Laura Poitras has directed several documentaries including The Oath and the Academy Award winning Citizenfour about Edward Snowden. In their conversation, Poitras and Robert Scheer discuss Assange’s complexity and whether he has the right as a publisher to post leaked documents on Wikileaks. Poitras believes Assange to be an “equal-opportunity leaker” who would have published less than flattering information about Donald Trump during the presidential campaign if Assange had obtained it. Although Poitras says her films have been professionally and personally risky for her, she also acknowledges that the risks to her subjects have been far greater.
Laura Poitras – documentary filmmaker – @laurapoitras
Joshua Scheer, Rebecca Mooney
RS: Hi, this is Robert Scheer with another edition of Scheer Intelligence, where the intelligence comes from my guests. In this case, Laura Poitras, who is the winner of many awards including the Academy Award for Citizenfour on Edward Snowden, and now is here with her new movie, Risk, about Julian Assange. And so welcome. And let me ask you just right off the bat, I’ve watched Risk twice; Snowden I’ve seen many times, Citizenfour. And Snowden comes out as, I think correctly, as a hero. That’s a guy who told us what we had a right to know, risked a lot; and then the real only question I have about Snowden is why aren’t there more whistleblowers, why do we only have seven or eight or nine, you know, people like Drake and Snowden and Binney and so forth, or Daniel Ellsberg originally. And then I watched this movie sort of expecting more of the same, and it’s not quite that way. And you raised a lot of questions about Julian Assange and his ego, motives, and so forth, which I think as a filmmaker certainly you’re right to do. But it seemed to me that Julian Assange’s case from a constitutional point of view, from the protection of our rights, is a much stronger case than that of Edward Snowden. And that Julian Assange is in the same position, say, in the Pentagon Papers case that the Washington Post or The New York Times were in; he’s a publisher. And whatever his motives, you know, whatever drives him to do this, if he’s giving us information that we have a right to have or a need to have, it’s a much, I think, constitutionally, a stronger position than somebody who has actually taken an oath to secrecy, is in government like Snowden was, has access and so forth. So I was surprised that this movie didn’t sort of make the case for Assange’s legitimacy as a publisher that I expected.
LP: Well, first of all, it’s great to meet you and to be here, so thank you for having me. You’re right, they’re in very different categories. I mean, you have in one case a whistleblower source, an Edward Snowden or Chelsea Manning or Daniel Ellsberg, who chose to release information to the press or the media. And then you have publishers, which include Wikileaks, and they are protected as publishers are, in the same way that your work is protected, or The New York Times’. And so to me, that’s just an obvious, that’s a fact in terms of, you know, in a country that has a First Amendment, that it’s very frightening to have the government making any threats against the press. And so the film actually ends on these very disturbing comments by both the director of the CIA and the Attorney General, saying that they’re going to be targeting WikiLeaks but then also leakers, and people who publish leaks. And that’s really frightening and chilling, and I think it doesn’t just apply to WikiLeaks; I think we have to understand that that’s a threat to the press and to the First Amendment broadly. And it’s a continuation of what we saw in the Obama administration. I mean, Obama went after more sources using the Espionage Act than any president before. And Trump’s campaign was very anti-press, and now we’re seeing it come to light. So it’s very disconcerting.
RS: Well, I mean, the way Trump can prove his bona fides to people like Adam Schiff, the ranking democrat on the House Intelligence Committee, or Dianne Feinstein, would be to go bomb Moscow or something and prove his independence. I mean, there’s sort of this show-us-your-hawkish-side. And it’s a little bit troubling from my point of view, because I think we’re into a new Cold War; and with red-baiting, only the red is the Russian Orthodox convert, Vladimir Putin, and a crony capitalist. And his crimes are the same as the crimes of Trump, in that grabbing a lot of money without accountability and so forth.
