation.

Shortly after arriving in Baghdad, she received permission to go to Abu Ghraib prison to film a visit by members of Baghdad’s City Council. This was just a few months after photos were published of American soldiers abusing prisoners there. A prominent Sunni doctor was part of the visiting delegation, and Poitras shot a remarkable scene of his interaction with prisoners there, shouting that they were locked up for no good reason.

The doctor, Riyadh al-Adhadh, invited Poitras to his clinic and later allowed her to report on his life in Baghdad. Her documentary, “My Country, My Country,” is centered on his family’s travails — the shootings and blackouts in their neighborhood, the kidnapping of a nephew. The film premiered in early 2006 and received widespread acclaim, including an Oscar nomination for best documentary.

Attempting to tell the story of the war’s effect on Iraqi citizens made Poitras the target of serious — and apparently false — accusations. On Nov. 19, 2004, Iraqi troops, supported by American forces, raided a mosque in the doctor’s neighborhood of Adhamiya, killing several people inside. The next day, the neighborhood erupted in violence. Poitras was with the doctor’s family, and occasionally they would go to the roof of the home to get a sense of what was going on. On one of those rooftop visits, she was seen by soldiers from an Oregon National Guard battalion. Shortly after, a group of insurgents launched an attack that killed one of the Americans. Some soldiers speculated that Poitras was on the roof because she had advance notice of the attack and wanted to film it. Their battalion commander, Lt. Col. Daniel Hendrickson, retired, told me last month that he filed a report about her to brigade headquarters.

There is no evidence to support this claim. Fighting occurred throughout the neighborhood that day, so it would have been difficult for any journalist to not be near the site of an attack. The soldiers who made the allegation told me that they have no evidence to prove it. Hendrickson told me his brigade headquarters never got back to him.

For several months after the attack in Adhamiya, Poitras continued to live in the Green Zone and work as an embedded journalist with the U.S. military. She has screened her film to a number of military audiences, including at the U.S. Army War College. An officer who interacted with Poitras in Baghdad, Maj. Tom Mowle, retired, said Poitras was always filming and it “completely makes sense” she would film on a violent day. “I think it’s a pretty ridiculous allegation,” he said.

Although the allegations were without evidence, they may be related to Poitras’s many detentions and searches. Hendrickson and another soldier told me that in 2007 — months after she was first detained — investigators from the Department of Justice’s Joint Terrorism Task Force interviewed them, inquiring about Poitras’s activities in Baghdad that day. Poitras was never contacted by those or any other investigators, however. “Iraq forces and the U.S. military raided a mosque during Friday prayers and killed several people,” Poitras said. “Violence broke out the next day. I am a documentary filmmaker and was filming in the neighborhood. Any suggestion I knew about an attack is false. The U.S. government should investigate who ordered the raid, not journalists covering the war.”

In June 2006, her tickets on domestic flights were marked “SSSS” — Secondary Security Screening Selection — which means the bearer faces extra scrutiny beyond the usual measures. She was detained for the first time at Newark International Airport before boarding a flight to Israel, where she was showing her film. On her return flight, she was held for two hours before being allowed to re-enter the country. The next month, she traveled to Bosnia to show the film at a festival there. When she flew out of Sarajevo and landed in Vienna, she was paged on the airport loudspeaker and told to go to a security desk; from there she was led to a van and driven to another part of the airport, then taken into a room where luggage was examined.

“They took my bags and checked them,” Poitras said. “They asked me what I was doing, and I said I was showing a movie in Sarajevo about the Iraq war. And then I sort of befriended the security guy. I asked what was going on. He said: ‘You’re flagged. You have a threat score that is off the Richter scale. You are at 400 out of 400.’ I said, ‘Is this a scoring system that works throughout all of Europe, or is this an American scoring system?’ He said. ‘No, this is your government that has this and has told us to stop you.’ ”

After 9/11, the U.S. government began compiling a terrorist watch list that was at one point estimated to contain nearly a million names. There are at least two subsidiary lists that relate to air travel. The no-fly list contains the names of tens of thousands of people who are not allowed to fly into or out of the country. The selectee list, which is larger than the no-fly list, subjects people to extra airport inspections and questioning. These lists have been criticized by civil rights groups for being too broad and arbitrary and for violating the rights of Americans who are on them.

In Vienna, Poitras was eventually cleared to board her connecting flight to New York, but when she landed at J.F.K., she was met at the gate by two armed law-enforcement agents and taken to a room for questioning. It is a routine that has happened so many times since then — on more than 40 occasions — that she has lost precise count. Initially, she said, the authorities were interested in the paper she carried, copying her receipts and, once, her notebook. After she stopped carrying her notes, they focused on her electronics instead, telling her that if she didn’t answer their questions, they would confiscate her gear and get their answers that way. On one occasion, Poitras says, they did seize her computers and cellphones and kept them for weeks. She was also told that her refusal to answer questions was itself a suspicious act. Because the interrogations took place at international boarding crossings, where the government contends that ordinary constitutional rights do not apply, she was not permitted to have a lawyer present.

