Oscars 2015: Laura Poitras' Film on Edward Snowden, "Citizenfour," Nominated for Best Documentary

January 15, 2015
Web Exclusive

Nominations for the 87th annual Academy Awards were revealed today. Five films were nominated for Best Documentary: "CitizenFour," "Finding Vivian Maier," "Last Days in Vietnam," "The Salt of the Earth, and "Virunga."

In October, "Citizenfour" director Laura Poitras appeared on Democracy Now! to discuss the film that offers an inside look at what transpired in a Hong Kong hotel room over eight days in June 2013 when Edward Snowden first met with Laura Poitras, Glenn Greenwald and Guardian reporter Ewen MacAskill. Snowden selected the journalists to receive a trove of secret documents about how the United States had built a massive surveillance apparatus to spy on Americans and people across the globe.

AMY GOODMAN: Today, Citizenfour.

LAURA POITRAS: [reading Edward Snowden] "Laura, at this stage I can offer nothing more than my word. I am a senior government employee in the intelligence community. I hope you understand that contacting you is extremely high risk ... From now, know that every border you cross, every purchase you make, every call you dial, every cell phone tower you pass, friend you keep, ... site you visit [and] subject line you type ... is in the hands of a system whose reach is unlimited but whose safeguards are not. ... In the end if you publish the source material, I will likely be immediately implicated. ... I ask only that you ensure this information makes it home to the American public. ... Thank you, and be careful. Citizen Four."

EWEN MacASKILL: Sorry, I don’t know anything about you.


EWEN MacASKILL: Sorry, I don’t know even your name.

EDWARD SNOWDEN: Oh, sorry, my name is Edward Snowden. I go by Ed. Edward Joseph Snowden is the full name.

NERMEEN SHAIKH: That’s the trailer to the new film, Citizenfour, directed by filmmaker Laura Poitras about National Security Agency whistleblower Edward Snowden. The new documentary offers an inside look at what transpired in a Hong Kong hotel room over eight days in June 2013 when Snowden first met with Laura Poitras, Glenn Greenwald and Guardian reporter Ewen MacAskill to leak a trove of secret documents about how the United States had built a massive surveillance apparatus to spy on Americans and people across the globe.

AMY GOODMAN: Laura Poitras filmed over 20 hours in the hotel room, including this moment when Snowden was questioned by _Guardian_’s Ewen MacAskill. By this point, the first exposés based on Snowden’s leaks had been published, but his identity was not yet known to the public.

EWEN MacASKILL: What’s the next step? When do you think you’ll go public? Or—

EDWARD SNOWDEN: I think it’s pretty soon. I mean, with the reaction, this escalated more quickly. I think pretty much as soon as they start trying to make this about me, which should be any day now—


EDWARD SNOWDEN: —I’ll come out, just to go, "Hey, you know, this is—this is not a question of somebody skulking around in the shadows. These are public issues. These are not my issues. You know, these are everybody’s issues. And I’m not afraid of you. You know, you’re not going to bully me into silence like you’ve done to everybody else. And if nobody else is going to do it, I will. And hopefully, when I’m gone, whatever you do to me, there will be somebody else who will do the same thing. It will be the sort of Internet principle of the Hydra: You know, you can stomp one person, but there’s going to be seven more of us."

EWEN MacASKILL: Yeah. Are you getting more nervous?

EDWARD SNOWDEN: Um, I mean, no. I think—I think the way I look at stress, particularly because I sort of knew this was coming, you know, because I sort of volunteered to walk into it, I’m already sort of familiar with the idea. I’m not worried about it. When somebody like busts in the door, suddenly I’ll get nervous and it’ll affect me. But until they do...

AMY GOODMAN: An excerpt from Citizenfour, the new film by director Laura Poitras. Her first film, My Country, My Country, focused on the Iraq War, was nominated for an Academy Award in 2007. Her second, The Oath, was about Guantánamo. Citizenfour is the third installment of her 9/11 trilogy. The film opens in New York, Los Angeles, San Francisco and Washington, D.C., on Friday. Her NSA reporting contributed to a Pulitzer Prize for Public Service awarded to The Guardian and The Washington Post. We spoke to Laura on Wednesday in Washington, D.C., and began by asking her about the name of her film, Citizenfour.

LAURA POITRAS: "Citizen Four" was the alias that Edward Snowden used to contact me in January 2013. And we corresponded over the course of five months, and he—when I didn’t know who he was. And it was only actually days before traveling to Hong Kong that I actually had a name for the person that I had been talking to.

