Wed Aug 14th, 2013 at 10:00:33 AM EST
Or, specifically, a woman: Laura Poitras.
Picture: Olaf Blecker for The New York Times
Every Batman needs a Robin, every Holmes a Watson, and every Watson has a Crick, every Woodward has a Bernstein. Appealing stories of superheroes or heroic super-stories, the formula of timely partnerships seems to apply in both.
This engrossing portrayal of Laura Poitras in the New York Times tells how the news story of this year, and quite possibly of much longer, was not just the work by prolific journalist Glenn Greenwald. But what's more, the portrayal is also underlining the encroachment of the shadow government of the USA. And finally, the story provides a strong testimony of the virtues of advocacy journalism.
Below the fold I lift out a few noteworthy snippets that I found particularly outrageous or revealing.
[Update] 14:20 CET: Minor edits and additions to the original text.
While the story is engrossing all by itself, it really picks up when Poitras herself becomes a person of interest for the Department of Justice, a result from her documenting the war in Iraq as an embedded journalist and documentary filmmaker (for which she was Oscar-nominated).
Attempting to tell the story of the war’s effect on Iraqi citizens made Poitras the target of serious — and apparently false — accusations. On Nov. 19, 2004, Iraqi troops, supported by American forces, raided a mosque in the doctor’s neighborhood of Adhamiya, killing several people inside. The next day, the neighborhood erupted in violence. Poitras was with the doctor’s family, and occasionally they would go to the roof of the home to get a sense of what was going on. On one of those rooftop visits, she was seen by soldiers from an Oregon National Guard battalion. Shortly after, a group of insurgents launched an attack that killed one of the Americans. Some soldiers speculated that Poitras was on the roof because she had advance notice of the attack and wanted to film it. Their battalion commander, Lt. Col. Daniel Hendrickson, retired, told me last month that he filed a report about her to brigade headquarters.
There is no evidence to support this claim. Fighting occurred throughout the neighborhood that day, so it would have been difficult for any journalist to not be near the site of an attack. The soldiers who made the allegation told me that they have no evidence to prove it. Hendrickson told me his brigade headquarters never got back to him.
As probably is well known by now, spying programmes, presented as 'security measures', took a flight in the wake of 9/11 under the Bush administrations, the most notable example being the Patriot Act. Over a decade later, these programmes have become a sinister tool to track any of the government's undesirables, including activists, or journalists and filmmakers who are performing their roles to scrutinize the powerful. This was already highlighted earlier this year by the revelation the Obama government was tapping phones from reporters at The Associated Press. AP speculates the tapping was a direct result from an earlier revelation, scooped by AP, that the CIA thwarted a terrorist action of an underwear bomb, linked to Ibrahim Hassan al-Asiri, Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula's most wanted bombmaker.
I leave discussing the role of secret agencies in targeting terrorist practices abroad as is. I do want to highlight the encroachment on ordinary citizens, citizens whom governments are meant to protect, underlined by the case of Poitras:
She was detained for the first time at Newark International Airport before boarding a flight to Israel, where she was showing her film. On her return flight, she was held for two hours before being allowed to re-enter the country. The next month, she traveled to Bosnia to show the film at a festival there. When she flew out of Sarajevo and landed in Vienna, she was paged on the airport loudspeaker and told to go to a security desk; from there she was led to a van and driven to another part of the airport, then taken into a room where luggage was examined.
“They took my bags and checked them,” Poitras said. “They asked me what I was doing, and I said I was showing a movie in Sarajevo about the Iraq war. And then I sort of befriended the security guy. I asked what was going on. He said: ‘You’re flagged. You have a threat score that is off the Richter scale. You are at 400 out of 400.’ I said, ‘Is this a scoring system that works throughout all of Europe, or is this an American scoring system?’ He said. ‘No, this is your government that has this and has told us to stop you.’ ”
After 9/11, the U.S. government began compiling a terrorist watch list that was at one point estimated to contain nearly a million names. There are at least two subsidiary lists that relate to air travel. The no-fly list contains the names of tens of thousands of people who are not allowed to fly into or out of the country. The selectee list, which is larger than the no-fly list, subjects people to extra airport inspections and questioning. These lists have been criticized by civil rights groups for being too broad and arbitrary and for violating the rights of Americans who are on them.