“It’s a total violation,” Poitras said. “That’s how it feels. They are interested in information that pertains to the work I am doing that’s clearly private and privileged. It’s an intimidating situation when people with guns meet you when you get off an airplane.”

Though she has written to members of Congress and has submitted Freedom of Information Act requests, Poitras has never received any explanation for why she was put on a watch list. “It’s infuriating that I have to speculate why,” she said. “When did that universe begin, that people are put on a list and are never told and are stopped for six years? I have no idea why they did it. It’s the complete suspension of due process.” She added: “I’ve been told nothing, I’ve been asked nothing, and I’ve done nothing. It’s like Kafka. Nobody ever tells you what the accusation is.”

After being detained repeatedly, Poitras began taking steps to protect her data, asking a traveling companion to carry her laptop, leaving her notebooks overseas with friends or in safe deposit boxes. She would wipe her computers and cellphones clean so that there would be nothing for the authorities to see. Or she encrypted her data, so that law enforcement could not read any files they might get hold of. These security preparations could take a day or more before her travels.

It wasn’t just border searches that she had to worry about. Poitras said she felt that if the government was suspicious enough to interrogate her at airports, it was also most likely surveilling her e-mail, phone calls and Web browsing. “I assume that there are National Security Letters on my e-mails,” she told me, referring to one of the secretive surveillance tools used by the Department of Justice. A National Security Letter requires its recipients — in most cases, Internet service providers and phone companies — to provide customer data without notifying the customers or any other parties. Poitras suspected (but could not confirm, because her phone company and I.S.P. would be prohibited from telling her) that the F.B.I. had issued National Security Letters for her electronic communications.

Once she began working on her surveillance film in 2011, she raised her digital security to an even higher level. She cut down her use of a cellphone, which betrays not only who you are calling and when, but your location at any given point in time. She was careful about e-mailing sensitive documents or having sensitive conversations on the phone. She began using software that masked the Web sites she visited. After she was contacted by Snowden in 2013, she tightened her security yet another notch. In addition to encrypting any sensitive e-mails, she began using different computers for editing film, for communicating and for reading sensitive documents (the one for sensitive documents is air-gapped, meaning it has never been connected to the Internet).

These precautions might seem paranoid — Poitras describes them as “pretty extreme” — but the people she has interviewed for her film were targets of the sort of surveillance and seizure that she fears. William Binney, a former top N.S.A. official who publicly accused the agency of illegal surveillance, was at home one morning in 2007 when F.B.I. agents burst in and aimed their weapons at his wife, his son and himself. Binney was, at the moment the agent entered his bathroom and pointed a gun at his head, naked in the shower. His computers, disks and personal records were confiscated and have not yet been returned. Binney has not been charged with any crime.

Jacob Appelbaum, a privacy activist who was a volunteer with WikiLeaks, has also been filmed by Poitras. The government issued a secret order to Twitter for access to Appelbaum’s account data, which became public when Twitter fought the order. Though the company was forced to hand over the data, it was allowed to tell Appelbaum. Google and a small I.S.P. that Appelbaum used were also served with secret orders and fought to alert him. Like Binney, Appelbaum has not been charged with any crime.

Poitras endured the airport searches for years with little public complaint, lest her protests generate more suspicion and hostility from the government, but last year she reached a breaking point. While being interrogated at Newark after a flight from Britain, she was told she could not take notes. On the advice of lawyers, Poitras always recorded the names of border agents and the questions they asked and the material they copied or seized. But at Newark, an agent threatened to handcuff her if she continued writing. She was told that she was being barred from writing anything down because she might use her pen as a weapon.

“Then I asked for crayons,” Poitras recalled, “and he said no to crayons.”

She was taken into another room and interrogated by three agents — one was behind her, another asked the questions, the third was a supervisor. “It went on for maybe an hour and a half,” she said. “I was taking notes of their questions, or trying to, and they yelled at me. I said, ‘Show me the law where it says I can’t take notes.’ We were in a sense debating what they were trying to forbid me from doing. They said, ‘We are the ones asking the questions.’ It was a pretty aggressive, antagonistic encounter.”

Poitras met Greenwald in 2010, when she became interested in his work on WikiLeaks. In 2011, she went to Rio to film him for her documentary. He was aware of the searches and asked several times for permission to write about them. After Newark, she gave him a green light.