AMY GOODMAN: But why did he choose "Citizen Four"? What does it mean?

LAURA POITRAS: Yeah, yeah, that’s a good question. Actually, I made a trip to Moscow not that long ago, where I filmed part of the end of the film where he’s with his longtime partner Lindsay Mills. And I asked him, you know, because I didn’t actually ever know what it was, and he said, "Well, I’m not the first person who’s going to come forward and reveal information that the public should know, and I won’t be the last." And so, that’s where it comes from.

NERMEEN SHAIKH: One of the most striking things, Laura, about the film is that Snowden never appears to have considered the possibility of leaking anonymously. Were you struck by that?

LAURA POITRAS: Yeah, I mean, I was actually very shocked. I was contacted in January, and we had email correspondence for a long time. And for all of—for the first three months, I assumed he would remain an anonymous source. He wouldn’t tell me any details about his—you know, where he worked or where he lived. And I thought that I was talking to somebody, at some point I’d receive documents, and then, you know, he would disappear and I would never know who the person was. And then, in April, he revealed to me—he said, "You know, you should know that I actually intend to come forward and say that I’m the source of this information," and that he didn’t want to hide, and he didn’t want others to take responsibility and that he didn’t—if there was a leak investigation, etc.

And so, he told me that, and that’s when I said, "Well, then, if that’s the case, then I would really like to meet you and be able to film, so that I could understand, you know, your motivations." And his first response was that he didn’t feel comfortable about that, because he didn’t want the story to be about him, which is something he also—you see he echoes in the film when he’s talking to Glenn in the very first interview. He says, "I’m not the story." And I said, "Well, people are going to—the media will make you the story and that your motivations really do matter." And then he agreed, and that’s how—sort of what led to the face-to-face meeting in Hong Kong.

AMY GOODMAN: Laura, how did he find you?

LAURA POITRAS: You know, so, as Glenn Greenwald has written in his book, he had received emails in December of 2012 asking to set up an encrypted way of talking, saying he had some information that he thought Glenn would be interested in, but he was very, very vague and didn’t say anything specific. And Glenn didn’t have—he wasn’t using encryption at that point, encrypted email. And so, I then received an anonymous email in January from someone I didn’t know, just asking me for my public key. And a public key is what’s used for encryption. It’s called PGP encryption. You have a key—you exchange keys, and then you’re able to communicate securely. And so, I had a key. I had been using encryption for a while, so it was an easy thing for me to do.

And I just said, you know, "Here you go, here’s my key," you know, and "Who are you, and what do you want?" And that’s—then we started this correspondence. And the first—then, the following email was the one that you hear at the beginning of the film as we’re moving through a tunnel, which he says, you know, "I’m a member of the intelligence community. This is not going to be a waste of your time." And he says other details, like "Imagine your adversary is capable of one trillion guesses per second." And that was sort of the beginning of our correspondence in January.

NERMEEN SHAIKH: Well, in fact, Snowden says to you, or writes, that "You ask[ed] why I [chose] you. I didn’t. You [chose yourself]," he says to you in one of your chats.

LAURA POITRAS: Right. So that was—so, after he—the first email that I respond is like, "OK, well, then, why me? You need to help me understand this," because I was being a little bit cautious, not knowing—it could be potentially, you know, entrapment or something. And then he said—he referenced the fact that I had been put on a watchlist and stopped at the U.S. border many times. So he had, I think, read about that. Glenn had written about the fact that I had been stopped at the border. I had also published a short video about another NSA whistleblower, William Binney, on the New York Times website in August of 2012. And my guess is that he had seen both those things, and he knew that I was somebody who was working on NSA-related things, and he knew that also I had been targeted in some way, so that I had, I guess, maybe a personal connection to the issue.

AMY GOODMAN: Well, Laura, Edward Snowden wrote, "Your victimization by the NSA system means that you are well aware of the threat that unrestricted, secret abilities pose for democracies. This is a story that few but you can tell." You talked about being stopped at the border dozens and dozens of times. In fact, it’s how you open Citizenfour. It’s what you told us on Democracy Now! before. Talk about those experiences. How many times have you been stopped crossing the border?

