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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  • icon
    That One Guy (profile), 14 Jul 2015 @ 1:51pm

    '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.

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  • identicon
    Anonymous Coward, 14 Jul 2015 @ 2:20pm

    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.

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

    • icon
      tqk (profile), 14 Jul 2015 @ 2:56pm

      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.

      reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

      • icon
        jupiterkansas (profile), 14 Jul 2015 @ 3:06pm

        Re: Re:

        Those crayons could be made of explosive material.

        reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

        • icon
          tqk (profile), 14 Jul 2015 @ 3:44pm

          Re: Re: Re:

          Those crayons could be made of explosive material.

          Great! Lets sic the DHS on kindergartens. They might be able to handle miscreants like that (might, but "Kindergarden Cop" may disprove that assumption), and I think we'd all feel safer if DHS were all sent back to kindergarten.

          reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

      • identicon
        Anonymous Coward, 14 Jul 2015 @ 3:22pm

        Re: Re:

        I don't believe they had any fear of her in mind.

        They fear her pen for what it may reveal about them, or rather their masters.

        reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

      • identicon
        Anonymous Coward, 15 Jul 2015 @ 5:44am

        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.

        reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

    • icon
      Uriel-238 (profile), 14 Jul 2015 @ 4:47pm

      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.

      reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  • identicon
    Anonymous Coward, 14 Jul 2015 @ 2:29pm

    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.

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

    • identicon
      That One Other Not So Random Guy, 14 Jul 2015 @ 2:35pm

      Re: They don't need help

      The what now? Isn't that a fancy historical document no one pays attention to anymore.

      reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

      • icon
        tqk (profile), 14 Jul 2015 @ 3:01pm

        Re: Re: They don't need help

        The what now? Isn't that a fancy historical document no one pays attention to anymore.

        Yeah, that thing they instantly forget about after having sworn to defend it.

        reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

    • identicon
      Quiet Lurcker, 14 Jul 2015 @ 4:57pm

      Re: They don't need help

      >>Its like stumbling down the face of Mt. Everest one pratfall after another.

      More like Daffy Duck in 'Robin Hood Daffy', I should think.

      reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  • identicon
    Anonymous Coward, 14 Jul 2015 @ 2:32pm

    United Fascists of America

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  • identicon
    andy, 14 Jul 2015 @ 2:59pm

    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.

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  • icon
    scotts13 (profile), 14 Jul 2015 @ 3:04pm

    Remember the Cold War?

    When I was a kid, they warned us if the "commies" won, we would live in a country... very much like America today. (Well, with more lines). Did I miss a world war somewhere along the line? I wasn't paying attention.

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  • identicon
    Justme, 14 Jul 2015 @ 4:21pm

    National Security. . .

    When you actively work to create a constant fear of imminent danger and feel intimidation of those citizens that peacefully oppose your views is justifiable, You undermine both the nation and it's security.

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  • identicon
    Digitari, 14 Jul 2015 @ 4:37pm

    simple

    they get Paid to keep us all in fear...........

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  • icon
    That Anonymous Coward (profile), 14 Jul 2015 @ 5:24pm

    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.

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  • identicon
    Rekrul, 14 Jul 2015 @ 5:57pm

    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?

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

    • identicon
      Anonymous Coward, 14 Jul 2015 @ 6:23pm

      Re:

      Yes, filing the FOIA request is prerequisite to the suit. You can't say 'They wouldn't tell me why' until you ask.

      And the government can't say 'Because Terrorism(C)' because then you'd know the means and methods behind you being called a terrorist.

      reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

      • icon
        Uriel-238 (profile), 14 Jul 2015 @ 6:51pm

        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.

        reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

    • identicon
      Archfeld, 15 Jul 2015 @ 2:31pm

      FOIA

      Yes, how can you sue for failing to provide the documents you have not requested ??

      reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

      • identicon
        Rekrul, 16 Jul 2015 @ 2:37pm

        Re: FOIA

        Yes, how can you sue for failing to provide the documents you have not requested ??

        Past history of the government's unwillingness to provide documents in response to FOIA filings.

        reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

        • icon
          Uriel-238 (profile), 16 Jul 2015 @ 10:25pm

          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.

          reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  • identicon
    Anonymous Coward, 14 Jul 2015 @ 6:08pm

    Why is she sueing? the answer to he question is in the very fist sentence of this article. She should be suing for harassment.