“She said, ‘I’ve had it,’ ” Greenwald told me. “Her ability to take notes and document what was happening was her one sense of agency, to maintain some degree of control. Documenting is what she does. I think she was feeling that the one vestige of security and control in this situation had been taken away from her, without any explanation, just as an arbitrary exercise of power.”

At the time, Greenwald was a writer for Salon. His article, “U.S. Filmmaker Repeatedly Detained at Border,” was published in April 2012. Shortly after it was posted, the detentions ceased. Six years of surveillance and harassment, Poitras hoped, might be coming to an end.

Poitras was not Snowden’s first choice as the person to whom he wanted to leak thousands of N.S.A. documents. In fact, a month before contacting her, he reached out to Greenwald, who had written extensively and critically about the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan and the erosion of civil liberties in the wake of 9/11. Snowden anonymously sent him an e-mail saying he had documents he wanted to share, and followed that up with a step-by-step guide on how to encrypt communications, which Greenwald ignored. Snowden then sent a link to an encryption video, also to no avail.

“It’s really annoying and complicated, the encryption software,” Greenwald said as we sat on his porch during a tropical drizzle. “He kept harassing me, but at some point he just got frustrated, so he went to Laura.”

Snowden had read Greenwald’s article about Poitras’s troubles at U.S. airports and knew she was making a film about the government’s surveillance programs; he had also seen a short documentary about the N.S.A. that she made for The New York Times Op-Docs. He figured that she would understand the programs he wanted to leak about and would know how to communicate in a secure way.

By late winter, Poitras decided that the stranger with whom she was communicating was credible. There were none of the provocations that she would expect from a government agent — no requests for information about the people she was in touch with, no questions about what she was working on. Snowden told her early on that she would need to work with someone else, and that she should reach out to Greenwald. She was unaware that Snowden had already tried to contact Greenwald, and Greenwald would not realize until he met Snowden in Hong Kong that this was the person who had contacted him more than six months earlier.

There were surprises for everyone in these exchanges — including Snowden, who answered questions that I submitted to him through Poitras. In response to a question about when he realized he could trust Poitras, he wrote: “We came to a point in the verification and vetting process where I discovered Laura was more suspicious of me than I was of her, and I’m famously paranoid.” When I asked him about Greenwald’s initial silence in response to his requests and instructions for encrypted communications, Snowden replied: “I know journalists are busy and had assumed being taken seriously would be a challenge, especially given the paucity of detail I could initially offer. At the same time, this is 2013, and [he is] a journalist who regularly reported on the concentration and excess of state power. I was surprised to realize that there were people in news organizations who didn’t recognize any unencrypted message sent over the Internet is being delivered to every intelligence service in the world.”

In April, Poitras e-mailed Greenwald to say they needed to speak face to face. Greenwald happened to be in the United States, speaking at a conference in a suburb of New York City, and the two met in the lobby of his hotel. “She was very cautious,” Greenwald recalled. “She insisted that I not take my cellphone, because of this ability the government has to remotely listen to cellphones even when they are turned off. She had printed off the e-mails, and I remember reading the e-mails and felt intuitively that this was real. The passion and thought behind what Snowden — who we didn’t know was Snowden at the time — was saying was palpable.”

Greenwald installed encryption software and began communicating with the stranger. Their work was organized like an intelligence operation, with Poitras as the mastermind. “Operational security — she dictated all of that,” Greenwald said. “Which computers I used, how I communicated, how I safeguarded the information, where copies were kept, with whom they were kept, in which places. She has this complete expert level of understanding of how to do a story like this with total technical and operational safety. None of this would have happened with anything near the efficacy and impact it did, had she not been working with me in every sense and really taking the lead in coordinating most of it.”

Snowden began to provide documents to the two of them. Poitras wouldn’t tell me when he began sending her documents; she does not want to provide the government with information that could be used in a trial against Snowden or herself. He also said he would soon be ready to meet them. When Poitras asked if she should plan on driving to their meeting or taking a train, Snowden told her to be ready to get on a plane.

In May, he sent encrypted messages telling the two of them to go to Hong Kong. Greenwald flew to New York from Rio, and Poitras joined him for meetings with the editor of The Guardian’s American edition. With the paper’s reputation on the line, the editor asked them to bring along a veteran Guardian reporter, Ewen MacAskill, and on June 1, the trio boarded a 16-hour flight from J.F.K. to Hong Kong.

Snowden had sent a small number of documents to Greenwald, about 20 in all, but Poitras had received a larger trove, which she hadn’t yet had the opportunity to read closely. On the plane, Greenwald began going through its contents, eventually coming across a secret court order requiring Verizon to give its customer phone records to the N.S.A. The four-page order was from the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court, a panel whose decisions are highly classified. Although it was rumored that the N.S.A. was collecting large numbers of American phone records, the government always denied it.