LAURA POITRAS: I think it’s about 40 times. And it started in 2006, and it continued until 2012—actually, until Glenn wrote about it. And then they stopped detaining me and questioning me at the border. And, you know, in terms of what happens at the border, I mean—you know, I had made a film about the Iraq War, so I had spent some time in the war zone, and it happened about a year and a half after finishing that film. And what I think—I mean, what I don’t think it is, I don’t think the U.S. government is watching films, and, you know, they’re just some thought police that says, "We don’t like this film, and we’re going to stop this person." But there is certainly—as we know, there is this growth of the intelligence community, which has created this sort of secret watchlist process. And people get put on it, and then, once you’re put on it, there’s actually no way to know why you’re on it or how to get off of it.

And so, yeah, every time I would return to the United States, they would—border agents would be sent to the plane, and I would be walked off into an area where I’d be questioned. And many different things happened. You know, each time was slightly different. Sometimes they would photocopy my notebook. Sometimes they would photocopy my credit cards. I had my computer confiscated once, my camera confiscated once. And, you know, they were asking questions about what I was doing, you know, why was I traveling the places I was traveling. And when it first started, I was naive. I thought, well, this is just clearly a mistake, and I answered questions. I said, "Well, I’m a filmmaker. I was going to a film festival. I made a film about the Iraq War," thinking like, well, once I sort of explained all those things, that I would be taken off the watchlist.

AMY GOODMAN: They got mad when you started taking notes about their questions.

LAURA POITRAS: Right, and then—right, and then things changed. And then I became a little bit more, "OK, well, this doesn’t seem to be ending anytime soon." And then I started taking notes every time that I traveled, writing down the names of the agents, writing down the questions, the times that I was detained, and etc. And then they weren’t particularly happy about that. And it did escalate in 2012, when I was returning via Newark airport, when I was taking notes, and they threatened to handcuff me for taking notes. You know, they made the argument that they thought that I was going to hurt them, physically hurt them, with the pen, which, you know, was of course absurd.

And then, after that, I sort of went public. I hadn’t made a secret of the fact that I was being stopped. But the work that I do, I often go—I was going places and trying to stay under the radar, and, you know, going public, it’s hard. You can’t dial something like that back, so—but it was just so outrageous, you know, that border agents were ordering me to not take notes or they were going to handcuff me, was so outrageous that I called Glenn, and he ended up doing an article about that for Salon.com.

NERMEEN SHAIKH: Laura, that’s part of the reason that you decided to take the material to Berlin that you got of Edward Snowden and to do the editing there rather than here in the U.S.?

LAURA POITRAS: Right. Actually, it was before I was contacted by Snowden that I—you know, I had been filming for a while, and I wanted to edit, and I just felt like that I couldn’t assure that I was going to be able to keep my footage source material secure crossing the border. And I was at that point filming with several people who were all being targeted by the government, and that includes William Binney, the NSA whistleblower; Thomas Drake, another NSA whistleblower; Jacob Appelbaum, who works with the Tor Project and has been training activists on countersurveillance; and also with Julian Assange. So, I was filming with people that I knew that the government had an interest in, and I just felt like it wasn’t safe for me to travel with the footage. So I had moved to Berlin to edit. And that’s when I was actually in Berlin that I received the first email from Edward Snowden.

AMY GOODMAN: Let’s go back to the first video of Edward Snowden that the world saw back in June of 2013. You shot this inside his Hong Kong hotel room. It was then published on the Guardian website.

EDWARD SNOWDEN: NSA and the intelligence community, in general, is focused on getting intelligence wherever it can, by any means possible, that it believes, on the grounds of sort of a self-certification, that they serve the national interest. Originally, we saw that focus very narrowly tailored as foreign intelligence gathered overseas. Now, increasingly, we see that it’s happening domestically. And to do that, they—the NSA specifically targets the communications of everyone. It ingests them by default. It collects them in its system, and it filters them, and it analyzes them, and it measures them, and it stores them for periods of time, simply because that’s the easiest, most efficient and most valuable way to achieve these ends. So while they may be intending to target someone associated with a foreign government or someone that they suspect of terrorism, they’re collecting your communications to do so. Any analyst at any time can target anyone, any selector anywhere. Where those communications will be picked up depends on the range of the sensor networks and the authorities that that analyst is empowered with. Not all analysts have the ability to target everything. But I, sitting at my desk, certainly had the authorities to wiretap anyone, from you or your accountant to a federal judge, to even the president, if I had a personal email.