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  • identicon
    Ignorant, 14 Jul 2015 @ 8:19pm

    Why do they want to know everything?

    Former head of the national security agency said that their motto was "Collect It All". Why do they want to know everything about everyone?

    I mean the real reasons, not the official ones.
    I'm not being sarcastic, just curious...

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

    • icon
      Uriel-238 (profile), 14 Jul 2015 @ 8:38pm

      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.

      reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

      • icon
        Uriel-238 (profile), 14 Jul 2015 @ 8:40pm

        Oh and (this is the fun bit for Romance Fiction)...

        Say, if you have a hot husband, and some VIP wants to have her way with him, only you and he are happily married, by having all your collective dirt, she can not only put you away for eternity, but use it as biographical leverage to make him into her love slave.

        reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  • identicon
    Anonymous Coward, 14 Jul 2015 @ 10:18pm

    "...she was denied the use of a pen to take notes after being told she might use it as a weapon."


    The pen is mightier than the sword? Somehow I don't think the DHS agent meant it that way.

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  • identicon
    Anonymous Coward, 14 Jul 2015 @ 10:49pm

    This woman has a very legitimate complaint.

    But "boarder agents"? Who the hell is the EFF employing now? University of Phoenix graduates?

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

    • icon
      Seegras (profile), 15 Jul 2015 @ 1:20am

      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".

      reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

      • identicon
        Anonymous Coward, 15 Jul 2015 @ 6:05am

        Re: boarding agents: etymology

        There is no such thing as a "boarder agent". A border agent, yes. A "boarder agent", no.

        reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

        • identicon
          Anonymous Coward, 15 Jul 2015 @ 12:16pm

          Re: Re: boarding agents: etymology

          Well, someone ought to be keeping tabs on all the wacky hijinks taking place in our nation's B&Bs...

          reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

    • icon
      Uriel-238 (profile), 15 Jul 2015 @ 12:59pm

      Boarder agents

      Are agents who board a plane to fetch their targets, eat their board and then smack them with boards to get them to deboard. I don't think they have anything to do with borders except when they're bored.

      reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  • identicon
    Anonymous Coward, 14 Jul 2015 @ 11:32pm

    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.

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  • identicon
    Anonymous Coward, 15 Jul 2015 @ 12:29am

    McCarthyism 2.0

    Need I say more?

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  • icon
    MadAsASnake (profile), 15 Jul 2015 @ 2:49am

    Of course she has a score of 400/400. This is a score of the threat level to the fearmongering collect it all NSA/FBI/CIA collection activities. It is not a score of the threat of terror related issues against US nationals.

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  • identicon
    RD, 15 Jul 2015 @ 7:37am

    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.

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

    • identicon
      Anonymous Coward, 15 Jul 2015 @ 8:21am

      Re: Required now?

      It's not. But if you don't want to find out how you've broken the law, than shut up and be patriotic.

      reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

    • icon
      John Fenderson (profile), 15 Jul 2015 @ 9:39am

      Re: Required now?

      "unquestioning patriotism was now a legal requirement in this country"

      Poitras was the one behaving patriotically. The officials were not.

      reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

      • identicon
        Anonymous Coward, 15 Jul 2015 @ 12:38pm

        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.)

        reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  • identicon
    Anonymous Coward, 15 Jul 2015 @ 11:13am

    she refuses to give up her rights so they are targeting her out of spite.

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  • identicon
    GEMont, 15 Jul 2015 @ 1:48pm

    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.

    ---

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  • identicon
    dorpus, 15 Jul 2015 @ 2:48pm

    What if she is in fact suspicious?

    It's well known that Putin funds both right-wing and left-wing extremists to increase social divisions in the West. Anybody notice that Alex Jones really hates the US military, while calling himself a conservative patriot?

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  • icon
    got_runs? (profile), 15 Jul 2015 @ 2:49pm

    The police state doesn't like you.

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  • identicon
    Anonymous Coward, 16 Jul 2015 @ 1:26am

    Laura Poitras, one of the last true journalists

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]


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