tv Tavis Smiley PBS January 19, 2015 11:30pm-12:01am EST
good evening from los angeles, i'm tavis smiley. tonight a conversation with the oscar-nominated director laura poitras. her documentary "citizenfour," a fascinating look at how nsa contractor edward snowden decided to pull back the curtain on the government surveillance operations and what happened to him when he did. we're glad you've joined us. a conversation with filmmaker laura poitras coming up right now. ♪ ♪
>> and boy contribution-- and by contributions to your pbs station from viewers like you. thank you. ♪ >> pleased to be joined by laura poitras, director of "citizenfour," which has generated a great deal of conversation around the world about our government and specifically the role of the nsa in its surveillance operations. "citizenfour" focuses on contractor edward snowden and takes a deep dive into the what, why, when, and how was his decision to leak classified information. we'll take a look at a clip before we start our conversation. >> i'll come out just to go, hey you know this is not a question of somebody skulking around in the shadows.
these are public issues. these are not my issues, you know. these are everybody's issues. and i'm not afraid of you. you're not going to bully me into silence like you've done to everybody else. if nobody else is going to do it, i will. and hopefully when i'm gone, whatever you do to me there will be somebody else who will do the same thing. it will be the internet principle the hydra. you can stomp one person but there's going to be seven more of us. >> i'm honored to have you on this program. we met a couple of months ago for the first time at the ida awards. the independent documentary awards. i was honored to have been asked to present the big award of the night. guess who won -- "citizenfour." so laura and i had the chance to meet at the ceremony a couple months ago. i was just completely blown away when i saw this film. i didn't know what to expect. in part because i -- i think i know everything there is to know already about edward snowden and the nsa. i didn't know there was anything
else to learn. i was just -- i was humbled. i was brought low by the film which is my way of asking, when you approach a project like this, if you think that everything's already been told about the story or about the guy, where do you start? >> well i mean in this case, i mean, i knew i had something unique which was i was in the hotel room for eight days when he was meeting with myself and glen greenwald from "the guardian" and ewan mccaskill. that was unique access. and it wasn't just about, you know what we learned in the news but like what motivates a person and what does a person do when they're under extreme pressures. and -- and i knew it hadn't been seen before, you know. him -- in the moment of making the decision to come forward of pretty extraordinary. >> what did you learn about edward snowden, the person? >> i mean, stow went through different stages. at first i was just in e-mail
contact with him for several months. his a pretty good idea like what was motivating him. i mean, he felt that there were things happening that he had seen that he thought people should know about in adent crazy these are decisions that shouldn't be made in secret. so in terms of the scope of nsa surveillance. then what i learned when i met him in person with glen was like, how -- how focused and calm he was in situations that most people would be incredibly nervous about. and that he has a real sense of resolve. he's kind of -- he believes that the constitution matters, and that he was seeing things in violation of the constitution. >> we'll come back to the film in a second. let me back up since you mentioned the emails. so how and why i mentioned earlier we would talk about the what, when, where, and how. how and why did edward instead get in touch with you through these emails? you were one of the first people he reached out to. how did that happen? >> yeah, yeah. it started out -- first, he
tried to reach glen greenwald. he sent glean e-mails in december of 2012. and they had correspondence but he was trying to get glen to install encryption software so he, really tell him why he was contacting him. until that happened he was just beating around the bushment glen didn't -- didn't install the encryption. then in january, about a month later, i got a first mysterious e-mail saying he was somebody who had information about nsa spying and what he felt were violations of the constitution. and i paid attention quickly because i'd been working on a project about the nsa for, at this point, over a year. so i -- he was saying things that i thought only an insider would know. at this point i actually was using encryption. i was up to speed in terms of how to communicate with him securely so he could talk to me and tell me what was going on before he was ready to reveal his identity. and so we -- we did a dance. i mean, i was -- i had a lot of
questions for him because you know, somebody comes forward like that, you want to know what their motivation is, what makes them tick. and then i was able concerned that it could have been like an entrapment because i had by this point been on a watch list for several years. i thought, is something going on that's not what it appears to be. i said how do i know you're not trying to entrap me how do i know this is for real, why me? the why me of a big question because i wasn't a typical person as a -- i'm a journalist and a documentary filmmaker, but usually i'm the one approaching somebody else. i don't get cold emails in my inbox. >> it doesn't -- >> it never happens. the first time. >> yeah. >> it was a pretty big surprise to me. and i don't work for a news organization even though i -- i broadcast my work on pbs and the current film would be on hbo. but i'm not like you know, knocking on the door of "the new
york times." i also had to know why me. and he -- he had seen my previous work, so i made a film about the iraq war. then after that, i made a film about guantanamo. and i think that what motivated him to reach tout me and sglen that we both had histories of being sort of critical of u.s. policy post 9/11. we asked a lot of questions and proved ourselves independent and hard to intimidate. and i think he worried that something would happen, like he would trust someone and the information wouldn't be published. i think he felt with me and glen that he would be assured that we were -- we would make sure that the informationed make it to the american people because he didn't want to take all this risk and then have it withheld. and -- which was a case that happened with the "new york times." the first revelations about warrantless wiretapping in the u.s. it was held for a year by "the new york times" before it was published. i think -- snowden knew that