Poitras, sitting 20 rows behind Greenwald, occasionally went forward to talk about what he was reading. As the man sitting next to him slept, Greenwald pointed to the FISA order on his screen and asked Poitras: “Have you seen this? Is this saying what I’m thinking it’s saying?”

At times, they talked so animatedly that they disturbed passengers who were trying to sleep; they quieted down. “We couldn’t believe just how momentous this occasion was,” Greenwald said. “When you read these documents, you get a sense of the breadth of them. It was a rush of adrenaline and ecstasy and elation. You feel you are empowered for the first time because there’s this mammoth system that you try and undermine and subvert and shine a light on — but you usually can’t make any headway, because you don’t have any instruments to do it — [and now] the instruments were suddenly in our lap.”

Snowden had instructed them that once they were in Hong Kong, they were to go at an appointed time to the Kowloon district and stand outside a restaurant that was in a mall connected to the Mira Hotel. There, they were to wait until they saw a man carrying a Rubik’s Cube, then ask him when the restaurant would open. The man would answer their question, but then warn that the food was bad. When the man with the Rubik’s Cube arrived, it was Edward Snowden, who was 29 at the time but looked even younger.

“Both of us almost fell over when we saw how young he was,” Poitras said, still sounding surprised. “I had no idea. I assumed I was dealing with somebody who was really high-level and therefore older. But I also knew from our back and forth that he was incredibly knowledgeable about computer systems, which put him younger in my mind. So I was thinking like 40s, somebody who really grew up on computers but who had to be at a higher level.”

In our encrypted chat, Snowden also remarked on this moment: “I think they were annoyed that I was younger than they expected, and I was annoyed that they had arrived too early, which complicated the initial verification. As soon as we were behind closed doors, however, I think everyone was reassured by the obsessive attention to precaution and bona fides.”

They followed Snowden to his room, where Poitras immediately shifted into documentarian mode, taking her camera out. “It was a little bit tense, a little uncomfortable,” Greenwald said of those initial minutes. “We sat down, and we just started chatting, and Laura was immediately unpacking her camera. The instant that she turned on the camera, I very vividly recall that both he and I completely stiffened up.”

Greenwald began the questioning. “I wanted to test the consistency of his claims, and I just wanted all the information I could get, given how much I knew this was going to be affecting my credibility and everything else. We weren’t really able to establish a human bond until after that five or six hours was over.”

For Poitras, the camera certainly alters the human dynamic, but not in a bad way. When someone consents to being filmed — even if the consent is indirectly gained when she turns on the camera — this is an act of trust that raises the emotional stakes of the moment. What Greenwald saw as stilted, Poitras saw as a kind of bonding, the sharing of an immense risk. “There is something really palpable and emotional in being trusted like that,” she said.

Snowden, though taken by surprise, got used to it. “As one might imagine, normally spies allergically avoid contact with reporters or media, so I was a virgin source — everything was a surprise. . . . But we all knew what was at stake. The weight of the situation actually made it easier to focus on what was in the public interest rather than our own. I think we all knew there was no going back once she turned the camera on.”

For the next week, their preparations followed a similar pattern — when they entered Snowden’s room, they would remove their cellphone batteries and place them in the refrigerator of Snowden’s minibar. They lined pillows against the door, to discourage eavesdropping from outside, then Poitras set up her camera and filmed. It was important to Snowden to explain to them how the government’s intelligence machinery worked because he feared that he could be arrested at any time.

Greenwald’s first articles — including the initial one detailing the Verizon order he read about on the flight to Hong Kong — appeared while they were still in the process of interviewing Snowden. It made for a strange experience, creating the news together, then watching it spread. “We could see it being covered,” Poitras said. “We were all surprised at how much attention it was getting. Our work was very focused, and we were paying attention to that, but we could see on TV that it was taking off. We were in this closed circle, and around us we knew that reverberations were happening, and they could be seen and they could be felt.”

Snowden told them before they arrived in Hong Kong that he wanted to go public. He wanted to take responsibility for what he was doing, Poitras said, and he didn’t want others to be unfairly targeted, and he assumed he would be identified at some point. She made a 12½-minute video of him that was posted online June 9, a few days after Greenwald’s first articles. It triggered a media circus in Hong Kong, as reporters scrambled to learn their whereabouts.

There were a number of subjects that Poitras declined to discuss with me on the record and others she wouldn’t discuss at all — some for security and legal reasons, others because she wants to be the first to tell crucial parts of her story in her own documentary. Of her parting with Snowden once the video was posted, she would only say, “We knew that once it went public, it was the end of that period of working.”

