Documentarian Laura Poitras and the US government

Documentarian Laura Poitras is one of this year’s MacArthur Fellows, the so-called ‘Genius’ awards. Poitras is working on the last of a trilogy about the post-9/11 war on terror. The first one My Country, My Country is about the U.S. occupation of Iraq and the elections in that country is 2005. It was nominated for an Academy Award. Here is the trailer.

Her second film The Oath focused on one of the Guantanamo detainees Salim Hamdan, a bodyguard and driver of Osama bin Laden. Here is that trailer.

Hamdan was first tried under the military commissions set up by George W. Bush but the US Supreme Court in 2006 ruled against the government. Congress then passed the Military Commissions Act of 2006 that set up a parallel system for trying people that was pretty much guaranteed to result in convictions. Hamdan was tried under that law and convicted for providing ‘material support for terrorism’. He served his sentence, and then went home to Yemen. But his appeal continued and just two weeks ago his conviction was overturned by the US Appeals Court for the District of Columbia.

The Circuit Court, besides ruling that the 2006 law did not apply to Hamdan’s alleged conduct, found that his conviction also could not be upheld under an earlier and long-standing law that was in effect at the time. Under that law, military commissions were authorized to try violations of the “law of war.” But the Circuit Court noted that this refers to international law, which at the time — and still today — did not treat “material support for terrorism” as a law of war.

Poitras’s films focus on how the US has increasingly shifted away from the rule of law by adopting policies such as preemptive war, rendition, torture, and indefinite detention without trial. Needless to say, the US government likes to pretend that it upholds the highest standards of the rule of law and the ideals of democracy and does not take kindly to people who shine an unflattering light on such policies and so has harassed her repeatedly, practices that continue under the Obama administration.

NPR had an interview with Poitras. Here is a portion of her interview with host Melissa Block where Poitras explains the lengths she has to go to in order to thwart the government’s efforts to pry into and suppress her work. The italics are mine.

BLOCK: The work you’ve done and the interviews that you’re describing have led to you being detained dozens of times at airports. You’ve been interrogated at length, your cell phone, your laptop, your camera have been seized. And you’ve assumed that you’re on a watch list because of your work and where you travel. You’ve decided to finish your last film, the third in this trilogy, in Europe not here in the United States. Why don’t you explain why.

POITRAS: Well, I mean what’s happened, it’s a series of events after – in 2006 I was put on a watch list and I’ve been repeatedly detained at the U.S. border as I travel. And I’ve had my notes photocopied and these kind of very strong kinds of harassment for the work that I’m doing. And so, you know, as a journalist who’s trying to deal with work that the government is very interested in trying to keep secret, I feel an obligation to do whatever I can to protect the sources and the people that I’m working with who are taking great risks to talk me. And, at the moment, it feels safer for me to work outside of the United States, which is a sad thing to say.

BLOCK: How have you changed the way you work and how you travel knowing that you’re going to be detained and questioned every time you come back to the States?

POITRAS: That’s a really complicated question. The project I’m working on now, I have laptops in a couple of different cities that I leave there because I don’t want to bring them with me across the border. I don’t bring any notebooks with me. I, you know, phone people before, you know, I take off and I text when I land so that somebody can be monitoring how long I’m held for. And, you know, go through long sort of clearing of hard drives every time I enter the United States. And it’s something that only happens at U.S. borders.

BLOCK: Has it become routine to you to do all this?

POITRAS: No, actually. I still get nervous every time I get on a plane heading home.

Her descriptions remind me of what people used to do during the Cold War, except that those stories were about dissidents in the former Soviet bloc countries.

It must be deeply unsettling when your own government treats you like an enemy when all you are doing is seeking and spreading what you think is the truth.


  1. Corvus illustris says

    Her descriptions remind me of what people used to do during the Cold War, except that those stories were about dissidents in the former Soviet bloc countries.

    “The creatures outside looked from pig to man, and from man to pig, and from pig to man again; but already it was impossible to say which was which.”

    Things aren’t looking too good here on the farm.

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