How Peter Maas Got Laura Poitras to Open Up
August 19, 2013, 6:07
Peter Maass on How DID He Got the Very Secret Laura
Poitras to Open Up
Peter Maass, a contributor to the magazine, wrote
week’s cover story on Laura Poitras and Glenn Greenwald, the two
journalists to whom Edward Snowden leaked material concerning N.S.A. surveillance
programs. Maass is the author of several books, most recently “Crude
World: The Violent Twilight of Oil,’’ and is working on a new book
about surveillance and privacy.
Everyone wants to talk to Snowden, and, failing that, everyone wants to
talk to the two people talking to Snowden. How did you get Greenwald and
Poitras to agree to the story?
It goes back a number of years. Laura’s second film in a trilogy about
American power, “The Oath,” had just come out. A friend of mine
who is a documentary maker recommended it to me and my wife. I was familiar
with Laura’s work but was amazed by the documentary. It was visually
beautiful and imaginative while at the same time being information-dense
and telling a good story. I knew that she was still being stopped at airports
while working on a project about surveillance, so I got in touch. A year
and a half ago we met several times for coffee or lunch, and I said, “You
know, I’d like to do a story about you.” This was long before Snowden
entered her life. She was a little bit reluctant, because any spotlight on
her makes it more difficult for her to do her work. But she agreed. I got
into another couple of stories first. Then the Snowden thing happened, and
I sent her another e-mail asking if she’d be amenable to doing the profile
now. Since she already knew me and my work, and probably also because I’d
been interested in her before, she agreed to let me do the story.
She and Greenwald weren’t worried about disclosing their location
in Rio to you, or having you watch them work with secret files?
It was understood that I wouldn’t write anything that would jeopardize
their security. I also knew they wouldn’t show me their documents or
tell me every detail about how they got them from Snowden or what they planned
to do with them. Snowden has been charged with espionage. They could be still
be charged with something. They don’t want to make public the types
of information, beyond the documents themselves, that could be used to build
a case against him or them. Basic things like where Glenn’s house is
in Rio I don’t mention in the story, just in case. I think it’s
safe to assume the U.S. government knows where Glenn lives, but other governments
and private individuals probably don’t. And we did have some explicit
conversations about what they preferred I not include.
Did their need for secrecy hinder your reporting?
When I first arrived on a Saturday morning, Laura had sent me an e-mail with
the name of the hotel where she was meeting with Glenn and the other two
Guardian reporters who were visiting to help with stories. I went straight
there from the airport and watched the four of them working on stories and
on computer-security issues. It was like an embed. I’ve done military
embeds in Iraq. It was either explicitly stated in Iraq, or just really clear,
that you didn’t write about operational matters — tactics, perimeter
security, patrol plans — that could jeopardize the present or future
security of the troops you were with. The military doesn’t show you
everything, but it is there in the room, and they are not necessarily able
or trying to hide everything. They depend somewhat on your discretion. Both
were classified environments.
Did you use encrypted messages in reporting this story?
I exchanged both encrypted and nonencrypted messages with Poitras. If something
was not supersensitive, we used normal e-mail. I thought about not bringing
my smartphone to Rio, but then I ended up bringing it. When I was with Laura
and Glenn, I for the most part left my smartphone in a secure place that
was not on my person. If it was on me, it was usually off. I didn’t
bring my own laptop to Rio. I brought a clean computer. I thought that maybe
as I came back, someone might want to take a look at what was on my computer.
Then when I returned to New York and Laura returned to Berlin, I had more
questions for her. So there were two levels of security: We used an encrypted
chat program and anonymizing software.
Through an encrypted chat via Laura, you got a chance to ask Snowden some
questions. What sense did you get of him?
I didn’t know whether he would answer any of my questions, and neither
did Laura. So I thought the best thing would be to keep them focused on the
topic of my story. I didn’t learn more about him personally, but what
was most interesting and what has gotten a lot of reaction was his surprise
about the lack of encryption that journalists use and journalists’ lack
of awareness of how their communications are so easy for organizations, including
the N.S.A., to capture. He expressed his disappointment that in the beginning
Glenn was not only not encryption savvy but wouldn’t take the steps
to become encryption savvy until Laura went to him and said, “Hey, this
is for real.” Snowden knew very well what the N.S.A. was capturing,
so it was useful to hear directly from him that encryption is a crucial step.