Snowden checked out of his hotel and went into hiding. Reporters found out where Poitras was staying — she and Greenwald were at different hotels — and phone calls started coming to her room. At one point, someone knocked on her door and asked for her by name. She knew by then that reporters had discovered Greenwald, so she called hotel security and arranged to be escorted out a back exit.

She tried to stay in Hong Kong, thinking Snowden might want to see her again, and because she wanted to film the Chinese reaction to his disclosures. But she had now become a figure of interest herself, not just a reporter behind the camera. On June 15, as she was filming a pro-Snowden rally outside the U.S. consulate, a CNN reporter spotted her and began asking questions. Poitras declined to answer and slipped away. That evening, she left Hong Kong.

Poitras flew directly to Berlin, where the previous fall she rented an apartment where she could edit her documentary without worrying that the F.B.I. would show up with a search warrant for her hard drives. “There is a filter constantly between the places where I feel I have privacy and don’t,” she said, “and that line is becoming increasingly narrow.” She added: “I’m not stopping what I’m doing, but I have left the country. I literally didn’t feel like I could protect my material in the United States, and this was before I was contacted by Snowden. If you promise someone you’re going to protect them as a source and you know the government is monitoring you or seizing your laptop, you can’t actually physically do it.”

After two weeks in Berlin, Poitras traveled to Rio, where I then met her and Greenwald a few days later. My first stop was the Copacabana hotel, where they were working that day with MacAskill and another visiting reporter from The Guardian, James Ball. Poitras was putting together a new video about Snowden that would be posted in a few days on The Guardian’s Web site. Greenwald, with several Guardian reporters, was working on yet another blockbuster article, this one about Microsoft’s close collaboration with the N.S.A. The room was crowded — there weren’t enough chairs for everyone, so someone was always sitting on the bed or floor. A number of thumb drives were passed back and forth, though I was not told what was on them.

Poitras and Greenwald were worried about Snowden. They hadn’t heard from him since Hong Kong. At the moment, he was stuck in diplomatic limbo in the transit area of Moscow’s Sheremetyevo airport, the most-wanted man on the planet, sought by the U.S. government for espionage. (He would later be granted temporary asylum in Russia.) The video that Poitras was working on, using footage she shot in Hong Kong, would be the first the world had seen of Snowden in a month.

“Now that he’s incommunicado, we don’t know if we’ll even hear from him again,” she said.

“Is he O.K.?” MacAskill asked.

“His lawyer said he’s O.K.,” Greenwald responded.

“But he’s not in direct contact with Snowden,” Poitras said

When Greenwald got home that evening, Snowden contacted him online. Two days later, while she was working at Greenwald’s house, Poitras also heard from him.

It was dusk, and there was loud cawing and hooting coming from the jungle all around. This was mixed with the yapping of five or six dogs as I let myself in the front gate. Through a window, I saw Poitras in the living room, intently working at one of her computers. I let myself in through a screen door, and she glanced up for just a second, then went back to work, completely unperturbed by the cacophony around her. After 10 minutes, she closed the lid of her computer and mumbled an apology about needing to take care of some things.

She showed no emotion and did not mention that she had been in the middle of an encrypted chat with Snowden. At the time, I didn’t press her, but a few days later, after I returned to New York and she returned to Berlin, I asked if that’s what she was doing that evening. She confirmed it, but said she didn’t want to talk about it at the time, because the more she talks about her interactions with Snowden, the more removed she feels from them.

“It’s an incredible emotional experience,” she said, “to be contacted by a complete stranger saying that he was going to risk his life to expose things the public should know. He was putting his life on the line and trusting me with that burden. My experience and relationship to that is something that I want to retain an emotional relation to.” Her connection to him and the material, she said, is what will guide her work. “I am sympathetic to what he sees as the horror of the world [and] what he imagines could come. I want to communicate that with as much resonance as possible. If I were to sit and do endless cable interviews — all those things alienate me from what I need to stay connected to. It’s not just a scoop. It’s someone’s life.”

Poitras and Greenwald are an especially dramatic example of what outsider reporting looks like in 2013. They do not work in a newsroom, and they personally want to be in control of what gets published and when. When The Guardian didn’t move as quickly as they wanted with the first article on Verizon, Greenwald discussed taking it elsewhere, sending an encrypted draft to a colleague at another publication. He also considered creating a Web site on which they would publish everything, which he planned to call NSADisclosures. In the end, The Guardian moved ahead with their articles. But Poitras and Greenwald have created their own publishing network as well, placing articles with other outlets in Germany and Brazil and planning more for the future. They have not shared the full set of documents with anyone.

