Academy and Pulitzer Prize Award-winning documentary filmmaker Laura Poitras has sued the Department of Justice (DOJ) and U.S. transportation security agencies demanding they release records documenting a six-year period in which she was searched, questioned, and often subjected to hours-long security screenings at U.S. and overseas airports on more than 50 occasions. The Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF) is representing Poitras in a Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) lawsuit against the Department of Homeland Security, DOJ, and the Office of the Director of National Intelligence.
“I’m filing this lawsuit because the government uses the U.S. border to bypass the rule of law,” said Poitras. “This simply should not be tolerated in a democracy. I am also filing this suit in support of the countless other less high-profile people who have also been subjected to years of Kafkaesque harassment at the borders. We have a right to know how this system works and why we are targeted.”
Poitras is a professional journalist who won an Academy Award this year for her documentary film “CITIZENFOUR” about NSA whistleblower Edward Snowden, shared in the 2014 Pulitzer for Public Service for NSA reporting, and is a recipient of a MacArthur Foundation “genius” grant. During frequent travel from 2006 to 2012 for work on her documentary films, Poitras was detained at the U.S. border every time she entered the country.
During these detentions, she was told by airport security agents that she had a criminal record (even though she does not), that her name appeared on a national security threat database, and, on one occasion, that she was on the U.S. government’s No Fly List. She’s had her laptop, camera, mobile phone, and reporter notebooks seized and their contents copied, and was once threatened with handcuffing for taking notes during her detention after border agents said her pen could be used as a weapon. The searches were conducted without a warrant and often without explanation, and no charges have ever been brought against Poitras.
After years of targeting by security agents, Poitras last year filed FOIA requests for records naming or relating to her, including case files, surveillance records, and counterterrorism documents. But the agencies have either said they have no records, denying or ignoring her appeals for further searches, or haven’t responded at all to her requests. For example, the FBI, after not responding to Poitras’ FOIA request for a year, said in May it had located only six pages relevant to the request—and that it was withholding all six pages because of grand jury secrecy rules.
“The government used its power to detain people at airports, in the name of national security, to target a journalist whose work has focused on the effects of the U.S. war on terror,” said David Sobel, EFF senior counsel. “In refusing to respond to Poitras’ FOIA requests and wrongfully withholding the documents about her it has located, the government is flouting its responsibility to explain and defend why it subjected a law-abiding citizen—whose work has shone a light on post-9/11 military and intelligence activities—to interrogations and searches every time she entered her country.”
The detentions ended in 2012 after journalist Glenn Greenwald published an article about Poitras’ experiences and a group of documentary filmmakers submitted a petition to DHS protesting her treatment.
“We are suing the government to force it to disclose any records that would show why security officials targeted Poitras for six years, even though she had no criminal record and there was no indication that she posed any security risk,” said Jamie Lee Williams, an EFF attorney and the organization’s Frank Stanton Legal Fellow. “By spurning Poitras’ FOIA requests, the government leaves the impression that her detentions were a form of retaliation and harassment of a journalist whose work has focused on U.S. policy in the post-9/11 world.”
Poitras’ documentary films include the 2006 Oscar-nominated “My Country, My Country”—a story about the Iraq war told through an Iraqi doctor and political candidate in Baghdad who was an outspoken critic of U.S. occupation. Poitras also directed and produced the Emmy-nominated “The Oath,” a 2010 documentary film about Guantanamo Bay prison and the interrogation of Osama bin Laden’s former bodyguard days after 9/11. Poitras’ latest film, “CITIZENFOUR,” about Snowden and NSA mass surveillance, earned her a Director’s Guild of America Award and an Oscar.
For the full complaint: