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Laura Poitras

Laura Poitras

CITIZENFOUR provides a first-hand account of Edward Snowden’s disclosure of the NSA’s mass surveillance program. The film documents the initial contact the former NSA contractor had with Poitras via anonymous, encrypted email messages, and the whistleblower’s history-making disclosures that revealed chilling evidence of a worldwide web of mass surveillance. Poitras’s film unfolds to show the headline-making events that followed as Snowden went public with his leaks and eventually settled into a life in exile in Moscow.

In reflecting upon its decision, the awards committee said, “In CITIZENFOUR, Laura Poitras captured a — and very possibly the — seminal moment in the history of the American surveillance state, brilliantly documenting those tense hours spent with Edward Snowden in a Hong Kong hotel room. Poitras’s risk-taking work reveals the magnitude of Snowden’s whistleblowing while sustaining high-tension drama as it happened. We commend Poitras’s extraordinary bravery throughout the long, difficult reporting process for this unique story, and we’re pleased to award her the 2015 Ridenhour Documentary Film Prize for the unforgettable and stunningly cinematic CITIZENFOUR.”
In praising the significance of the film, Edward Snowden said that Poitras “focuses on the fact that there are many other players in the game. Ultimately, it’s not a film about me, it’s a film about us. It’s about this moment — it’s about this journey that we all went through.”

“We’re honored to receive this award, which recognizes a legacy of whistleblowers and adversarial journalism,” said Laura Poitras. “This film and our NSA reporting would not have been possible without the work of the Free Software community that builds free tools to communicate privately. The prize money for the award will be given to the TAILS Free Software project.”

Documentary Film Prize Remarks

Transcript of Documentary Film Prize Remarks

JULIA ANGWIN: Thanks so much. And it’s just an incredible honor to be on a stage populated by the people who have been on this today. And it’s an incredible honor for me to give this award to Laura Poitras. Her film, “Citizen Four,” which hopefully you’ve all seen but if you haven’t please run out and see it, or run in and watch it on HBO. It’s an incredible look at a moment that really is never captured; the moment when a journalist and a source meet to talk about a story that is bigger than all of them. And the scary moment of trusting each other and learning to trust. And that has never been documented. There were no filmmakers that I know of in the garage when Bob Woodward met with Deep Throat. And so we have never seen that. And the raw moments in “Citizen Four” where Edward Snowden and Glenn and Laura, although she kept herself off camera, were in this hotel together facing this amazing predicament of how to tell a story so large and so risky, is nothing less than a historical and cinematic document of magnitude we haven’t seen before.

And the amazing thing about Laura is that that’s not all she did in the past two years. So last year, she was here winning the Truth Telling Prize along with Edward Snowden because actually what Laura did was journalism of just writing the stories that he brought these documents to her, and she worked with journalists around the world to tell the story and to make sure it was told responsibly. And that alone, that story of mass surveillance worldwide, a communication system that is tapped at every possible juncture, foreign spying agency in the U.S., the NSA, that was collecting the phone records of every American, right? That is a story that any journalist would collapse under the weight of. I know no journalist who would do that and a film.

So, only Laura could do that and she justifiably won an Oscar for it and it’s a delight to give her the Ridenhour Prize for it. [applause]

LAURA POITRAS: Thank you, thank you Julia, and thank you to the Nation Institute and to the Ridenhour Prize. It’s really wonderful to be here in person this time. I’m really honored to be here among the fellow awardees. I actually feel that in comparison, I actually do something that’s really simple. I have an idea of something I’m interested in and I try to find people who I can spend time with and be in the right place at the right time. And the right place and the right time means being with people when they’re taking risks.

And the work comes with a certain hope. And that is that if you can spend time with people and you can document them as they’re making choices that alter their lives, that maybe we understand something about the issues that I’m interested in, but also something deeper about humanity. And it can build compassion and empathy. And that’s what I try and do, and I think that those things are actually all very simple.