LP: Well, I would disagree a little bit. I think that there are some differences. So for instance, I think people who do the type of work that I do in Russia, they get targeted for, you know, assassination; a lot of journalists have been killed in Russia. And I think there are some differences between what it means to work here and what it means to work in Russia. With that said, I also agree with you that there is a ridiculous amount of red-baiting and sort of, like–yeah, propagandistic language, and that we need to parse out what are the facts and what are the sort of conspiracy theories. And I think that, you know, it’s been a bit troubling how the media has approached, particularly around the election. I think it seems to be established that the hack was done by Russia, and that they used some sort of intermediaries or cut-outs to submit it to WikiLeaks. And I do think that’s troubling. I mean, I think it’s troubling when you have state actors trying to influence political outcomes. And I think the CIA is also a state actor that’s tried to influence political outcomes in other countries. So, yeah, I mean, but these are disturbing times; I mean, we just also had the hack in the French election.
RS: Right, but there is a shoot-the-messenger aspect of this that I want to address. And I don’t want to make this the whole interview, but it comes up every time. I mean, Daniel Ellsberg, the guy is, somebody wrote a whole book about Daniel Ellsberg and his personal life and what motivated him and so forth. But at the end of the day, the really only thing you have to know about Daniel Ellsberg is that he revealed a body of information, actually an academic study done for the Pentagon, that had we ever had access to, we would know the war in Vietnam made no sense and killing somewhere like five, six million people made no sense. And that’s information you need in a democracy, you know. And the real question about–well, in both categories, the whistleblower and the publisher, both Snowden and Julian Assange, is did they aid the democratic project or did they hurt it? That’s really the question, because we believe in a limited government, we believe in these constitutional protections, not as a luxury but because we think that gives you better governance or an informed public. And watching your documentary on Julian Assange–which I thought, by the way, I thought was very, very good in presenting a complex portrait; we’re all complex. And I think the humanity of Julian Assange comes across as well as his failings, and that’s art; and I respect that, I take it as a very good film, very, very important, and I thought Citizenfour was. So I’m not quibbling as a film critic here; I’m really going to the question of what is the obligation of a citizen, of a journalist, and so forth. And when I look at what we’ve got from WikiLeaks–and by “we” I mean we citizens of the world–it’s information that we had a right to have and needed to have. And let me just cut to the chase: your film ends with, you know, a buoyant Hillary Clinton on a stage, acting both confident and the victim. And then you have Adam Schiff, who has been the ranking democrat on the House Intelligence Committee. And both of these people knew a great deal about what the surveillance state was doing. The, you know, Secretary of State, head democrat on the Intelligence Committee; they never let us in on any of it, any of it. Any of the contradictions. And now you’ve got Julian Assange as a whipping boy saying, oh, there’s the bad guy, he ruined our election, and let me just take one case in point–
LP: Oh–OK–I’m just, my film doesn’t say that, but I–
RS: No, I didn’t say your film says that at all. I’m saying where the dialogue is going–look, I’m responding in part because this morning, both my wife and my ex-wife, who I respect enormously, said “You better be careful criticizing, she’s a great woman,” and you know, and I said something, well, you’re in the Hillary camp, and they said “What’s wrong with being in the Hillary camp?”
LP: Listen, I’m not in the Hillary camp, don’t–
RS: No, I understand, I’m just talking about where, you know, I’m confessing what I had for breakfast here. And so my point is really–well, wait a minute, didn’t we have a right to know what she said to Goldman Sachs?
LP: Of course. I mean, it’s completely newsworthy, and I absolutely defend what WikiLeaks published around the DNC and the corruption and the sort of gaming it so that Sanders had a disadvantage. Absolutely! And the Goldman Sachs, I mean, that should not have been withheld. And I don’t criticize WikiLeaks or Julian for publishing that; I absolutely defend that. It’s newsworthy; it was published, those stories were picked up by every major news organization in the world, there’s no doubt about that. And so I absolutely defend their right to publish, and I, as a filmmaker who’s been looking at post-9/11 America, what they did in terms of publishing the war logs and the Afghanistan war logs and the State Department cables to show what’s really going on in U.S. foreign policy–it’s crucial journalism. And I absolutely defend their right to publish. I don’t agree with all of Julian’s decisions; I don’t agree with his decisions to not redact certain information. I think that if something is personal information that’s not newsworthy, I think that should be redacted. But those are differences of opinion, not differences of his right to publish or the importance of what he’s published. So we’re on the same page, basically.
