Laura Poitras Sues US Government To Find Out Why She Was Detained Every Time She Flew

from the time-for-some-answers dept

These days, Laura Poitras is known as the Oscar-winning director of the Ed Snowden documentary CITIZENFOUR, and with it, one of the reporters who helped break Snowden’s story in the first place. Pre-Snowden, she was a not-as-widely-known-but-still-celebrated documentary filmmaker, who also got some attention after her future colleague Glenn Greenwald wrote an article about how she was detained at the border every time she flew into the country (which was frequently, as she had made a documentary, My Country, My Country, concerning the Iraq War, along with The Oath, which reported on two Yemenis who had worked with Osama bin Laden). As Greenwald wrote back in 2012:

But Poitras? work has been hampered, and continues to be hampered, by the constant harassment, invasive searches, and intimidation tactics to which she is routinely subjected whenever she re-enters her own country. Since the 2006 release of ?My Country, My Country,? Poitras has left and re-entered the U.S. roughly 40 times. Virtually every time during that six-year-period that she has returned to the U.S., 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 until they find her (on the handful of occasions where they did not meet her at the plane, agents were called when she arrived at immigration). Each time, they detain her, and then interrogate her at length about where she went and with whom she met or spoke. They have exhibited a particular interest in finding out for whom she works.

She has had her laptop, camera and cellphone seized, and not returned for weeks, with the contents presumably copied. On several occasions, her reporter?s notebooks were seized and their contents copied, even as she objected that doing so would invade her journalist-source relationship. Her credit cards and receipts have been copied on numerous occasions. In many instances, DHS agents also detain and interrogate her in the foreign airport before her return, on one trip telling her that she would be barred from boarding her flight back home, only to let her board at the last minute. 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.? They sometimes keep her detained for three to four hours (all while telling her that she will be released more quickly if she answers all their questions and consents to full searches).

It wasn’t only at the border that she was subject to such searches. Often, even when flying domestically within the US, she was called out for further scrutiny and searches.

After Greenwald’s article, a bunch of documentary filmmakers signed a petition protesting the treatment of Poitras, and between the press coverage and the petition, the harassment of Poitras suddenly stopped.

After this, she filed some FOIA requests to find out why she had been supposedly given a high threat rating in the DHS database, causing such detentions. Not surprisingly, the government refused to reveal any such information. And that brings us to the latest, where Poitras, with help from the EFF, has now sued the US government (specifically the Departments of Homeland Security and Justice) to get them to reveal why she was considered a threat.

As the filing itself explains, Poitras filed FOIA requests with basically every part of the government that might have information on her detentions, and basically got nothing in response from any of them, either by mostly ignoring the requests or rejecting them.

As the lawsuit also notes, Poitras took detailed records of her detentions (when she could — in at least one instance she was denied the use of a pen to take notes after being told she might use it as a weapon). And the lawsuit includes some detailed descriptions. Here’s just a snippet from a much longer list.

On or around August 22, 2006, while traveling from Sarajevo, the capital of Bosnia and Herzegovina, to John F. Kennedy International Airport (?JFK?) in New York City after attending the Sarajevo Film Festival, Plaintiff was paged to security while transiting through the Vienna International Airport in Vienna, Austria. Plaintiff was thereafter taken into a van and driven to a security inspection area. All of Plaintiff?s bags were searched and xrayed. The head of airport security at the Vienna International Airport told Plaintiff that her ?Threat Score? was 400 out of 400 points. Plaintiff was eventually allowed to board a plane to the United States. Upon her arrival at JFK, CBP agents again met her at the gate. Plaintiff was thereafter escorted to a holding room, where she was detained and questioned for roughly two (2) hours, and where her bags were searched for a second time, before being allowed to enter the United States.

On or around November 26, 2006, while traveling from Paris, France to Newark on her way home from a vacation, Plaintiff was met by boarder agents upon her arrival at Newark. She was detained and questioned for 30 minutes.

On or around December 17, 2006, while traveling from Dubai, United Arab Emirates to JFK after attending the Dubai Film Festival, Plaintiff was met by border agents upon her arrival at JFK. She was again detained and questioned before being allowed entry into the United States. The CBP agents asked Plaintiff when she had last been to Atlanta, Georgia and told her that she had a criminal record, despite that she had never been arrested.

Unfortunately, the courts have been pretty deferential to the government concerning things like the “no fly” list and the terrorist database, which means this lawsuit might be a long shot. However, one hopes that a judge will see both the clear ridiculousness of the treatment and the rather obvious fact that it was designed to intimidate Poitras and chill her First Amendment rights, and consider forcing the government into releasing these documents.