What’s actually not so simple are the risks of the people who let me do this and the risks that they take to let my camera be there in the most intimate, in the most profound moments of their lives. And all of my work is dependent upon those people. So I accept this award and I would like to honor and name them. So this film would not be possible, obviously, without Edward Snowden and the risks that he took both in speaking truth to power and coming forward and risking his life to do that. But also letting me document that process, which added risk, by the way. [applause]

To the extraordinary journalistic colleagues that were there and let me film them as they were trying to understand some really complicated things. And through that, we understand these issues more. So Glenn Greenwald, Ewen MacAskill, Jeremy Scahill, all extraordinary journalists who have taken enormous risks to do this reporting. So I thank them. [applause] And to the many other whistleblowers that allowed me to film them, William Binney, the NSA Four, Thomas Drake, Jesselyn Radack who’s here, and other people who’ve put themselves on the line, Julian Assange, Sarah Harrison. So everybody in this film are putting their own personal safety at risk for something greater. So thank them.

And then finally, I would like to acknowledge something that I think all journalists in this room should be more aware of, which is the need for secure communications when we do journalism because the targeting of whistleblowers and journalists that we’ve seen in the last years is being facilitated by the digital path that we leave and the government is picking up on. So I’d like to acknowledge the free software community that made this journalism possible, and it made me possible to communicate with Edward Snowden. And I’d also like to– I’m going to be giving the award Monday to one particular organization, in particular, which is the Tails operating system, which uses encryption for end to end, so thank you. [applause]

JULIA ANGWIN:  Great, we’re just going to adjust the podium and bring Jim Risen back for a quick discussion. Okay, so it’s a long lunch and we’ve taken over time, but it’s such a treat to have these two together on stage and so we’re going to do a quick conversation about whether there’s anything to be hopeful about. [laughter] Jim, your alleged source is being sentenced next week. Somebody else who leaked secrets to his mistress, the CIA director, received his sentence, which was rather light. What is the hope for convincing sources in the future to take these risks?

JAMES RISEN:  Well, I can’t talk about any specifics of my case, but it just strikes me that it was always clear to me that there was a double standard in the way in which leak investigations have been handled. Going back to when I first started covering the CIA in the 1990s, it was very different. That was an environment in which when you wrote a story and you broke something the CIA didn’t like, they would get all mad and they would say, “We’re going to have a leak investigation,” and it was kind of like Claude Rains in “Casablanca.” They would say, “Let’s round up the usual suspects,” and then you would never hear about it again.

And that was kind of the– there was like this purposeful ambiguity in the system in which everybody– nobody really wanted to go to the– go full out on these leak investigations. And so everybody– there was like a mutual détente between the press and the government. Then after 9/11, that’s all changed and now there is this aggressive approach to leak investigations that didn’t exist for the previous 30 years. And because it’s just kind of happened over the last few years, there’s no– seems to be no coherent approach by the government to it. It’s whoever– but the one fact that seems to be constantly true is that top officials can get away with things that other people can’t. That some pigs are more equal than others. And that seems to be particularly true in the Obama Administration.

JULIA ANGWIN:  Well, that’s an unfortunate result because then that means the only leaks that get leaked are the ones the administration lets.

JAMES RISEN:  Yeah, I think the White House, the Obama Administration is making– I think the one thing that they’ve accomplished is to create a very clear pathway for accepted journalism. If you write stories on especially national security that they like, you won’t have any problems. If you write stories they don’t like, you will have problems. And it’s as simple as that. That is their approach to leak investigations.

JULIA ANGWIN:  Well, okay, we didn’t get any hope out of that part of it. Laura, any hope we can find? Your source is living in exile in Moscow. [laughter]

LAURA POITRAS:  I actually think there is some hope. I think that we’re– first of all, I mean, the work that Jim does and the fight that he’s gone through I think is such an inspiring testament to Jim that we all learn from.

I feel that there’s hope in a number of things in the sense of journalism being more adversarial and not sort of taking the government’s line. I mean, this is kind of a hard thing to say as a hopeful thing, but the word torture can now be printed in the New York Times, which is a good thing.

JULIA ANGWIN:  Progress!

LAURA POITRAS:  No, that we’re waking up. I mean, that we’re waking up, that the sort of national security argument for why we can’t know the truth, I think people are seeing that it’s a false argument, and I think we’re seeing it– and that people are coming forward and we’re seeing sources willing to take enormous risks, and journalists take enormous risks. And I think that we just have to keep pushing.