RS: OK, but I want to bring the listeners in to whatever page we’re on. Because I think this is a discussion that has gotten skewed in part because people who would normally make the civil liberties argument were so upset about the results of the election. And they needed a scapegoat, really, or they needed an explanation that took it away from the Democratic Party and put it onto–
LP: Yeah, but–OK. Yeah, but that’s just really short-sighted. All you need to do is do a bit of research into WikiLeaks and realize that he’s actually very consistent here. He’s interested in publishing information, and I feel pretty confident if he had had, for instance, Donald Trump’s tax returns, we would have seen them on WikiLeaks. Julian is not somebody who is going to withhold information to assist a political party; that’s not what his, you know, that’s not his mission or his philosophy. He’s interested in releasing information about, from all parties. I mean, you hear it in the film, where he’s talking about the Syria leak, and he says “it’s an equal opportunity leak.” I mean, that’s, you know, people can criticize that, but the idea that he was doing targeted releasing to damage one political party over the other, I don’t believe that. Which isn’t to say that what he was given didn’t have some motivations behind it. But I’m not sure that journalists should be censoring any information because, because to sort of parse out the motives of who the source is.
RS: That’s exactly my point. I think anytime–and I worked for the LA Times for 29 years, but before that I was the editor of Ramparts Magazine, we dealt with a lot of these issues, and I’ve dealt with them since with Truthdig and other publications. And when I was working for the establishment media, I was routinely giving classified information.
LP: Right. And there was a motive, there was a reason.
RS: Yeah, there was a motive. And I didn’t question the motive very much, aside from is the information accurate, is this really a document.
LP: Of course.
RS: There’s one example I’ve used, and at the time, when Edward Teller, who was the father of the H-bomb, and I was on my way to an arms control thing at Stanford, and we happened to be on the same plane, Southwest, going up there. And he said, make sure you’re going up to the Stanford thing, make sure Sid Drell–who was one of the leading physicists dealing with nuclear weapons issues–and he said, make sure Sid tells you about the great results we got on the cottage tests. And the cottage test was the most secret test to see if you could get lasering and develop a Star Wars defense–there was no bigger secret. It turned out to be false, the test was distorted. He didn’t know that, months later it came out. But I think any practicing journalist who covers national security knows that. Probably 90, 95 percent of their information is given to them in this way. And yet they print it.
LP: Right. And I think that’s true, but I also do think that this sort of new era of massive leaks and state actors, and we just saw the hack into the French elections, it should give us a little bit of pause to say–not just, and I don’t think, when I say “pause” I don’t mean don’t publish. I think we should be publishing, but for instance, I think what the press did in France was to say this, the hack, was important and that they would be reporting on it. But they weren’t going to sort of, you know, rush and try to do something on a 24-hour news cycle. I do think that there should be sort of stepping back, looking at, you know, parsing out what is newsworthy. And then also, I think that there should be efforts to report on, you know, where if it’s an alleged state actor, to report on that as well.
RS: [omission] I want to go to your success as a director, which has been enormous. You’ve been able to change the debate–not you alone, but certainly have had a tremendous impact. And you’ve done documentaries which would not have been possible in the old days–or the good old days. Everybody’s always talking about “the good old days;” I can’t imagine a movie like Citizenfour or your current movie, Risk, coming out in the good old days when documentaries were generally pretty predictable, boring, and when they were interesting–
LP: Oh, I’m going to disagree with you–
RS: — even if they won an Academy Award, I remember Panama Deception was one. Even that, you would hardly find anyone who had seen it, sort of–
LP: I mean, do you know, for instance, the work of D.A. Pennebaker? If you look, there is a film called Crisis that was filmed with the president on the phone dealing with the civil rights movement. I mean, it’s real-time drama. So, and that’s from the sixties. So there have been great documentaries happening for a long time. I think the actual revolution that happened with documentary films was getting lightweight gear so you could get the camera off the tripod, and that happened in the sixties, and that happened with people like D.A. Pennebaker, the Maysles Brothers, I mean, a film like Salesman– have you ever seen Salesman?