very well. >> you mentioned in your previous work. this film is really the third piece of a trilogy. your documentary about the iraq war, your documentary about guantanamo. before we go into the details of "citizenfour," how do you see this particular piece and this particular story, situate that as a part of the trilogy for me. >> yeah. so the work i've been trying to do in documenting, they have some things in common. i make film where i'm trying to understand something. so i go in with a lot of questions. i don't have all the answers. and i film things as they're happening in real time. so it's called cinema verte in the documentary tradition where you're not interviewing people about things from the past, but you're there when it's actually happening. and for me i'm interested in that for two reasons. one is you kind of create a history. it's like actually not -- it's not a conversation about something that happened, but you actually are there when history is happening. and then also it's -- you have all this drama human drama,
when you're actually on the ground. you don't know what's going to happen next as a filmmaker. as you know, as the people you're sending time with, they don't know what's happening. a lot of risk taking and decisions that have to happen. the first film i made was about the iraq war. and i spent eight months in baghdad documenting a family particularly a doctor who was a -- who had a local clinic, and people would come to the clinic and say -- they would talk about their you know, whatever their illness. then they would start talking about the occupation and what was happening. it was an amazing window into understanding what was happening for iraqis. and i wanted to understand it not just intellectually but in human terms. and at that point, this is 2004, 2005, there was a lot of news coverage. a lot of press was in iraq. you got the front page of the news.zñ it would say like 150 people killed in5a%l a car bombing in baghdad. but you didn't know anything about those people.
you just got body counts. the work i do is trying to get human impact in these things. that was the first film in this work. and then i made a film about guantanamo. and -- and filmed both at guantanamo and in yemen to look at some of the war on terror and how that was being played out. that was of a more complicated film. i followed somebody who was really complicated character in -- but also pivotal person. the post-9/11 era. and then with snowden and the nsa, i was interested in the nsa because right after 9/11 certain things happened that -- that are still -- the impact is still affecting us today. so we have the authorization of military force which created a lot of executive powers that, you know still govern the war in afghanistan. and there was also the use of -- the use of the nsa's powers looking inward at the u.s. population. what happened after 9/11 is we, you know, u.s. citizens became
targets of the nsa. and that happened like within weeks after they started bringing in equipment. and so i wanted to go back and look at how the war on terroror was unfolding here. and surveillance is what happened. and you have it particularly in the muslim american community where people, you know, they were -- you know they sent in people to find out what was happening. to me that's a scary thing. as we know from the history of -- you know, people who become targets. surveillance is a really powerful target tool to use against people. or if you think of the -- the film "selma" where you have surveillance being used in the civil rights movement. >> i want to quote -- i wrote this down, make sure i got this right. what you said momentsh3iiñ ago its a powerful statement. but one of your subject said, "every dictatorship down through history has always done thatment
one of the first things they need to do is try to acquirelç9%ñ knowledge of their population. and that's exactly when these programs do. i see this as the most major threat to our democracies around the world." that's a powerful statement. so my question is whether or not you regard these kind of surveillance tactics that you referenced a moment ago, whether you're talking dr. king and the movement, whether you're talking the black panthers or anything else around the world. is this really a threat to democracy? >> yeah. so william benny worked for the nsa for over three decades. he was in charge of sort of surveillance in the soviet union and also looked a lot at east germany. so he had -- he knew what was happening in those countries. east germany as we know, from the stasi. what we had-- what he had witnessed, the dictatorships, it is a form of control. you control dissent. and you control what people can
say and freedom of expression, all those kinds of thing. that when governments start to do this internally, these are forms of censorship and dleelcontrol that do threaten. that once government turns surveillance powers inward, you squash basic freedoms of a society. and then we have sort of history -- in the u.s., there are what we know where they were going in and -- people engaging in legitimate defense. you know the civil rights movement et cetera. >> the ultimate question that people are still wrestling with is whether or not edward snowden is a whistleblower whether or not he's a traitor. i raise that and want to get your take on that. i think i know where you're going, but i want to ask you either way. i was on one of the sunday shows some months back. and i was actually surprised at all of the drama that i created by making -- what i thought of a
pretty simple statement. man, the social media rained down on me. nothing new here. but i was surprised at the nerve that i struck in america when i made what i thought was a simple comment. talking about edward snowden i don't know what show on abc. i made the comment that it won't surprise me that in 25 years from now edward snowden will be on a postage stamp for all the hell he's catching now. he may very well be on a postage stamp 25 years from now. my point is malcolm x is on a postage stamp and a lot of other people. as time goes on we view things differently. hen the question about whether or not he's a whistleblower or traitor. your comments? >> right. first of all, you have the case of daniel ellsburg who revealed the pentagon papers. widely recognized as a
