A few days ago, I found myself in a crowded Manhattan office watching Laura Poitras sign posters for her new documentary. Each signature appeared above the film’s title — Citizenfour — and below the film’s subject — Edward Snowden. She didn’t think she had time, but her handler insisted. It’s taken me a while, but only now do I realise what a powerful metaphor that moment was. In a way, it revealed what Poitras thinks about the future of whistleblowers: We shouldn’t need them any more.
I didn’t know what to expect from my chat with Poitras, just like Poitras didn’t know what to expect out of the stories that would come from what they learned in that hotel room. Here was a rogue intelligence analyst exposing some of the United States government’s deepest darkest secrets. This could change everything! All of the evils of the Patriot Act could be cured! This could be our generation’s Watergate!
Except it wasn’t, and it isn’t. Poitras introduced one of the world’s greatest whistleblowers to the public, and it’s hard to imagine the story that followed to get any bigger. Many expect more whistleblowers to step forward, but the whistle’s already loud enough. Shy as he may seem, Snowden’s the one who was supposed to change everything.
Immediately after we exited the office building a few minutes later, Poitras and I ducked into the backseat of a black Mercedes sedan. It smelled like new leather, and she looked tired. This was no surprise. Flanked by glowing reviews, Citizenfour opened in theatres that day, and everybody wanted to talk to the director. She also happened to be the woman who found Edward Snowden.
Well, the more accurate thing to say would be that Edward Snowden found her. In classic whistleblower fashion, he reached out to carefully selected journalists, including Glenn Greenwald, and offered up the leaked documents. Poitras followed up and within a few months was in a hotel room in Hong Kong, sitting with Snowden, Greenwald, and The Guardian‘s Ewan MacAskill.
“[My first impression] was shock because both Glenn and I both thought he was going to be much older,” Poitras said of Snowden, as we headed uptown. “But then I was just completely blown away by the kind of resolve, the calm. He just sort of had made this decision and he was in this place of just like, ‘I’m here what do you guys need.’ And it was a sense of incredible trust.”
Again, this sounds like a prototypical whistleblower: someone who quietly hides in the background, risking their own freedom in order to expose the truth. This doesn’t really sound like the Edward Snowden we know, though. Whether he wanted to or not, the 31-year-old former NSA contractor is now an international celebrity who’s living in exile, where he can trust no one. Meanwhile, just a couple of months ago, the Electronic Frontier Foundation hailed Snowden and proclaimed: “The World Needs More Whistleblowers.”
I asked Poitras what she thought of this idea. At the end of Citizenfour (sorry for the spoiler) we learn that another whistleblower had stepped forward and offered more documents about the U.S. government’s misbehavior. Did she hope Citizenfour would inspire even more?
“What I wish it would encourage is that the government be less secretive and more transparent,” she said sternly. “I wish that people wouldn’t have to take these enormous risks to reveal things that the public should know.” Remember: If he’s arrested and shipped home, there’s a good chance Edward Snowden will spend the rest of his life in jail. Citizens, she stressed, shouldn’t have to stick their necks out like this.
Poitras makes an idealistic but impossible point. It’s embarrassing that America’s leaders, men like Sen. Ron Wyden, knew about the evil things that the government was doing, yet did nothing. All Wyden needed to do to expose the secret part of the Patriot Act that let the government spy on its own citizens was read the bill aloud on the floor of the Senate. But he didn’t.
Senator Ron Wyden of Oregon, a member of the Select Committee on Intelligence, at a ceremonial swearing in with Vice President Joe Biden in 2011
“I didn’t want this film to feel like it had closure,” Poitras continued. “The government’s still keeping massive amounts of secrets; policies haven’t changed. The threats to whistleblowers and sources is off the charts — as it is to journalists reporting on it.” I pictured her signing those posters graced with the face of a celebrity she helped to discover. I pictured her thinking, as the pen slid across the page, about how much work she still had to do to get those policies changed. I pictured her in the editing room, realising that this story would never really end. There was so much work to do. We all have work to do.
“That was kind of the message I wanted at the end of the film,” she said looking out the window. And now that we’ve elected a new Congress, let’s hope somebody hears it.