LP: It’s like, it’s poetry and it’s a look at this country that is unrivaled in terms of storytelling. And that’s, you know, so I’m not–I think that there’s a long tradition of documentaries that’s been–
RS: I understand that. Rosie the Riveter, I think, was edited in my house in Berkeley at one point. And I’m familiar with all that; they couldn’t find the audience that someone like you now finds. That’s my point, not that good documentaries were not made; they were made. I used Panama Deception as a good one that won the Academy Award; still, I almost never ran into anybody who had actually ever seen it. And then suddenly we’re in an era where, you know, you make an interesting, write an interesting story, you make an interesting documentary–this is the hopeful part of the whole thing. And I don’t want to lose it; now there’s going to be a lot of talk about how can we control the internet, and how can we, you know, get fake news–well, the people who are going to ferret out fake news are also the ones who create fake news, you know. It’s really all very well and good to take a bunch of establishment experts who’ve been asleep at the switch and then suddenly say, oh, you decide what’s real news for Facebook and what’s not; we’re in a new era of censorship. That alarms me.
LP: Yeah. Well, I mean, there’s lot of things to be alarmed by; I mean, the blatant lies by our current president are really alarming, you know. And just, you know, challenging facts, like you know, objective facts. And, I mean, what we’re seeing around climate change is an example of, you know, you have scientific facts that then people are considering to be opinions, and there is a difference between facts and opinions.
RS: So let me take one good source, FactCheck, which very often beats out Truthdig, the publication, I think we’ve won five or six Webbys; they seem to have won more. So when I was preparing for this discussion, there’s something comes up in your movie about when did, did Julian Assange cooperate with the Russians and so forth. Now the head of the FBI has said there’s no, he has no evidence so far. But the figure of Roger Stone came in, and Roger Stone was an operative for Trump, and so forth. And there’s this idea that somehow he was in contact with Julian Assange and he was manipulating this. And FactCheck actually looked into it and decided, no, there’s no basis.
LP: Right, OK. I mean, I don’t think there’s a basis either. So.
RS: Oh. No, I’m just saying, it’s–look, we all want real news because that’s what you need in a healthy society, OK–
LP: And let’s face it, I mean, there are people who do do real news, who are doing it. I mean, that’s–I’m going to return to the film, if you don’t mind, and the work that WikiLeaks has done, which is, you know, provided primary documents that we can understand the history and what this country is doing. And it’s disturbing that an organization like that would be so aggressively targeted for so long by the U.S. government.
RS: Well, returning to your film–and I really enjoyed it, by the way, as an intellectual exercise as well as good, obviously brilliant filmmaking as your work is–but it hit me, the scene that I can’t escape from your film was the scene where the Reuters journalists and others are shot at–that scene. I’ve seen it, you know, hundreds of times over the years, but somehow in your film I looked at it and I said, wait a minute–this is what it’s really all about. OK? We can argue all we want about the motives of whistleblowers and those who publish them and et cetera, et cetera, but the fact of the matter is, we claim we were liberating these people; we made life a living hell in a place called Iraq, and now in Syria. And there’s been no real accountability for it. Today is, we’re doing this discussion–I just read a piece by John McCain, you know, blasting Trump’s Secretary of State for, you know, saying well, human rights might not be as critical, blah blah, and he brings up his experience in Vietnam, which I’m sure it was terrifying. But the fact of the matter is, what were we doing in Vietnam? You know, he wasn’t there on a goodwill visit, you’re there shooting at people and bombing them. We dropped, according to Barack Obama, we dropped more bombs in that area than was dropped in all of World War II. So then, where is, you know, again–fake news–which is the real news here? And it seems to me that one film clip that you have in your film of our pilots actually shooting at people who did not have weapons, and a couple of them were journalists–that justifies–