whistleblower. he did something this the public service. you know i spent years making films. not to get the easy answers. kind of reject the sort of -- it's sad. i'll say certainly i don't think he's a traitor. my personal opinion. what i think is you know, more important is you know, in my film, people kacan make their own conclusions. i'm not interested in films where it's just my opinion that comes through. the film shows an hour in a hotel room with -- with snowden and grengreenwald. and i think you get a sense of why he did what he did. and i personally believe it was in the public interest, and i think that we live in a democracy. and in a democracy, these kinds of huge decisions should not happen in secret. we shouldn't have secret courts and secret interpretations of laws and secret powers to surveil citizens who have been suspected of nothing which is what he revealed. and i think that i'm confident that history will be grateful that he's come forward because it allows us to be informed and
make decisions. >> so how do you respond then to persons including president barack obama on down who have still tried to make the argument that there was a wait, we've done this if snowden wanted this. with respect to the with thepresident i don't know what that would have been. it's almost laughable that people make the argument that senators and congressmen and others, that there's a way to go about it, it's unlawful. how else will he have done? >> about w all-- with all due respect, look at the context. president obama has come down hard or whistle blowers than any president in history. he's also come down hard on journalists. we have the case of the a.p. having phone records subpoenaed. we have james rosen, defined as a co-conspirator -- >> i think that's the darkest hour of holder's term. i think love eric holder. as a.g. he failed miserably.
that was his darkest time. i digress. >> snowden was paying attention. he also paid attention to the case of william benny and thomas drake. they had gone internally to issue complaints. i mean william denny didn't go to the press. and he went instead to the congress to say these are things that he believed to be in violation of the constitution. and what happened was is he, thomas drake and two others were put under investigation. william benny in particular had the fbi show up at his house with guns. and so -- this is somebody who was in the nsa for over three decades. so i think snowden looked at what was happening in that context of the crackdown on -- but many people like my colleague you know jeremy cahill, define it as a war against whistle blowers and a war against journalism or investigative journalism. the government's come down harder on people trying to inform the public than they have
on people who have engaged in torture, for instance. these are complicated times. i think snowden looked at the options and didn't think that there was a way to internally raise concerns about this. so he statewided to go ed-- he decided to go to the press. >> we talked earlier about your project in began tan meguantanamo. and then president obama and connecting the dot. what do you make of all the promises and commitments made by the president on the campaign trail about guantanamo, what would happen? you've talked about it. you've done a film about it. it's been in the papers week in, week out. and guantanamo still reminutes open. what do you make -- remains open. what do you make of it? >> i don't think history's going to look good on it. i think we'll look back and ask the question. i think our greatest strengths are that we're a country that has a constitution, and we should be based on principles due process, rule of law. and guantanamo strayed so far outside of that. i mean, my feeling is that after
9/11 we -- you know we've engaged in policies that i thinóí+sa don't withstand scrutiny and that violate our fundamental principles. i think that there's been a sort of moral vacuum that's resulted. i think it's unfortunate that -- i thought obama of going to close guantanamo. i think a lot of people did. i think that somehow, you know, people have let fear guide us when i think we should be guided by our principles and by rule of law. >> yeah. i've lost count of how many times in this conversation you used the word "we." and you obviously use the word "we" because you are an american citizen. although i happen to know you don't live in the united states anymore. you live in europe. we'll give you that in a minute. i do know what it is -- it's the government, i'm sorry. which leads to my question, what -- what happens -- you were talking writ law about what
happens to journalists doing the work you're doing. you mentioned jeremy cahill, love this guy and others. if good night personal to the extent you're possible -- if i get personal to the extent you're possible. what happens when you do these films, particularly about a guy they want more than anyone else in the world now. what happens to a filmmaker who decides to do this kind of work, particularly engaging a guy like edward snowden -- what's your life been like? >> i mean, right now i'm based in berlin. but i also have a home in newì(lc& york. i've been working between. but i relocated to berlin to work on this film about the nsa because of my experience of being put on a watch list. i was -- >> you went to berlin to do a movie about our nsa? >> right. >> but that because why? >> because starting in 2006, i started being detained every time i would cross the u.s. border. i would be pulled aside and would be questioned. and i'd have my photo -- my notebooks photocopied i've had
my computer confiscated. this went on for six years. every time i traveled. as a journalist entrusted with protecting source material, it became hard for me to say that. i made a decision before i was contacted by edward snowden to edit the film i was making about the nsa because i'm already filmed for over a year in berlin. to avoid the u.s. border so i wouldn't have my things confiscate. it was for source protection reasons. it felt safer. then i was in berlin when snowden sent the first e-mail. and i edited the film in berlin. now we're -- we premiered it in new york. and now that the film is out, i've been traveling more and spending more time in the u.s. but it was because -- in terms of your question of what the consequences have been about reporting america post 9/11 for me it was the fact that i was put on a watch list. which was after i did a film about the iraq war which, you know was received well.