“We are in partnership with news organizations, but we feel our primary responsibility is to the risk the source took and to the public interest of the information he has provided,” Poitras said. “Further down on the list would be any particular news organization.”

Unlike many reporters at major news outlets, they do not attempt to maintain a facade of political indifference. Greenwald has been outspoken for years; on Twitter, he recently replied to one critic by writing: “You are a complete idiot. You know that, right?” His left political views, combined with his cutting style, have made him unloved among many in the political establishment. His work with Poitras has been castigated as advocacy that harms national security. “I read intelligence carefully,” said Senator Dianne Feinstein, chairwoman of the Senate Intelligence Committee, shortly after the first Snowden articles appeared. “I know that people are trying to get us. . . . This is the reason the F.B.I. now has 10,000 people doing intelligence on counterterrorism. . . . It’s to ferret this out before it happens. It’s called protecting America.”

Poitras, while not nearly as confrontational as Greenwald, disagrees with the suggestion that their work amounts to advocacy by partisan reporters. “Yes, I have opinions,” she told me. “Do I think the surveillance state is out of control? Yes, I do. This is scary, and people should be scared. A shadow and secret government has grown and grown, all in the name of national security and without the oversight or national debate that one would think a democracy would have. It’s not advocacy. We have documents that substantiate it.”

Poitras possesses a new skill set that is particularly vital — and far from the journalistic norm — in an era of pervasive government spying: she knows, as well as any computer-security expert, how to protect against surveillance. As Snowden mentioned, “In the wake of this year’s disclosure, it should be clear that unencrypted journalist-source communication is unforgivably reckless.” A new generation of sources, like Snowden or Pfc. Bradley Manning, has access to not just a few secrets but thousands of them, because of their ability to scrape classified networks. They do not necessarily live in and operate through the established Washington networks — Snowden was in Hawaii, and Manning sent hundreds of thousands of documents to WikiLeaks from a base in Iraq. And they share their secrets not with the largest media outlets or reporters but with the ones who share their political outlook and have the know-how to receive the leaks undetected.

In our encrypted chat, Snowden explained why he went to Poitras with his secrets: “Laura and Glenn are among the few who reported fearlessly on controversial topics throughout this period, even in the face of withering personal criticism, [which] resulted in Laura specifically becoming targeted by the very programs involved in the recent disclosures. She had demonstrated the courage, personal experience and skill needed to handle what is probably the most dangerous assignment any journalist can be given — reporting on the secret misdeeds of the most powerful government in the world — making her an obvious choice.”

Snowden’s revelations are now the center of Poitras’s surveillance documentary, but Poitras also finds herself in a strange, looking-glass dynamic, because she cannot avoid being a character in her own film. She did not appear in or narrate her previous films, and she says that probably won’t change with this one, but she realizes that she has to be represented in some way, and is struggling with how to do that.

She is also assessing her legal vulnerability. Poitras and Greenwald are not facing any charges, at least not yet. They do not plan to stay away from America forever, but they have no immediate plans to return. One member of Congress has already likened what they’ve done to a form of treason, and they are well aware of the Obama administration’s unprecedented pursuit of not just leakers but of journalists who receive the leaks. While I was with them, they talked about the possibility of returning. Greenwald said that the government would be unwise to arrest them, because of the bad publicity it would create. It also wouldn’t stop the flow of information.

He mentioned this while we were in a taxi heading back to his house. It was dark outside, the end of a long day. Greenwald asked Poitras, “Since it all began, have you had a non-N.S.A. day?”

“What’s that?” she replied.

“I think we need one,” Greenwald said. “Not that we’re going to take one.”

Poitras talked about getting back to yoga again. Greenwald said he was going to resume playing tennis regularly. “I’m willing to get old for this thing,” he said, “but I’m not willing to get fat.”

Their discussion turned to the question of coming back to the United States. Greenwald said, half-jokingly, that if he was arrested, WikiLeaks would become the new traffic cop for publishing N.S.A. documents. “I would just say: ‘O.K., let me introduce you to my friend Julian Assange, who’s going to take my place. Have fun dealing with him.’ ”

Poitras prodded him: “So you’re going back to the States?”

He laughed and pointed out that unfortunately, the government does not always take the smartest course of action. “If they were smart,” he said, “I would do it.”

Poitras smiled, even though it’s a difficult subject for her. She is not as expansive or carefree as Greenwald, which adds to their odd-couple chemistry. She is concerned about their physical safety. She is also, of course, worried about surveillance. “Geolocation is the thing,” she said. “I want to keep as much off the grid as I can. I’m not going to make it easy for them. If they want to follow me, they are going to have to do that. I am not going to ping into any G.P.S. My location matters to me. It matters to me in a new way that I didn’t feel before.”

