The Slatest

Meet Laura Poitras, the “Keyser Soze” of the Edward Snowden Story

NFilmmaker Laura Poitras attends the 2011 Cinema Eye Honors at the Museum of the Moving Image on January 18, 2011 in the Queens borough of New York City

Photo by Stephen Lovekin/Getty Images

Investigative reporter Peter Maass has today’s must-read, a lengthy profile in the New York Times Magazine of documentary filmmaker Laura Poitras, Glenn Greenwald’s relatively silent NSA reporting partner who is, in Greenwald’s own words, the Keyser Soze of the Edward Snowden story.

While Greenwald has largely served as the public face of Snowden’s classified leaks, Poitras is the one who deserves the lion’s share of credit for first forming and fostering what has turned into one of the more high-profile source-reporter relationships in history. It was Poitras who was tech-savvy enough to realize exactly what Snowden was offering, and it was Poitras who had the digital chops necessary to keep her and Greenwald’s communications with the then-29-year-old a secret in an online world where few things truly are. The entire profile is well worth your time, but here are a few of the more noteworthy nuggets and anecdotes to whet your appetite.

Greenwald ignored Snowden’s initial attempts to contact him:

Poitras was not Snowden’s first choice as the person to whom he wanted to leak thousands of N.S.A. documents. In fact, a month before contacting her, he reached out to Greenwald, who had written extensively and critically about the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan and the erosion of civil liberties in the wake of 9/11. Snowden anonymously sent him an e-mail saying he had documents he wanted to share, and followed that up with a step-by-step guide on how to encrypt communications, which Greenwald ignored. Snowden then sent a link to an encryption video, also to no avail.

“It’s really annoying and complicated, the encryption software,” Greenwald said as we sat on his porch during a tropical drizzle. “He kept harassing me, but at some point he just got frustrated, so he went to Laura.”

Poitras has intentionally stayed out of the spotlight:

Poitras has shared the byline on some of Greenwald’s articles, but for the most part she has preferred to stay in the background, letting him do the writing and talking. As a result, Greenwald is the one hailed as either a fearless defender of individual rights or a nefarious traitor, depending on your perspective. “I keep calling her the Keyser Soze of the story, because she’s at once completely invisible and yet ubiquitous,” Greenwald said, referring to the character in “The Usual Suspects” played by Kevin Spacey, a mastermind masquerading as a nobody. “She’s been at the center of all of this, and yet no one knows anything about her.”

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.”

The trio’s first clandestine meeting in Hong Kong was arranged with the help of everyone’s favorite 3D puzzle from the ‘70s:

Snowden had instructed them that once they were in Hong Kong, they were to go at an appointed time to the Kowloon distsrict 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. …

They followed Snowden to his room, where Poitras immediately shifted into documentarian mode, taking her camera out. .. For Poitras, the camera certainly alters the human dynamic, but not in a bad way. When someone consents to being filmed — even if the consent is indirectly gained when she turns on the camera — this is an act of trust that raises the emotional stakes of the moment. What Greenwald saw as stilted, Poitras saw as a kind of bonding, the sharing of an immense risk. “There is something really palpable and emotional in being trusted like that,” she said. …

For the next week, their preparations followed a similar pattern — when they entered Snowden’s room, they would remove their cellphone batteries and place them in the refrigerator of Snowden’s minibar. They lined pillows against the door, to discourage eavesdropping from outside, then Poitras set up her camera and filmed. It was important to Snowden to explain to them how the government’s intelligence machinery worked because he feared that he could be arrested at any time.

Like I said, go read Maass’ full piece here. It includes plenty more about Poitras, Greenwald and Snowden, including a detailed account of the government surveillance (some might easily say harrassment) that Poitras was the subject of in the wake of her previous reporting—an experience that itself taught Poitras the digital skills she’d need when Snowden came calling.

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This post has been updated.