Greenwald and Poitras dedicate their Polk awards to Snowden

Andrew Rice of New York magazine had an entertaining description of the Polk Awards last night where Glenn Greenwald, Laura Poitras, Ewen MacAskill, and Barton Gellman received the award for National Security Reporting for their work on the Snowden documents. Alan Rusbridger, the editor of The Guardian who supported the printing of the first major articles, also was present to pick up a well-deserved award for his paper.

It seems clear that Greenwald and Poitras were throwing down the gauntlet at the US government by coming back yesterday, daring them to harass them at the airport and even arrest them. But nothing happened. According to Greenwald, going through customs was “was very smooth”. What makes this so interesting was that Poitras, winner of the MacArthur ‘Genius’ award in 2012 for her documentary work, had been harassed on more than 40 occasions when she had come to the US, being interrogated and searched so much and for so long on each occasion that she dreaded returning to her native country and felt safer living and doing her work in Germany. (I wrote about Poitras’s experiences with US immigration authorities back in 2012.) And this was long before she became the primary contact with Snowden who chose her precisely because he respected her work and felt that she could be trusted with his massive trove of documents and serve as his link to Greenwald.

Apparently the Polk ceremony was a good night for NSA bashing. As Rice writes:

If America’s spy agencies were monitoring the ballroom of the Roosevelt Hotel today—and who’s to say they weren’t?—they certainly got an earful. The occasion, the annual George Polk Awards in Journalism, drew an impressive collection of intelligence world scourges.

The award for the NSA leaks closed the show. Greenwald took the stage along with Poitras, Gellman and Ewen MacAskill of the Guardian. Poitras said she was “thankful to the Polk community for giving me a really good excuse to come home,” but said it was “also quite disorienting.” She expressed concern that the specter of prosecution might still hang over herself—and definitely imperils Snowden, living in Russian exile, to whom she dedicated the award. “None of us would be here,” Poitras said, “without the fact that someone decided to sacrifice his life to make this information available.”

Greenwald was more openly confrontational, thanking his fellow honorees as “the people that James Clapper calls my accomplices.” He decried what he described as a government campaign of repression against journalists and their sources. “There are ways to intimidate journalists. You can imprison them en masse but there are other ways to do it,” he said, accusing the government of stoking a “climate of fear.” The Snowden story, he claimed, had exposed this. “The debate we were about to trigger,” he said, “was not just one about surveillance, but one about the proper role of journalism and the relationship between the media and government and other factions that wield great power.”

The US government likely realized that if they did anything to the pair, the uproar would be much greater than the furor created by the British government’s harassment of Greenwald’s partner David Miranda at Heathrow and this was not something they sought to repeat here. (Miranda also accompanied Greenwald and Poitras to the US.)

The fact that the US government let the trio in without harassment and seems likely to leave them alone during their stay here is telling, suggesting that the US government has realized that public opinion is turning decisively against them and they cannot risk losing any more. But while they may have been reluctant this time because they were being watched closely, other lower-profile people will still be harassed.

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