LP: Right. And I mean, that, I think that was one of the major motivating factors for Chelsea Manning to make the decision she did, which she paid enormously for, huge consequences for releasing that video. And I’ve done extensive filming in Iraq, and you know, that’s one of the things that’s most disturbing and shocking about that video. It’s not just the slaughtering of civilians who are seeking cover and crawling on the ground, but that this was the kind of thing, this was not unusual; this was happening every day. It just wasn’t always recorded, and it wasn’t always leaked. But it was pretty standard operating procedure, and it is shocking that there’d been no accountability for that particular incident, or the Iraq War more broadly, or the War on Terror and other transgressions that the U.S. government has, you know, that have been reported. And we also know that that particular video had been in possession, I believe, of a reporter at the Washington Post who reported on it in print but chose not to release the video–which I don’t understand, you know, if you’re a journalist, how you would make that decision. But you asked at the beginning of this interview, why aren’t there more whistleblowers. And I’m not sure that that’s the right question, because the price that Chelsea Manning has paid, or that Edward Snowden has paid, is so enormous, I think that the real question is, is why aren’t our elected officials informing the public in terms of what this country is doing, and why aren’t people who commit acts of violence in other countries, why aren’t they held accountable, why aren’t people who torture people held accountable? I think that that, you know, where is the oversight in this country, and why don’t our elected officials use the position that they have–which is protected; they’re not going to be charged under the Espionage Act, like Chelsea Manning–to inform the public?
RS: So this raises a broader question. This series that I’m doing here is, again, about American originals, and how out of this crazy-quilt of our different cultures and ethnic mix and racial mix and immigrants and so forth, documented and undocumented, we get, somehow we get really wonderful, heroic people of the kind you think a democracy needs. And, OK, Daniel Ellsberg would be such an example; you would be another example. Why didn’t you sell out? Why did you follow–you know, I’m sure making Citizenfour must have contained a lot of risk, a lot of fear, a lot of concern on your part. You had already won a MacArthur, you’re already a certifiable genius, right? You had other things you could do. What drives you to have this independent voice, including challenging me and making these criticisms of Putin? I mean, you’re clearly the model of what we want in critical thinking in anyone who’s a journalist or an artist. So what led you to this position?
LP: I mean, you know, in the case of doing the NSA reporting and Citizenfour, I mean, I’ll be honest and say I’ve never been more scared than doing that reporting. I thought, you know, that the incentive to stop it was so great, that the government’s incentive was so great, that I knew that Ed’s life was on the line and so was everybody else who was doing the reporting. And so I was very aware of that. But I mean, there was a point where before I went to Hong Kong a lot of people were advising me that it’s really risky; some journalists chose not to go. So Barton Gellman from the Washington Post chose not to travel to Hong Kong; other people chose not to travel, because of the risks. But in the end, I couldn’t not do it. I couldn’t live with myself if I didn’t do it, so that’s the simple answer. That I knew that Ed was taking the ultimate risk, and yeah, it’s just–I had to do it.
RS: Look, you know, I would like to bottle you as a–you know, here’s a role model, here we’re at a school of journalism and communication [at USC]–go and be like her. OK? Yet the dominant thing you find at all of the–and this is a great institution; I really respect it a lot, but I’m sure it’s true at the Columbia School of Journalism, I’m sure it’s everywhere–people are worried about their career. And really, at the end of the day, most people sell out not because their lives are threatened or it’s scary or the government’s out to get them–as in your case–but just there’s a slight kink in their career curve, you know? Why go there, why challenge that, why raise an issue. I remember when my wife first went to work at the LA Times there were only two women in the newsroom; she ended up being the associate editor. But just to say, you know–why weren’t we able to cover Watts? Why don’t we have any black people on the staff?–itself was, hey, what are you, a spoiler? Why are you bringing this up? And so what I would like to know is, what went into your makeup that caused you to take risks and see it somewhat differently, and not just go down a career path?
