Laura Poitras–the Academy and Pulitzer Prize Award-winning filmmaker of Citizenfour that opened in theaters in October and had an extended revival at Frida Cinema in Santa Ana in January–is suing various federal government agencies for essentially harassing her as she traveled to make her documentary on NSA whistleblower Edward Snowden.
Poitras, who is a journalist as well as a filmmaker, claims that from 2006 to 2012, and especially after Glenn Greenwald published what Snowden had given him about U.S. surveillance tactics and the three began working together on Citizenfour, she was detained at the U.S. border every time she entered the country and "searched, questioned, and often subjected to hours-long security screenings at U.S. and overseas airports on more than 50 occasions."
She alleges that during the detentions, she was told by airport security agents that she had a criminal record even though she does not, that her name appeared on a national security threat database, and, on one occasion, that she was on the U.S. government's No Fly List. Poitras claims her laptop, camera, mobile phone and reporter notebooks were seized and their contents copied, and that she was once threatened with handcuffing for taking notes during her detention after border agents said her pen could be used as a weapon. No warrant, explanation or charges accompanied these searches, she maintains.
Last year, she filed Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) requests for records naming or relating to her–including case files, surveillance records, and counter-terrorism documents–but government agencies have either said they have no records, denied or ignored her appeals for further searches, or haven't responded at all to her requests, Poitras claims.
Now represented by the Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF) in her FOIA lawsuit, she is demanding the the Department of Homeland Security, Department of Justice and Office of the Director of National Intelligence release those records.
"I'm filing this lawsuit because the government uses the U.S. border to bypass the rule of law," Poitras says in a statement announcing the litigation. "This simply should not be tolerated in a democracy. I am also filing this suit in support of the countless other less high-profile people who have also been subjected to years of Kafkaesque harassment at the borders. We have a right to know how this system works and why we are targeted."
"The government used its power to detain people at airports, in the name of national security, to target a journalist whose work has focused on the effects of the U.S. war on terror," says David Sobel, EFF senior counsel. "In refusing to respond to Poitras' FOIA requests and wrongfully withholding the documents about her it has located, the government is flouting its responsibility to explain and defend why it subjected a law-abiding citizen–whose work has shone a light on post-9/11 military and intelligence activities–to interrogations and searches every time she entered her country."
Poitras directed the 2006 Oscar-nominated My Country, My Country, which is about the Iraq war as told through an Iraqi doctor and political candidate in Baghdad who was an outspoken critic of U.S. occupation, and directed and produced the 2010, Emmy-nominated The Oath, which is about Guantanamo Bay prison and the interrogation of Osama bin Laden's former bodyguard days after 9/11. But what really made Poitras a player was Citizenfour, which earned her a Director's Guild of America Award, an Academy Award and the 2014 Pulitzer Prize for Public Service for NSA reporting. She is also a recipient of a MacArthur Foundation "genius" grant.