How we broke the NSA story

Exclusive: Laura Poitras tells Salon about getting contacted by Edward Snowden, and reveals more footage is coming

Topics: Editor's Picks, NSA, Edward Snowden, Whistleblower, Glenn Greenwald, The Guardian, Washington Post, Hong Kong, , , ,

How we broke the NSA storyLaura Poitras (Credit: Sean Gallup)

Shortly after Salon’s biographical sketch on Laura Poitras went live, the award-winning documentary filmmaker agreed to a phone interview, her first since she helped reveal the scope of the National Security Agency’s digital surveillance. “I feel a certain need to be cautious about not wanting to do the work for the government,” she told Salon, but agreed to clarify some parts of her role in the story.

Poitras is still in Hong Kong, where she is filming the story behind the story — including her co-author on the Guardian story and former Salon columnist Glenn Greenwald — for her forthcoming documentary on whistle-blowers and leaks. In a wide-ranging interview, she explained how she first made contact with Snowden, her reaction to the possible future investigation into his leaks, and why Snowden didn’t go to the New York Times. What follows is a lightly edited transcript.

So how did this all begin?

I was originally contacted in January, anonymously.

By Edward Snowden?

Well, I didn’t know who it was.

What was the format?

Via email. It said, I want to get your encryption key and let’s get on a secure channel.

And he didn’t say what it was about?

He just said — that was the first, and the second was, I have some information in the intelligence community, and it won’t be a waste of your time.

Do you get a lot of those kinds of requests?

No, I don’t.

Did you immediately know what was the best, most secure protocol to go about it?

I actually did. I have a lot of experience because I’ve been working with — as you note in your thing, I’ve done filming with WikiLeaks, I know Jacob Appelbaum. I already had encryption keys but what he was asking for was beyond what I was using in terms of security and anonymity.

How did it proceed from there?

So that’s where I’m not going into a lot of details, but sort of ongoing correspondence. I didn’t know, I didn’t have any biographical details or where he worked, had no idea. He made claims and said he had documentation. At that point it was all completely theoretical, but I had a feeling it was legit.

Why do you think he contacted you? Were you the first person he contacted?



I can’t speak for him. Glenn and I just touched base about, what was your story, because we connected later in the spring. He, I think, got an email in February. But I didn’t know he’d gotten an email.

He told me he’d contacted me because my border harassment meant that I’d been a person who had been selected. To be selected –and he went through a whole litany of things — means that everything you do, every friend you have, every purchase you make, every street you cross means you’re being watched. “You probably don’t like how this system works, I think you can tell the story.” … Of course I was suspicious, I worried that it was entrapment, it’s crazy, all the normal responses you have to someone reaching out making, claims. He said he’d seen a piece that I’d done on Bill Binney in the Times.

I can say from conversations I had with him after that, I think he had a suspicion of mainstream media. And particularly what happened with the New York Times and the warrantless wiretapping story, which as we know was shelved for a year. So he expressed that to me but I think also in his choices of who he contacted. I didn’t know he was reaching out to Glenn at that point.

And you and Glenn were already colleagues, right, you sit on a board together?

At that point the foundation had just opened. So we knew each other and we were colleagues and friends.

How did it get to the point where you knew it was going to be a story, and how did you decide where it was going to be published?

Those are the details I’m not going to go into. What I can say is that once I had a few pieces of correspondence, I said, let me ask a couple of people about this, people who have experience, and I sat down with a couple of people, one of whom was Bart Gellman … and he said, it looks like this person could be legit. And that was probably February.

These disputes that have been played out on the internet about who got in touch with whom and who needed assurances –

In a situation like this, this is a confidential source and has been until very, very recently, actually has been a person whose identity I did not know. To actually go on the record and talk about — it seems to be a violation of a lot of relationships with someone who’s trusted you. There’s partly that, so I’ve been hesitant. I’ve asked, you know, like, Bart, don’t go try and tell my story. I’ll tell my story, you know, about my reporting. I don’t need reporters reporting on my reporting. So maybe that stuff contributed to different timelines. But that seems now — I’m not quite sure, what makes the most sense. Because I don’t want to tell the whole story now, I don’t think it’s the right time. And I want to tell it in my own words. I’m a storyteller. I’ll tell it when I’m ready to tell it, in detail.

But it makes sense to go on the record to explain why I was attached to both of those stories.

So you ended up getting in touch with Bart and Glenn because you wanted their help to vet the claims in documents?

There weren’t documents yet … I wanted to know if this correspondent — it was possible something else would be entrapment or just crazy, that’s always an option. I had an instinct that it was legit. I wanted to talk to people who knew.

So then they said, my paper would be happy to publish it?

No, it was just colleagues saying, this was happening, what do you think. There was nothing to — it was just somebody wanting to start a conversation and claiming to have information … There was no material at that point.

So how did it then become two separate stories in the Washington Post and the Guardian?

The source also has a relationship with Glenn. Which I can’t speak to.

I know that Glenn said he had more stories to come. Do you have more footage you’re planning on using in your documentary?

Of course. I’m here working.

Are you still in touch with him?

I’m not going to comment on that.

Do you know where he is?

Not going to comment.

Are you going to be working on more stories in print before your documentary comes out?

I really can’t predict.

Are you going to be sticking around Hong Kong for awhile or do you think you’ll come to the U.S.?

I haven’t decided. I’m trying to figure that out right now. But I’m actually based right now outside the U.S.

Are you worried about retaliation in any investigation that goes forward?

You know what? I’m not. I’ve been harassed for a long time, I wouldn’t be surprised if that continues. Being here and seeing the kind of — actually, Glenn was really inspiring. Really incredible courage in journalism and just saying, we need to talk to him about these things. It’s not OK that we have a secret court that has secret interpretations of secret laws; what kind of democracy is that? I felt like, this is a fight worth having. If there’s fallout, if there’s blowback, I would absolutely do it again, because I think this information should be public. Whatever part I had in helping to do that I think is a service.

People take risks. And I’m not the one who’s taking the most in this case.

And you feel like the person who is taking the most risk — meaning Snowden — is aware of all the possible ramifications of it?

You can see it in the video, right? I think he is. I think he wanted to reveal his identity because he didn’t want to create a situation where he was anonymous and everyone would have been investigated. In these investigation cases, there are repercussions for many, many people. I think he wanted to take responsibility.

Did he always plan to reveal his identity?

I don’t know. At some point I became aware of that but I don’t know what his intention was.

It’s this complicated situation because we have a source who decided to reveal himself. I still feel like I have journalistic obligations to the source even though they’ve made that choice … There’s something that Glenn said that I actually want to contradict. He said we began “working with” him. There was no working with. We were contacted. It was totally cold contact.

Since he contacted you before he started working at Booz Allen, the implication people were drawing was that he went to Booz Allen with the express intention of leaking this.

That’s completely absurd. I had no dialogue about what the information was — there were claims, that’s all I received.

So the implication that you sent him into Booz Allen to spy was incorrect.

Are you kidding? I didn’t know where he worked, I didn’t know he was NSA, I didn’t know how — nothing. There was no like, Oh do you think you …, no nudging. It’s like the crazy correlations that the NSA does. There’s no connection here. We were contacted, we didn’t know what he was up to, and at some point he came forward with documents.

Irin Carmon

Irin Carmon is a staff writer for Salon. Follow her on Twitter at @irincarmon or email her at icarmon@salon.com.

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