AMY GOODMAN: That was Edward Snowden, filmed by Laura Poitras, the first time the world saw him. And, Laura, even the way you filmed him back then, I think, sent quite a message. You have him—on one side, there is a window, you know, very bright, and on the other side, a mirror that shows his back. It’s all about transparency. That’s the message, I think, that comes through. You could see him every which way.

LAURA POITRAS: Well, I mean, as a filmmaker, I was actually working with some constraints, because we were in a hotel room, and there weren’t that many options. And so, yeah, you know, people have tried to read into the symbolism of the mirror, and, I mean, it wasn’t that planned. I mean, I just thought it was—it was a nice shot, and I was able to get rid of other things that were in the room. And so, it wasn’t all that, you know, intended to be symbolic.

AMY GOODMAN: But talk about—and this is the power of your film, is it is as if we are, you know, watching a thriller, and because it certainly was this, as all this unfolded—first, the reports coming out, then people wondering who was behind this, and interestingly, as you’ve said, Edward Snowden decides to name himself because he doesn’t want it to be about him. He doesn’t want people speculating. But explain the revelations that so rocked the world.

LAURA POITRAS: Yeah, I mean, in terms of how the film happens, I mean, I come out of a—I make films that are done in a style or tradition called cinéma vérité, or direct cinema. And what happens when you do that is like you’re actually in the moment when things are happening, as things are unfolding, and you document them. And then, after that—and when you’re in the moment, all that kind of uncertainty exists, because you don’t know what’s going to happen next. And so, that’s what you sort of feel as the narrative, dramatic pull. So, you know, you have these letters that come and then take us to Hong Kong, and then Hong Kong unfolds day by day, beginning on a Monday and ending on the following Monday. And I’m not doing many interviews, actually. I did—the only interview that I did was the one that we released on the Guardian website. Everything else was filmed in a, you know, as-it-happens style.

AMY GOODMAN: And what happened after this, after he came forward? Explain what took place.

LAURA POITRAS: I mean, after he came forward in terms of the repercussions of the reporting?

AMY GOODMAN: Exactly, as he moved from his hotel room—


AMY GOODMAN: —then to your hotel room, and how he made it out of the country.

LAURA POITRAS: Right, sure, OK. So, you know, it begins—so, we’re sort of beginning the reporting, and then on the—you know, soon after, Glenn publishes the first story, the Verizon story, and then we see that his partner starts to receive emails. Somebody comes to their house looking for him. So it’s clear that the government suspects him of being the source. And so we continue to report, and we’re seeing the news breaking, and it’s clear that there’s also a bit of a—you know, the government knows that he’s missing. So, we then release the video. And the last time we see him in Hong Kong, he’s having a meeting with human rights lawyers, and he leaves. And then, after that, the film then transitions to where the reporting is happening. And so, I guess it’s also important to say that because I’m really a participant in the film, I’m also one of the sort of protagonists, and it’s told from a subjective point of view. So we go to Berlin, where I’m based, and there’s—you know, we see myself and him chatting, and Glenn, and we get the reverberations of these disclosures happening globally.

AMY GOODMAN: Award-winning filmmaker Laura Poitras, speaking about her new documentary, Citizenfour, which features NSA whistleblower Edward Snowden. You can go to our website, democracynow.org, to see a video timeline featuring all our coverage based on Snowden’s revelations. When we come back from break, we continue our interview with Laura Poitras talking about the new revelations the film contains—from a second whistleblower. And we’ll speak with Jeremy Scahill about the guilty verdict in Blackwater. Stay with us.


AMY GOODMAN: Nine Inch Nails. Oscar-winning composer Trent Reznor created the Citizenfour soundtrack. This is Democracy Now!, democracynow.org, The War and Peace Report. I’m Amy Goodman, with Nermeen Shaikh, as we return to our interview with the award-winning filmmaker, Laura Poitras, about her new documentary, out this weekend, Citizenfour.

NERMEEN SHAIKH: I asked Laura to describe another clip from the film, which shows an editorial discussion in the newsroom of The Guardian newspaper about how to publish the leaked materials NSA whistleblower Edward Snowden had given them.

LAURA POITRAS: You have there, I think The Guardian might be working on the Tempora story. So, when we’re in Hong Kong, Edward Snowden explains to Ewen MacAskill—and Ewen MacAskill is an investigative journalist with The Guardian, who joined Glenn on the trip. And so, when we were in Hong Kong, Edward Snowden explains to him a program called Tempora, which he describes as, you know, one of—I think he says "the most invasive" Internet collection programs, where the U.K. is buffering the entire, full take of the Internet. And so he shares this with Ewen, and he explains what it means. And so, after Hong Kong, Ewen then passes this information along to his colleagues at The Guardian, and they report on it. So, it’s about the GCHQ’s program, Tempora.