There are lots of people angry with them and lots of governments, as well as private entities, that would not mind taking possession of the thousands of N.S.A. documents they still control. They have published only a handful — a top-secret, headline-grabbing, Congressional-hearing-inciting handful — and seem unlikely to publish everything, in the style of WikiLeaks. They are holding onto more secrets than they are exposing, at least for now.

“We have this window into this world, and we’re still trying to understand it,” Poitras said in one of our last conversations. “We’re not trying to keep it a secret, but piece the puzzle together. That’s a project that is going to take time. Our intention is to release what’s in the public interest but also to try to get a handle on what this world is, and then try to communicate that.”

The deepest paradox, of course, is that their effort to understand and expose government surveillance may have condemned them to a lifetime of it.

“Our lives will never be the same,” Poitras said. “I don’t know if I’ll ever be able to live someplace and feel like I have my privacy. That might be just completely gone.”

Peter Maass is an investigative reporter working on a book about surveillance and privacy. Editor: Joel Lovell  

DrikNews RVJN wins World Summit Award

The Rural Visual Journalism Network (RVJN) is an innovative initiative where trained district correspondents use Apple i-Pod Touch technology to produce multimedia stories from rural Bangladesh. The correspondents’ multimedia stories focus on addressing specific issues faced by media and by rural citizens of Bangladesh.

Threats to journalism

David Miranda, schedule 7 and the danger that all reporters now face

As the events in a Heathrow transit lounge – and the Guardian offices – have shown, the threat to journalism is real and growing

The Guardian,

Glenn Greenwald and David Miranda
Glenn Greenwald, left, with David Miranda, who was held for nine hours at Heathrow under schedule 7 of Britain’s terror laws. Photograph: Ricardo Moraes/Reuters
In a private viewing cinema in Soho last week I caught myself letting fly with a four-letter expletive at Bill Keller, the former executive editor of the New York Times. It was a confusing moment. The man who was pretending to be me – thanking Keller for “not giving a shit” – used to be Malcolm Tucker, a foul-mouthed Scottish spin doctor who will soon be a 1,000-year-old time lord. And Keller will correct me, but I don’t remember ever swearing at him. I do remember saying something to the effect of “we have the thumb drive, you have the first amendment”.

The fictional moment occurs at the beginning of the DreamWorks film about WikiLeaks, The Fifth Estate, due for release next month. Peter Capaldi is, I can report, a very plausible Guardian editor.

This real-life exchange with Keller happened just after we took possession of the first tranche of WikiLeaks documents in 2010. I strongly suspected that our ability to research and publish anything to do with this trove of secret material would be severely constrained in the UK. America, for all its own problems with media laws and whistleblowers, at least has press freedom enshrined in a written constitution. It is also, I hope, unthinkable that any US government would attempt prior restraint against a news organisation planning to publish material that informed an important public debate, however troublesome or embarrassing.

On Sunday morning David Miranda, the partner of Guardian columnist Glenn Greenwald, was detained as he was passing through Heathrow airport on his way back to Rio de Janeiro, where the couple live. Greenwald is the reporter who has broken most of the stories about state surveillance based on the leaks from the former NSA contractor Edward Snowden. Greenwald’s work has undoubtedly been troublesome and embarrassing for western governments. But, as the debate in America and Europe has shown, there is considerable public interest in what his stories have revealed about the right balance between security, civil liberties, freedom of speech and privacy. He has raised acutely disturbing questions about the oversight of intelligence; about the use of closed courts; about the cosy and secret relationship between government and vast corporations; and about the extent to which millions of citizens now routinely have their communications intercepted, collected, analysed and stored.

In this work he is regularly helped by David Miranda. Miranda is not a journalist, but he still plays a valuable role in helping his partner do his journalistic work. Greenwald has his plate full reading and analysing the Snowden material, writing, and handling media and social media requests from around the world. He can certainly use this back-up. That work is immensely complicated by the certainty that it would be highly unadvisable for Greenwald (or any other journalist) to regard any electronic means of communication as safe. The Guardian’s work on the Snowden story has involved many individuals taking a huge number of flights in order to have face-to-face meetings. Not good for the environment, but increasingly the only way to operate. Soon we will be back to pen and paper.

Miranda was held for nine hours under schedule 7 of the UK’s terror laws, which give enormous discretion to stop, search and question people who have no connection with “terror”, as ordinarily understood. Suspects have no right to legal representation and may have their property confiscated for up to seven days. Under this measure – uniquely crafted for ports and airport transit areas – there are none of the checks and balances that apply once someone is in Britain proper. There is no need to arrest or charge anyone and there is no protection for journalists or their material. A transit lounge in Heathrow is a dangerous place to be.