As a result, one wonders to what extent our own European agencies have adopted flag lists.
In an aside, a recent story in a Dutch newspaper shows that Turkey monitors foreign journalists, and flags them when they get too critical. I also know of a journalist working in Bulgaria who claimed to be monitored and once received a warning from the Dutch embassy to lay off. This may not be too surprising, considering, yet Bulgaria is an EU nation.
What follows next for Poitras is an increasing compartmentalisation of her work method, which is both hair-raising as well as instructive. The article lists examples that show what has happened when people critically target the American secret services:
These precautions might seem paranoid — Poitras describes them as “pretty extreme” — but the people she has interviewed for her film were targets of the sort of surveillance and seizure that she fears. William Binney, a former top N.S.A. official who publicly accused the agency of illegal surveillance, was at home one morning in 2007 when F.B.I. agents burst in and aimed their weapons at his wife, his son and himself. Binney was, at the moment the agent entered his bathroom and pointed a gun at his head, naked in the shower. His computers, disks and personal records were confiscated and have not yet been returned. Binney has not been charged with any crime.
Jacob Appelbaum, a privacy activist who was a volunteer with WikiLeaks, has also been filmed by Poitras. The government issued a secret order to Twitter for access to Appelbaum’s account data, which became public when Twitter fought the order. Though the company was forced to hand over the data, it was allowed to tell Appelbaum. Google and a small I.S.P. that Appelbaum used were also served with secret orders and fought to alert him. Like Binney, Appelbaum has not been charged with any crime.
More shockingly, but in the end utterly unsurprising, comes the realisation that under Obama's presidency none of the spying and interrogation practices have been lifted or trimmed down. Rather, both Obama and Democrats readily extended the most controversial provisions of the Patriot Act in 2011. To add, it should be stressed again, that under Obama the juridical clampdown on leaks of classified information has been larger than any other USA administration. In this regard, Obama overtakes Bush Jr.
Finally, although not specifically underlined, the portrait of Poitras provides another noteworthy insight, more interesting from a journalist perspective: Snowden approached Greenwald first – but he ignored him as a source.
Poitras was not Snowden’s first choice as the person to whom he wanted to leak thousands of N.S.A. documents. In fact, a month before contacting her, he reached out to Greenwald, who had written extensively and critically about the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan and the erosion of civil liberties in the wake of 9/11. Snowden anonymously sent him an e-mail saying he had documents he wanted to share, and followed that up with a step-by-step guide on how to encrypt communications, which Greenwald ignored. Snowden then sent a link to an encryption video, also to no avail.
“It’s really annoying and complicated, the encryption software,” Greenwald said as we sat on his porch during a tropical drizzle. “He kept harassing me, but at some point he just got frustrated, so he went to Laura.”
While this reads fairly non-judgemental, and Greenwald was already working at breakneck speed, I find it stupendous to learn that he'd blown off a knowledgeable source like that – which hints at a painful oversight in his professionalism. Of course, to err is human. Speaking from my limited personal experiences, I've already developed a decent dose of scepticism when being approached by an anonymous source with a spectacular sounding scoop. E-mail boxes of research journalists attract a fair deal of whacked worldviews in general. Last year, I drove deep into country tracking a spectacular claim someone was 'murdered' by the Fairtrade organisation. As I came to realise during the day, this only was a widow's interpretation of her husband collapsing of heart failure while he was struggling to set up his own cooperation of African farmers.
So I spent a day on what was ultimately a non-story – but consider if the claim had been ground in reality, the payoff could've been significant. Greenwald's dismissal of a step-by-step guide to encrypt communications is in my perspective a horrendous miss. It all turned out well for him, with much thanks to his platform – and thanks to the fact Greenwald is one of the world's best known advocacy/activist journalists.
After all, many news outlets shun open activist journalism these days, as a way to manage (formal) objectivity as a journalistic standard. But advocacy journalism has found a consistent (and successful) niche at smaller outlets. Greenwald worked previously for Salon before moving to the Guardian – but even there his work is positioned outside the main stream. It is an interesting choice, both of him and the Guardian.
Who knows, the reasons why Snowden picked Greenwald above any other outlet, may even awaken an increase of this partial branch of journalism. After all, advocacy journalism has been shown to be hugely successful before, but with a caveat: it has brought great stories with great effect, but has also ended with dead journalists.