it was nominated for an oscar. it's afternoon -- you know. but the government, you know, is -- the thing that's concerning to me about being on a watchlist, it's a completely secret process. i have no idea why i was put on it. there's no way to appeal it. the government didn't acknowledge there was a watch list. >> how do you know you're on it if the government won't acknowledge it? >> if they send the agents every time your plane lands to the airplane to walk you and ask you questions, you know you're on a list. i mean, i had enough -- it happened over 40 times. i think i had enough evidence to know. >> i'm complaining about taking my shoes off. >> yeah. exactly. >> yeah. how do you -- how do you process it? how do you feel? are you -- do you live in sneer do you -- how do you move around every day? >> i mean, you know, there's -- i had a lot of fear making the nsa film. i knew what snowden contacted me this of going to go -- it was
going to go high and it was going to make people angry. that was obvious. but i'd already made decisions like i wasn't going to be intimidated. as a journalist, i feel like the public has a right to know things. and i still believe that we have, you know a first amendment in this country and that we have a press and what we should be doing is holding the government accountable and asking tough questions. and i continue to believe that that's possible in this country. unlike other places. i mean, i think other places that -- to do this reporting would, you know be really putting yourself at risk. but -- you know, there's definitely -- you know, there were times that were pretty scary. >> yeah. has the movie -- no one puts himself or herself through much danger and drama to not at least want to have some desired outcome. i don't want to put words in your mouth. what -- what is that desired outcome? has the film done what you hoped it would do? the great thing about film, it
goes on and on, always there for generations to look at. but has it met whatever your expectations was? >> yeah. i'm really a filmmaker first. i make films to make films. the goal is to express something about the world that i see. and in my case, i think we should be worried about what -- what i believe is an increased government secrecy and policies that are not being undertaken with the participation and consent of citizens. i wanted to express and say i think that's a dangerous path. it's a film very much about people who are coming forward and also taking risks too, to -- to question things. so that's the goal as a filmmaker. now, you know, if that leads to change that's great. you know, i don't make films because i have like a political, you know agenda. >> i want to end the conversation where i began.
i asked -- mentioned that i met laura at the ida award for the independent film documentary film awards. and because i was doing that i had the chance to see a lot of film getting ready for the night to be involved with the program. i can tell you, if you have not seen "citizenfour," it is absolutely arresting. whenever you come down on the edward snowden/nsa debate "citizenfour" absolutely worth seeing. i:kvyhighly recommend it. thank you for your work. great to have you on you. thanks for watching. that's our program for tonight. as always, keep the faith. ♪ >> for more information on today's show, visit tavis smiley at pbs.org. >> hi i'm tavis smiley. join me next time for a conversation with ava duk&tzevernay, director of "selma," about the three months leading up to the passage of the 1965 voting rights act. that's next time. see you then.
>> rose: welcome to the program. tonight, remembering dr. martin luther king jr. and we start with john lewis the congressman and friend of dr. king. >> martin luther king, jr. helped free and liberate, not just the people but a nation. >> rose: and we continue with david oyelowo, who plays dr. king in the film "selma". >> she was an american hero but he didn't walk around in his life thinking i am an hero, i am an icon, i am a historical figure, he was a a man with flaws, with failings, with weaknesses with transcendent qualities as well but where i connected with him is, you know, he is man of faith, i am a man of faith i am a father of four, he was a father of four. and these were my entry points. he lived a life of not just talking ab