Miranda’s professional status – much hand-wringing about whether or not he’s a proper “journalist” – is largely irrelevant in these circumstances. Increasingly, the question about who deserves protection should be less “is this a journalist?” than “is the publication of this material in the public interest?”

The detention of Miranda has rightly caused international dismay because it feeds into a perception that the US and UK governments – while claiming to welcome the debate around state surveillance started by Snowden – are also intent on stemming the tide of leaks and on pursuing the whistleblower with a vengeance. That perception is right. Here follows a little background on the considerable obstacles being placed in the way of informing the public about what the intelligence agencies, governments and corporations are up to.

A little over two months ago I was contacted by a very senior government official claiming to represent the views of the prime minister. There followed two meetings in which he demanded the return or destruction of all the material we were working on. The tone was steely, if cordial, but there was an implicit threat that others within government and Whitehall favoured a far more draconian approach.

The mood toughened just over a month ago, when I received a phone call from the centre of government telling me: “You’ve had your fun. Now we want the stuff back.” There followed further meetings with shadowy Whitehall figures. The demand was the same: hand the Snowden material back or destroy it. I explained that we could not research and report on this subject if we complied with this request. The man from Whitehall looked mystified. “You’ve had your debate. There’s no need to write any more.”

During one of these meetings I asked directly whether the government would move to close down the Guardian’s reporting through a legal route – by going to court to force the surrender of the material on which we were working. The official confirmed that, in the absence of handover or destruction, this was indeed the government’s intention. Prior restraint, near impossible in the US, was now explicitly and imminently on the table in the UK. But my experience over WikiLeaks – the thumb drive and the first amendment – had already prepared me for this moment. I explained to the man from Whitehall about the nature of international collaborations and the way in which, these days, media organisations could take advantage of the most permissive legal environments. Bluntly, we did not have to do our reporting from London. Already most of the NSA stories were being reported and edited out of New York. And had it occurred to him that Greenwald lived in Brazil?

The man was unmoved. And so one of the more bizarre moments in the Guardian’s long history occurred – with two GCHQ security experts overseeing the destruction of hard drives in the Guardian’s basement just to make sure there was nothing in the mangled bits of metal which could possibly be of any interest to passing Chinese agents. “We can call off the black helicopters,” joked one as we swept up the remains of a MacBook Pro.

The Newsroom of the Guardian in the UK. Kings Place. London. Shahidul Alam/Drik/Majority World
The Newsroom of the Guardian in the UK. Kings Place. London. Shahidul Alam/Drik/Majority World

Whitehall was satisfied, but it felt like a peculiarly pointless piece of symbolism that understood nothing about the digital age. We will continue to do patient, painstaking reporting on the Snowden documents, we just won’t do it in London. The seizure of Miranda’s laptop, phones, hard drives and camera will similarly have no effect on Greenwald’s work.

The state that is building such a formidable apparatus of surveillance will do its best to prevent journalists from reporting on it. Most journalists can see that. But I wonder how many have truly understood the absolute threat to journalism implicit in the idea of total surveillance, when or if it comes – and, increasingly, it looks like “when”.

We are not there yet, but it may not be long before it will be impossible for journalists to have confidential sources. Most reporting – indeed, most human life in 2013 – leaves too much of a digital fingerprint. Those colleagues who denigrate Snowden or say reporters should trust the state to know best (many of them in the UK, oddly, on the right) may one day have a cruel awakening. One day it will be their reporting, their cause, under attack. But at least reporters now know to stay away from Heathrow transit lounges.

The New World Disorder

Tariq Ali, in this exclusive interview, seamlessly switches from contemporary historian to scholar-at-large to polemicist to raconteur, as he tackles many of the impinging issues of our times. By SASHI KUMAR, Frontline

He was in southern India after nearly 30 years. He had come to Kerala to deliver the Chinta Ravindran Memorial Lecture at Thrissur. My friend, the well-known writer Paul Zacharia and I were showing him the sights and we had just been to the site of the archaeological dig at Pattanam near Kodungalloor where he saw the unearthed pottery and artefacts that were reconstructing the fascinating story of an early society in these parts, already in maritime contact with West Asian ports and ancient Rome. From there we proceeded to the nearby Cheraman juma masjid, considered the first mosque in India, and perhaps the second in the world, dating back to A.D. 629. There was only a little evidence of that ancient patrimony left; the quaint old native structure had been all but pulled down some 50 years back and a more commodious, more standardised edifice built around it. All that was left were some pillars, a section of a doorway, another of a beamed ceiling and a crumbling staircase leading up to the attic, all in wood. But a photograph of the structure, as it was in 1905, hung on the wall.
Continue reading “The New World Disorder”