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Comments on “Laura Poitras Sues US Government To Find Out Why She Was Detained Every Time She Flew”

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60 Comments
That One Guy (profile) says:

'Because we can' doesn't look so well on a FOIA response

After this, she filed some FOIA requests to find out why she had been supposedly given a high threat rating in the DHS database, causing such detentions. Not surprisingly, the government refused to reveal any such information.

Well of course they refused to reveal the reason, they’re hardly going to publicly admit that she’d getting that treatment because she made the USG look bad, and they’re making an example of her in response.

It’s all a matter of plausible deniability. Even if the reason for the harassment is blatantly clear, so long as they refuse to provide the reason, they can continue to pretend that it’s due to some super secret, can never be revealed otherwise The Terrorists Will Win!(tm) reason, and as a result continue showing what happens to anyone who makes the government look bad.

Anonymous Coward says:

in at least one instance she was denied the use of a pen to take notes after being told she might use it as a weapon

As the famous saying goes, the pen is mightier than the sword.

It says a lot about a government when their biggest fear is a journalist with a pen. I doubt these thugs, who clearly had stabbing on their mind, even realized the irony of what they said.

tqk (profile) says:

Re: Re:

It says a lot about a government when their biggest fear is a journalist with a pen.

I don’t believe they had any fear of her in mind. Not many women with pens are going to turn out to be mass-murdering assassins.

No, this is all about their resentment of her actions, resentment of her questioning the party line, and intimidation hoping she’d get sick of their abuse and fall in line. She’s guilty in their eyes of Thoughtcrime (I don’t recall that ever being made illegal).

At the very least, I hope she and the EFF can raise a massive stink focusing plenty of eyeballs on the asshole behaviour gov’ts today engage in when we question their premises. Whose gov’t is it anyway? Ours, theirs, or somebody they’re not telling us about?

To anti-establishment journalists everywhere, I suggest they always carry a box of crayons to fall back on when they take the pens and pencils away. Let them try to justify confiscating something designed to be used by pre-schoolers.

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Re: Re:

“Party line” makes it sound like it is a political issue. In case of “national security” no politician has all the information. Much of it because of plausible deniability.

The military complex is an independent dictatorship living within the US and getting funded by US to do all the things the politicians wants to hide. Apart from the army, navy and airforce, the military is a huge research institute, a huge data-hub, a coordinating unit for government services, a massive voice in the political arena, a communication bureau and one of the largest security companies in the world. With as broad priorities as that and as good dictatorial tools at hand, they are basically a messy state of its own. The politicians can defund them as much as they can tax nature. Beating people with stronger means of hurting you than you have of hurting them is a bad idea.

Uriel-238 (profile) says:

Re: Women with pens

Did you not read the article? Ms. Poitras’ Threat Score was 400 out of 400 points. You can’t get threatier than that! Maximum Threatiness! That’s the equivilant of a terrorist with standing orders, bombs, weapons and supplies at her disposal already available to her at the target site, and a plan B in case things go awry!

Poitras is a Modesty Blaise, Emily Pollifax, Felicity Flint and Sarah Walker open-faced sandwich topped with Cammie Morgan sauce with a side of Agent 99 and a bottomless cup of Cate Archer. At 400/400, she’s a master infiltrator, agent provocateur, skilled saboteur, proficient in disguise and skilled in the secret ninja arts of Shiatjitsu.

I mean, compare her to all the other 400/400 threats on the list and it all makes sense.

They were right not to trust her with a pen. Unarmed she could kill everyone in the room in slow motion before the first victim hit the floor. She’s the arch-nemesis of Jack Bauer, no less.

Anonymous Coward says:

They don't need help

Nobody need help the Gov. look bad, they do a very credible job all by themselves. Its like stumbling down the face of Mt. Everest one pratfall after another. Its like a satire of a dysfunctional government, but sadly its real. We need a new protected class: political dissidents. Oh wait the Constitution, I forgot pardon me.

andy says:

Oh come on!!!!

So many people from America have come out saying they feel safe when they see all these border checks and people being detained, until it is them that has to go though it.

The government has been so good at their misinformation and spreading fear since 9/11 that most Americans honestly believe that they have to lose some of their freedoms to live safely. even though it has been proven that with all these safety features in place the 9/11 attack would probably have still happened.

America is no longer the land of the free as advertised and drummed into Americans from when they can first understand it. America has become a police state just as bad if not worse than some African countries, at least in africa people see corruption for what it is In America people support the corruption as they have been convinced it is good for them.