AMY GOODMAN: So let’s go to that clip.

PAUL JOHNSON: All right. So, which ones do we want here then? This is operational stuff, so we mustn’t say any of this.

JULIAN BORGER: So, redact that.

PAUL JOHNSON: Go near the top. What about the Alexander quote? Is that something—

JULIAN BORGER: Yeah, that’s in TARMAC. "Why can’t we collect all the signals all the time? Sounds like a good summer homework project for Menwith." Keith Alexander, the head of the NSA, on a visit to U.K. This one.

PAUL JOHNSON: Yeah. It’s a secret document in that secret document. We’ve got a stick here that should just have three single slides on it. If it’s got more than three single slides, we have to be extremely careful.


PAUL JOHNSON: Yeah, that’s it. This is really dangerous stuff for us, Guardian [inaudible]. If we make mistakes, [inaudible] very angry. We kept it all under lock and key. And no one knows. No, I’m not saying that. They will come in and snap the front door down if we elaborate on that. And he said, "The prime minister is desperately concerned about this." And they kept saying, "This is from the very top."

AMY GOODMAN: The clip ends with an on-air screen chat between our guest, Laura Poitras, and Snowden. He types, "How are things over there?"

NERMEEN SHAIKH: And Poitras responds, "I’m at the Guardian. They’re publishing TEMPORA today. [T]hey are very nervous—worried about an injunction."

AMY GOODMAN: Snowden says, "The NSA love that program."

NERMEEN SHAIKH: Poitras asks, "Why?"

AMY GOODMAN: Snowden answers, "Because they aren’t allowed to do it in the US. The UK lets us query it all day long."

NERMEEN SHAIKH: And Poitras writes back, "They are getting cold feet about publishing names of the telecoms collaborating."

AMY GOODMAN: Snowden says, "Do they know the companies?"

NERMEEN SHAIKH: And Poitras replies, "Yes, I believe so."

AMY GOODMAN: The conversation between Edward Snowden and Laura Poitras. Of course, they’re communicating cryptically. Explain Tempora to us, Laura Poitras.

LAURA POITRAS: Well, I mean, so, Tempora is what’s called a full-take Internet buffer, where the GCHQ collects all the information coming across the Internet, and what they do as a buffer is they slow everything down so that they can look at everything and take things out of it. So, it’s, you know, full-take everything. And what you see in this chat is the fact that Edward Snowden is saying that the NSA is not able to do this, so they actually query the U.K.'s buffer to find—to search for selectors and those kinds of things. So, you know, it's described as very invasive and full-take. So this is—I mean, I think that’s the most important thing to underline in terms of the information that he’s come forward with, is the sort of the scale of it and that these—you know, the NSA and the "Five Eyes" are interested in taking as much information as they can, a sort of bulk dragnet approach to collection of signals intelligence, rather than sort of targeted, you know, so you have this sort of suspicionless gathering of our communications.

NERMEEN SHAIKH: In your film, you show a congressional hearing. It’s 2012 before Snowden’s revelations, and Democratic Congressmember Hank Johnson is questioning then-NSA Director Keith Alexander about the agency’s ability to conduct domestic surveillance.

REP. HANK JOHNSON: Does the NSA routinely intercept American citizens’ emails?


REP. HANK JOHNSON: Does the NSA intercept Americans’ cellphone conversations?


REP. HANK JOHNSON: Google searches?


REP. HANK JOHNSON: Text messages?


REP. HANK JOHNSON: Amazon.com orders?


REP. HANK JOHNSON: Bank records?


REP. HANK JOHNSON: What judicial consent is required for NSA to intercept communications and information involving American citizens?

KEITH ALEXANDER: Within the United States, that would be the FBI lead. If it was a foreign actor in the United States, the FBI would still have to lead and could work that with NSA or other intelligence agencies as authorized. But to conduct that kind of collection in the United States, it would have to go through a court order, and the court would have to authorize it. We’re not authorized to do it, nor do we do it.