LP: You know, I don’t–so as a documentary filmmaker, the type of work I do is I film things that are happening before my eyes in real time. And usually the people that I’m filming are at much more risk than I am. And are opening up their lives to me. So if that’s Edward Snowden, if that’s Iraqis, Julian Assange–and for one, I can’t say no to the–I can’t say no. I mean, I’m so compelled by the work that I do, and the belief that if we have a more nuanced understanding of the world that it will change political realities. Like, I believe that. So there’s a belief in the work that I do that sort of supersedes potential risk. But I also am very aware that in the dynamic in which I work, that I’m taking less risks than the people that are allowing me to film. And so I don’t dwell on it, and I believe that it’s just an incredible honor to do this work, and to provide like a history. I mean, I’m interested in creating primary documents. Like, Edward Snowden’s disclosures will have ripple effects for generations to come. I think the fact that people even think about surveillance and talk about it in a, you know, understanding that their iPhone is a potential tracking device–the fact that that’s kind of become public knowledge is because of the risks of one young man. You know? And that’s amazing, I mean, to me, to be able to document that and to create a primary record of that person’s decision; that’s something I can’t not do.
RS: Yeah, and we should remember this young man. He was 29 when this happened. And I–look, I wrote a whole book on the surveillance society, and I describe it as life before Snowden and after Snowden. It’s true, we had leaks; it’s true we had an indicator; we should have been forewarned, we knew we were giving up a lot of information, we knew this information was going from the private to the public, et cetera, et cetera, et cetera. But if this one guy had not released the material in the volume he did, so it could not be denied–and he did it in, I think, a very responsible way, and used mainstream organizations to–
LP: Well, I mean, myself and Glenn Greenwald are pretty outsiders. So he chose some pretty, you know, people who were not the mainstream to–
RS: Well, that’s for the movie, but the fact is, you know, Greenwald was working with the Guardian, and–
LP: I understand that, I understand that very well. But neither Glenn or I shared all of the information with the Guardian or the–you know, like we, we were very particular in working on particular stories with news organizations, and were very careful because of, you know, past decisions that had been made in publishing.
RS: OK, but what I’m trying to say is that Snowden did it in a way that could not be denied. He knew the material, he released enough of it so you couldn’t say this is–
LP: Well, he didn’t really say–I mean, he disclosed it to journalists and then we decided what to disclose, but–
RS: OK, why don’t you put it into your words, because I do think it was a critical moment–
LP: I agree.
RS: –and why you need whistleblowers. This is what happened with Ellsberg on the Pentagon Papers, we knew a lot about Vietnam; I mean, I had been in Vietnam long before I read the Pentagon Papers, writing about it and so forth, but suddenly we had a document that actually had been created by the Pentagon, they had used the best material available to them, they knew what they were talking about, and it showed the case for the war was a tissue of lies. Something I’d like to remind John McCain about this morning. But now, in the case of Snowden–and I’d like to end by talking a little bit about him, because Snowden really is a seminal figure, I think, now in American history. And particularly in terms of where we are as a surveillance society, the Fourth Amendment and the needs of a democracy. And I think the way he handled it made it very difficult for him to be dismissed.
LP: I would say, I’m going to agree with you that we need more whistleblowers, but we also need protections for those whistleblowers. Because right now, we have, the government is using the Espionage Act and we need to have protections for whistleblowers so that when they see something that the public should know, they can come forward and be protected and not be subjected to imprisonment and what the U.N. called torture situations for Chelsea Manning. Yeah, so Snowden, you know, I think actually one of the most remarkable things that he did, which was the highest-risk thing he could possibly do, was to come forward in his own identity. To say, you know, this was something–this is why I did what I did. And I think that allowed the public to be able to understand the reasons that he made this decision. And I do believe it’s transformed our understanding around an issue that’s going to be impacting us for generations to come, right? I mean, it’s only going to get worse; the power of surveillance is only going to get worse.
RS: Robert Scheer with another edition of Scheer Intelligence. Our producers are Joshua Scheer and Rebecca Mooney. Our engineers at KCRW are Mario Diaz and Kat Yore. And here at USC Annenberg School for Communication and Journalism is the brilliant Sebastian Grubaugh, who has come in on his off-day to produce the show. Thank you and see you next week.