America is a police state just like the UK and most supposed first world countries.

I hope this judge sees common sense and rules against the government and rules that no fly lists must be approved by a court to be legal.

That Anonymous Coward (profile) says:

Her threat score is 400 out of 400.
She has never joined a jihad.
She has never murdered a captive.
She has never plotted a terror attack.

If you weren’t convinced that it was all security theater before now, please explain how this isn’t.

She is a citizen, and this is how she was treated.
These are how her rights were trampled.
They put so much time and effort into hounding her, do you think they had time to look for real terrorists?
She upset someone with power, and they used the law exactly how we were promised it wouldn’t ever be used.
We need to demand that the programs be ended, those in charge indicted, and demand that citizens have their rights returned to them.

Or we can keep pretending we haven’t fallen through the looking glass and are sliding down a slope of a dystopian dictatorship. Doubleplus good.

Rekrul says:

After this, she filed some FOIA requests to find out why she had been supposedly given a high threat rating in the DHS database, causing such detentions. Not surprisingly, the government refused to reveal any such information. And that brings us to the latest, where Poitras, with help from the EFF, has now sued the US government (specifically the Departments of Homeland Security and Justice) to get them to reveal why she was considered a threat.


Why does anyone even bother filing FOIA requests anymore? Unless it’s about something mundane all you’re going to get is silence and stonewalling until you file the inevitable lawsuit. Is having made FOIA requests a prerequisite to filing a lawsuit?

Uriel-238 (profile) says:

Re: Re: Pretty much the precursor to any lawsuit is asking nicely.

Generally, if you want to sue to get something done (and have a strong case to increase your chance of success) you have to demonstrate you’ve exhausted all other resources prior to appealing to the judicial system.

So yes. You have to file a FOIA request, and give them a reasonable amount of time to respond appropriately. Only when that time has expired or you’ve received an inappropriate response does a legal suit become viable.

Uriel-238 (profile) says:

Re: Re: Re: I think in that case you have to build an exemplary case.

Or, use other incidents that are exemplary of abusive neglect of the FOIA system, by failing to respond, over-redacting or otherwise obstructing access.

And then take this set of cases to a court of appeals to submit that the system is actually broken. When dealing with corporations this would be some kind of class action or antitrust thing, but I don’t know the protocol by which we’d appeal regarding systemic abusive behavior by government agencies. This is my IANAL.

Uriel-238 (profile) says:

Re: Why do they want to know everything?

Well, when paired with discretionary prosecution it means that they have enough dirt on anyone to put them into jail for as long as they want.

So if they decide you are an enemy (say for exercising your First Amendment rights, voicing dissent and sounding too on-the-mark yet reasonable) then they can drum up some reason to Bastille you forever.

Seegras (profile) says:

Re: boarding agents: etymology

Contrary to popular belief, the origin of “boarding agents” does not come from “waterboarding”, although we can understand with todays practice that people might get this idea.

Correct is of course that this comes from the boarding of ships and ransacking and pillaging them, sometimes also known as “customs”.

Anonymous Coward says:

Six degrees of accomplices & just as guilties

How can we know the above is in fact malicious retaliation?

I think agencies quickly start thinking (via groupthink) that meeting up with somebody on the FBI’s Most Wanted list is reason enough to be adding that new name to their National Security Threat list.

With that attitude embedded within US procedures then little wonder how fast, say, the NSA’s surveillance list grew to now name everyone above ground or dead.

RD says:

Required now?

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.”

Gee, I didn’t realize that unquestioning patriotism was now a legal requirement in this country.

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Re: Required now?

A true patriot knows that he has rights, and is damn proud of them. But only a treasonous bastard would exercise those rights. It’s kinda like the Second Amendment: we can bear arms, but we can’t just wander around firing them willy-nilly…

(Holy crap: I think I just Poe’d myself.)

GEMont (profile) says:

Hello Snowflake - welcome to Hell.

… forcing the government into releasing these documents.

Forcing!
The Government!
Oh that’s good.

You’d need some kind of law that protects American citizens from the Federal Government to pull that off methinks, and as far as I can tell, all those laws were rewritten or trashed right after 911, because, you know, terrorists can be citizens and citizens can be terrorists and all that.

Prediction: Any judge unfortunate enough to have to rule on this will be subjected to the standard “We have pictures of you and three 9-year-old boys doing the dirty in a closet.” NSA brown envelope mail package, resulting in a …wait for it… legal finding in favor of the Feds.

Force the government – damn, that’s Hillary-ous.

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