NERMEEN SHAIKH: That was then-NSA Director Keith Alexander responding to questions from Democratic Congressmember Hank Johnson in 2012. Laura Poitras, in light of what Snowden revealed, your response to what Keith Alexander stated so emphatically?

LAURA POITRAS: I mean, actually, what I would say is, at the beginning of the film what we’re doing, in the sort of first act before we go to Hong Kong, is sort of set the stage for what’s happening and the denials that were being made by the government. I think actually the most revealing one is the one of James Clapper, where he’s being questioned by Ron Wyden, who—Senator Ron Wyden, who actually knows about the metadata collection program, but he doesn’t want to say it.

AMY GOODMAN: Let’s go to Democratic Senator Ron Wyden questioning Director of Intelligence James Clapper during a 2013 Senate hearing. Of course, this is before Snowden’s revelations about the NSA’s surveillance program.

SEN. RON WYDEN: Does the NSA collect any type of data at all on millions or hundreds of millions of Americans?


SEN. RON WYDEN: It does not.

JAMES CLAPPER: Not wittingly. There are cases where they could inadvertently, perhaps, collect, but not wittingly.

AMY GOODMAN: So, there you have James Clapper, who—well, Laura, explain what he was forced to say after the Snowden revelations.

LAURA POITRAS: Sure. I mean, this was an important moment, I think, both for Snowden, when he was watching it, but looking at the government, because the situation, what’s happening there, is that Ron Wyden actually sits on the Intelligence Committee, and he knew very well that the NSA was collecting the metadata records, the sort of call records under Section 215 of the PATRIOT Act under a, quote-unquote, "secret interpretation of the law." So Ron Wyden knows this. So, he’s trying to question James Clapper, and James Clapper clearly lies, because he knows also that they’re collecting the phone records.

And then it actually—you know, fast-forward to Hong Kong. It’s the first story that Glenn reveals, which is the Verizon order, which is the FISA court—again, the secret court—order that collects the call records of U.S. citizens and gathers them. So this is an example of, you know, the government clearly lying in Congress. And also, I mean, I find it—I mean, one of the things that I think this—hopefully, think people think about when watching this film, and here’s a case where Ron Wyden himself actually knew that this was happening, and he was against it, and yet he didn’t come forward. And then, a whistleblower then, you know, is the one who comes forward to say that the public has a right to know about this. And Wyden and Udall, on one hand, I think that they’ve been trying to push the intelligence agencies to be more transparent; on the other hand, they actually—they have a lot of protection. I mean, they actually could say much more. They have immunity. They could come forward and tell the population. If they think that the people should know what the government is doing, they actually are empowered to do so.

NERMEEN SHAIKH: And, Laura Poitras, what kind of message do you think your film or would you want this film to convey to future whistleblowers?

LAURA POITRAS: I don’t know if it’s so much—I mean, the film begins with William Binney, NSA whistleblower, who worked for three decades in the NSA and knew about the domestic spying and Stellar Wind. And then you see what happens. The FBI shows up at his home with guns, and then Edward Snowden makes different choices. He has documents, unlike Binney, who didn’t have documents, and leaves the country and seeks political asylum. I mean, I don’t know if it’s so much a message for whistleblowers. I mean, I think it’s a question for us as—you know, why is it that people have to make these sacrifices for the public to know what our government is doing? I think that that’s the real question.

AMY GOODMAN: Let’s go for a moment to William Binney, who actually you brought to our studios when you did this Whitney event with both Jacob Appelbaum, who you feature in the film, and Bill Binney, who spent nearly 40 years at the National Security Agency but retired a month after September 11, 2001, after the attacks, because of his concerns about unchecked domestic surveillance, for a time largely responsible for automating the agency’s worldwide eavesdropping network. In 2012, he gave his first-ever television interview on the show that you were also on, Laura, to Democracy Now!

WILLIAM BINNEY: After 9/11, all the wraps came off for NSA, and they decided to—between the White House and NSA and CIA, they decided to eliminate the protections on U.S. citizens and collect on domestically. So they started collecting from a commercial—the one commercial company that I know of that participated provided over 300—probably, on the average, about 320 million records of communication of a U.S. citizen to a U.S. citizen inside this country.

AMY GOODMAN: What company?

WILLIAM BINNEY: AT&T. It was long-distance communications. So they were providing billing data. At that point, I knew I could not stay, because it was a direct violation of the constitutional rights of everybody in the country. Plus it violated the pen register law and Stored Communications Act, the Electronic Privacy Act, the intelligence acts of 1947 and 1978. I mean, it was just this whole series of—plus all the laws covering federal communications governing telecoms. I mean, all those laws were being violated, including the Constitution. And that was a decision made that wasn’t going to be reversed, so I could not stay there. I had to leave.