JULIA ANGWIN:  One thing I’ve been thinking about a lot is what is the moral obligation that journalists have towards their sources? Because the standard line that I always heard in any newsroom I was ever in was the lawyers would say to me, “There’s nothing,” right? They hand you this stuff and I, lawyer for my company, am going to fight for you, the journalist, all the way but we’re not doing anything for the source. And this was very clear in Snowden’s fleeing. I’m not aware of the newspapers being involved in that. And I think that’s generally a line that traditional media has not wanted to cross.

And I wonder if it’s time to rethink that in some way. And I have a kind of strangely provocative question for you, Jim, which is that in your book you go under cover. And one thing I was thinking about, and you may not have thought of it this way, but one thing I was thinking about is maybe undercover is a way to protect sources because you’re taking all the risk, right?

JAMES RISEN:  Yeah, that’s interesting. I hadn’t thought of it that way, but it is– the whole issue of what does– that’s why, as I said earlier, it takes more courage to be a whistleblower than it does to be a journalist. And I don’t know the– I’ve struggled with that and I don’t know the answer to it. It’s a really important question, though, that we should be talking about more. But I don’t know right now what to do about it.

JULIA ANGWIN:  I think one of Laura’s answers has been to give money to Tails, right? So this is a tool that journalists can use for secure communications. So one possible answer might be newsrooms could invest in better tools and technology to help protect their sources.

LAURA POITRAS:  Well, yeah. I mean, I do think news organizations have an obligation to provide better digital training to journalists that are working with sources that are at risk. I think that’s just an obligation to do at this point. And I think that we need to– that should just be the standard, that journalists understand that they’re leaving a trail if they’re using their real name in talking to sources and using their phones, et cetera.

And in terms of Snowden seeking political asylum, he looked very well at the landscape when he made his decision. I mean, he’d seen what had happened to Thomas Drake and William Binney and the NSA 4. I mean, you can’t have– how many combined years of service is that? That’s, what, 60, 70 years of service to this country and they’re treated the way that they were? I mean, it’s shameful. If you look at that, what chance did he have?

And I think that he was also motivated because I think he felt that it was important to have a voice and to stand up and not hide. To say these things are wrong, this is what is wrong and this is who I am.

JAMES RISEN:  I do think that ultimately the Obama crackdown on leaks is going to be– have a backlash of some kind. I think in a way, and kind of one of the unintended consequences of the leak crackdown is first Manning and Snowden where if you realize now as a whistleblower it’s going to– you kind of have to– that whatever you do, you’re going to be punished for, so you might as well take everything.


JAMES RISEN:  And so it kind of turns– I think it creates so much– it’s like putting a lid on a pressure cooker that by the leak investigations that I think the system is going to blow at some point.

JULIA ANGWIN:  I think also that the days are kind of waning, in my mind, where the public is willing to believe a story without sort of the documents, right? There’s like a new threshold where people want to see the evidence, right? And so that also changes the equation where maybe you don’t have to meet in a garage if you can find a way to secretly slip the documents out.

JAMES RISEN:  Right, yeah. I mean, there’s all kinds of reporting issues around encryption and everything I could get into that sometimes– encryption can raise a red flag, but I agree with Laura. It’s something that we have to become more– it has to become more commonplace.

JULIA ANGWIN:  One thing that Jane Mayer said, I think, is that– an investigative journalist with The New Yorker, that sources are a little bit drying up because they’re worried about the environment. Is that your experience?

JAMES RISEN:  Well, it’s kind of a mix. I mean, some people don’t want to talk, obviously others do. So, it’s in some ways the government’s case against me was good advertising.

JULIA ANGWIN:  Right. [laughter]

JAMES RISEN:  So it depends, you know?

JULIA ANGWIN:  Laura, and we have to wrap up, but would you tell us a little bit about what you’re doing now? I think you’re working on a Whitney show?

LAURA POITRAS:  I’m doing a few things. I’m really excited working at the Intercept and we’re going to start to do more videos, so that’s very exciting. And because I really believe in visual journalism, and that’s what I feel like I can contribute. And yeah, I’m doing some more art related work where I’m going to, I think, look at similar themes but in a different way.

JULIA ANGWIN:  Okay, thank you very much. And thanks to all of the winners. [applause]