Snowden’s People

There was a fantastic profile of Laura Poitras, the documentary film maker who helped Edward Snowden leak his secrets, in the New York Times on the 13th of August. She directed that first, iconic video of Snowden, and is still working with Glenn Greenwald to document the rest of what happens. I wanted to blog this a few days ago, but got sidetracked.

The portrait is the first deeper insight into the process of how the Snowden leaks happened. There’s a lot more of this story to be told, but it’ll take a while to come. Here’s a first tantalising glimpse into a story which must be in treatment phase with at least three major movie studios as we speak.

There’s a lot of stuff to love in this profile, I want to quote at least half of it, but I’ll restrict myself to a couple. There’s the hilarious description of the hi-tech workplace of tomorrow from which the NSA was revealed:

Greenwald lives and works in a house surrounded by tropical foliage in a remote area of Rio de Janeiro. He shares the home with his Brazilian partner and their 10 dogs and one cat, and the place has the feel of a low-key fraternity that has been dropped down in the jungle. The kitchen clock is off by hours, but no one notices; dishes tend to pile up in the sink; the living room contains a table and a couch and a large TV, an Xbox console and a box of poker chips and not much else. The refrigerator is not always filled with fresh vegetables. A family of monkeys occasionally raids the banana trees in the backyard and engages in shrieking battles with the dogs.

Greenwald does most of his work on a shaded porch, usually dressed in a T-shirt, surfer shorts and flip-flops. Over the four days I spent there, he was in perpetual motion, speaking on the phone in Portuguese and English, rushing out the door to be interviewed in the city below, answering calls and e-mails from people seeking information about Snowden, tweeting to his 225,000 followers (and conducting intense arguments with a number of them), then sitting down to write more N.S.A. articles for The Guardian, all while pleading with his dogs to stay quiet. During one especially fever-pitched moment, he hollered, “Shut up, everyone,” but they didn’t seem to care.

There’s this perfect bit of characterisation of Poitras:

As dusk fell one evening, I followed Poitras and Greenwald to the newsroom of O Globo, one of the largest newspapers in Brazil. Greenwald had just published an article there detailing how the N.S.A. was spying on Brazilian phone calls and e-mails. The article caused a huge scandal in Brazil, as similar articles have done in other countries around the world, and Greenwald was a celebrity in the newsroom. The editor in chief pumped his hand and asked him to write a regular column; reporters took souvenir pictures with their cellphones. Poitras filmed some of this, then put her camera down and looked on. I noted that nobody was paying attention to her, that all eyes were on Greenwald, and she smiled. “That’s right,” she said. “That’s perfect.”

 There’s this wonderful quote about how Snowden came to trust her: “We came to a point in the verification and vetting process where I discovered Laura was more suspicious of me than I was of her, and I’m famously paranoid.” 

But I think that the absolutely best part is this hilariously cold war description of how Poitras, Greenwald and Snowden first met:

Snowden had instructed them that once they were in Hong Kong, they were to go at an appointed time to the Kowloon district and stand outside a restaurant that was in a mall connected to the Mira Hotel. There, they were to wait until they saw a man carrying a Rubik’s Cube, then ask him when the restaurant would open. The man would answer their question, but then warn that the food was bad. When the man with the Rubik’s Cube arrived, it was Edward Snowden, who was 29 at the time but looked even younger.

I still maintain that Poitras, Greenwald and Snowden have performed a great public service, revealing massive, secret abuses of power to the deliberating public which it concerns. Namely: anyone with the internet, anyone with a phone. This profile is worth reading just for sheer story value, but I think the most important thing in it is what lengths Edward Snowden felt he had to go to in order to not be at risk of surveillance.

Also check out Poitras’ short documentary for the New York Times about another NSA leaker, and the Q & A with Snowden himself done for the profile.

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