AMY GOODMAN: That was NSA whistleblower Bill Binney, who went on to describe what happened in 2007, years after he left the NSA, when his home was raided.

WILLIAM BINNEY: They came busting in.

AMY GOODMAN: Who’s "they"?

WILLIAM BINNEY: The FBI. About 12 of them, I think, 10 to 12. They came in with the guns drawn, on my house.

AMY GOODMAN: Where were you?

WILLIAM BINNEY: I was in the shower. I was taking a shower, so my son answered the door. And they of course pushed him out of the way at gunpoint and came running upstairs and found me in the shower, and came in and pointed the gun at me while I was, you know—

AMY GOODMAN: Pointed a gun at your head?

WILLIAM BINNEY: Oh, yeah. Yes. Wanted to make sure I saw it and that I was duly intimidated, I guess.

AMY GOODMAN: That again was Bill Binney describing what happened. And, Laura, he is featured in your film not only before the Snowden revelations, but after. And this is a powerful part of your film: what Snowden empowered others to do afterward. Soon you see Bill Binney—Bill Binney, who’s a diabetic amputee—in his wheelchair rolling in to testify, as well as others, as the world, country by country, comes to realize what is taking place.

LAURA POITRAS: Right. I mean, that’s one of the things. I mean, when I started filming with Bill and also Tom Drake and Kirk Wiebe and Ed Loomis, I mean, this was the first time that people from the NSA were coming forward, right? And so, I thought, wow, the world should be paying more attention to them. And, you know, people were. I mean, you featured him, and he started doing more interviews. But it didn’t seem to shake things up. And I just remember thinking like, he should be filling auditoriums to talk about what he knows. And then, you know, after Snowden comes forward, where he actually has evidence and documentation, you see Bill has been traveling around the world to talk about the dangers of what the NSA and other intelligence communities are doing and the threat that he feels that it poses to democracies. And so, he—right now in Germany, there’s an inquiry investigating what NSA spying is happening, so it’s an ongoing inquiry, and they invited him to testify. And so, that’s part of the latter part of the film.

AMY GOODMAN: Laura, I know you have to go. You end with Jeremy Scahill and possibly a second whistleblower. Jeremy will pick it up from where you describe what’s happening now.

LAURA POITRAS: I felt strongly that this is not a film that was over, that there were things that—you know, that although Snowden had taken these risks to come forward with this information, that things were still ongoing. And I wanted a sense of that the film is not—doesn’t have a sense of closure. And at the end of the film, we sort of return to the theme of both the war on journalists that we’ve seen, the targeting of journalists and how difficult it is to do investigative journalism when you have intelligence agencies that are able to collect so much information about us and who we talk to—and there’s a scene with William Binney and Jeremy Scahill talking about those risks—and then the film sort of moves on to look at other people who are also coming forward, other whistleblowers who are also under threat as we continue reporting.

And, I mean, for me, it kind of comes full circle, because this whistleblower, who was taken enormous risks, has revealed something that, for me, is quite valuable or important, because it talks about the watchlist, and it talks about the fact that there are 1.2 million people on U.S. watchlists. And this is something that, you know, when I first started being stopped at the border, I would ask the government, "Well, why am I on this list?" And the government’s response to it was: "We won’t even confirm or deny there is a list." And so, now we actually, thanks to the risks and sacrifice of a whistleblower, we actually know that the government has a watchlist. There are documents that support it, which now then opens the possibility for legal challenges, which we’ve already seen come forward, where people—now the courts can intervene and say, "What is this process? What is this watchlist process? And is it legal?" And so, that’s now where things are.

AMY GOODMAN: It even shocks Edward Snowden, the information, as Glenn reveals it to him, as he’s now living in Russia, and you reveal—with his girlfriend, who he had left in Hawaii, not daring to tell her what he was doing because he didn’t want to jeopardize her for having the knowledge.

LAURA POITRAS: Right. I mean, you see—I mean, it’s a really powerful scene between Snowden and Glenn and me, as well. We sort of come together in a different hotel room, you know, later, after the Hong Kong revelations. So, that’s—yeah, I don’t want to say too much about the film, though, the ending of the film.

