Citizenfour director Laura Poitras has filed a lawsuit against the US federal government in a District of Columbia court for “Kafkaesque harassment” she says she’s endured in airports and border crossings over the past several years because of her work.
“I’m filing this lawsuit because the government uses the US border to bypass the rule of law,” Poitras said in a statement released to the Intercept, which she co-founded last year with Glenn Greenwald and Jeremy Scahill. “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.”
Poitras alleges that between 2006 and 2012 she was detained more than 50 times in airports around the world. She was often questioned for hours, had her electronic equipment confiscated, and was often made to feel like a criminal despite never having been charged with a crime. She says she was once even threatened with handcuffs for taking notes while she being held.
The filmmaker is best known for her work on Citizenfour, the Oscar-winning documentary that profiled NSA whistleblower Edward Snowden. She has also produced two other documentaries — My Country, My Country (2006) and The Oath (2010) — focusing on the War on Terror that erupted after September 11.
In the legal complaint, Poitras explains that the harassment began in 2006, when she was placed on the Department of Homeland Security’s (DHS) watch list for her work on My Country, My Country. After arriving at the Newark airport from the Jersualem Film Festival that July, she was met by Customs and Border Protection (CPB) agents at her gate, escorted to a holding room, and questioned for two hours.
From then on, she would be subjected to countless “secondary security screening selections” both at home and abroad. When detained at the Vienna International Airport in August of that year, her bags were searched and x-rayed and the head of airport security told her that her “threat score” was “400 out of 400 points.” In May 2006, when arriving at JFK airport in New York after an international trip, CPB agents actually photocopied all her reporter’s notebooks, receipts, and business cards. In August 2010, her computer and other electronic equipment were confiscated and not returned for 41 days. She was repeatedly told by airline agents that she was on a No Fly List (maintained by the FBI terrorist screening center), and that in order to receive her boarding pass, they first had to call the DHS for approval.
In April 2012, Salon published an article by her Citizenfour collaborator Glenn Greenwald about her harassment. He wrote:
Virtually every time during that six-year-period that she has returned to the US, her plane has been met by DHS agents who stand at the airplane door or tarmac and inspect the passports of every de-planing passenger … When she arrived at JFK Airport on Thanksgiving weekend of 2010, she was told by one DHS agent — after she asserted her privileges as a journalist to refuse to answer questions about the individuals with whom she met on her trip — that he “finds it very suspicious that you’re not willing to help your country by answering our questions.”
That article, coupled with a petition against the government’s monitoring of Poitras, submitted by a group of filmmakers to the DHS, brought an end to the airport stops, but it didn’t shed any light on why she had been so heavily targeted — a 2013 Freedom of Information Act request failed to receive any response. And didn’t bring justice.
Poitras’s lawsuit, filed by the digital rights advocacy group Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF), asks that the Department of Justice, the Department of Homeland Security, and the Office of the Director of National Intelligence promptly release all documentation they collected on her over the years.
“The well-documented difficulties Ms. Poitras experienced while traveling strongly suggest that she was improperly targeted by federal agencies as a result of her journalistic activities,” EFF senior counsel David Sobel told the Intercept. “Those agencies are now attempting to conceal information that would shed light on tactics that appear to have been illegal. We are confident that the court will not condone the government’s attempt to hide its misconduct under a veil of ‘national security.’”