AMY GOODMAN: Laura, there is a lot of Oscar buzz out there. What else are you hoping will happen with this film, as it opens first in four cities and then around the country?

LAURA POITRAS: I mean, honestly, I’m in a position as a filmmaker—there are people that allow me to document and who put their lives on the line. And so, I hope that the film shows the risk that these people take and that, you know, people should stand up for them and that this is information that the public should know. And it’s people who are having to take personal sacrifice to share information that the public should know.

AMY GOODMAN: Award-winning journalist Laura Poitras, director of the new documentary, Citizenfour, about surveillance and NSA whistleblower Edward Snowden. It opens Friday in New York, Los Angeles, San Francisco and Washington, D.C. Her NSA reporting contributed to a Pulitzer Prize for Public Service awarded to The Guardian and The Washington Post. Along with Glenn Greenwald and Jeremy Scahill, she is co-founder of The Intercept. Jeremy joins us now here in studio, featured at the end of Citizenfour, when it’s revealed a second whistleblower has followed in Snowden’s steps to leak information about the national security state. On two issues, Jeremy, you’ve got this second source. Talk about him and what he’s revealing about watchlists and drone strikes.

JEREMY SCAHILL: Well, you said "him." I didn’t. You know, I just want to make clear from the onset that our absolute top priority is protecting our sources. And so, you know, any information that’s being revealed that comes from this source is being revealed in a manner that’s consistent with protecting the source.

What you see in the film is that we have a source who provided us with a 166-page document, that was not a public document, from the entire intelligence community that outlined the rulebooks for placing people on a variety of watchlists. This document and others like it had been long sought after by the American Civil Liberties Union and other legal organizations and lawyers who represent clients who have been unjustly placed on the no-fly list. We saw an immediate impact from what this extremely principled and brave whistleblower did, in that it’s already been used in court cases. A federal judge has declared the aspects of the watchlisting program that disallow people from knowing their status on the watchlist to be unconstitutional. A coalition of civil liberties groups are now in a major political battle with the Obama Justice Department over releasing this information, asserting that it basically represents a parallel secret legal system consisting of rules that the American people and visitors to the United States are not allowed to know. And so, how do you fight against charges that you’re facing in a secret process when no one tells you that you’ve sort of been labeled a known or suspected terrorist? There were a number of other documents that we published, that were classified as secret, that revealed that there are over a million people on these watchlists, that dead people can be placed on the watchlists, that family members of people that are suspected of having communications with suspected terrorists can be placed on the watchlists.

So, what this individual did, this whistleblower, was done at great personal risk, but also has had an immediate impact on an issue that affects well over a million people, including many, many American citizens. What it also revealed is that the city of Dearborn, Michigan, population 96,000, which has the largest percentage of Arab Americans per capita and Muslim Americans per capita, is the number two city in the United States—the top five all consist of huge cities—New York City, Chicago, San Diego, Houston—but this small city outside of Detroit, Michigan, is the number two place where the U.S. intelligence community says there are known or suspected terrorists residing. It is abundantly clear that that is—it is religious and ethnic profiling at its core. And the only reason we know that is because of a whistleblower taking great personal risk to reveal this to the American public and to the world.

AMY GOODMAN: And Rammstein—how do drone strikes fit into what this source has revealed?

JEREMY SCAHILL: Well, I mean, I’m not going to say much beyond what you see in the film, and I don’t want to spoil too much about it. When this film was shown, and the German government was asked about it—basically, what you see in the film is Glenn Greenwald describing a document that I obtained, that has not yet been published, that indicates that drone strikes are coordinated through the U.S. military base at Rammstein in Germany. And the German government spokesperson denied that any U.S. bases in Germany play any role in the extrajudicial killing operations around the world. It’s interesting that they use that, because maybe they think that they are judicial, which of course, you know, most legal experts say that that’s not true. The only thing I’ll say about that is that either the German government is lying about the role that this U.S. military base is playing in the drone program, or they’re not in the know and the United States is not telling Germany the role that it’s playing.

AMY GOODMAN: Jeremy, we have to break. When we come back, we’re going to talk about the stunning Blackwater verdicts that came down yesterday. Jeremy Scahill, co-founder of TheIntercept.org, author of the best-selling book, Blackwater: The Rise of the World’s Most Powerful Mercenary Army. His most recent book is Dirty Wars: The World is a Battlefield; it’s just been released in paperback. We’ll be back with him in a minute.

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