Snowden Documentary Maker Says Government Detained Her 50 Times at Airports

The documentary filmmaker behind “CITIZEN FOUR filed a lawsuit against the U.S. for “Kafkaesque harassment” at airports around the world. Eduardo Munoz/Reuters

The documentary filmmaker behind Citizenfour—the 2015 Oscar-winning film about NSA whistleblower Edward Snowden—filed a lawsuit against the U.S. government on Monday for what she calls "Kafkaesque harassment" at airports around the world.

Laura Poitras, 51, travelled frequently between 2006 and 2012, in order to work on various documentaries. On more than 50 occasions, including each time she returned to the U.S., she was detained, searched, questioned, and screened for hours on end.

During the detentions, airport security agents told Poitras that she either had a criminal record, that her name appeared on a national security threat database, or that she was on the government's No Fly list. She also has had her belongings confiscated and copied, including her laptop, camera, cell phone and reporter notebooks. But Poitras' representation says she has never been charged with a crime and that the searches were conducted without a warrant.

Poitras is demanding the Justice Department, Department of Homeland Security, and the Office of the Director of National Intelligence release the six years worth of records documenting this treatment.

"I'm filing this lawsuit because the government uses the U.S. border to bypass the rule of law," Poitras told the Electronic Frontier Foundation, the digital rights non-profit representing Poitras in her Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) lawsuit. "This simply should not be tolerated in a democracy. I am also filing this suit in support of the countless other less high-profile people who have also been subjected to years of Kafkaesque harassment at the borders. We have a right to know how this system works and why we are targeted."

The detentions stopped in 2012 after journalists like Glenn Greenwald wrote about her treatment and fellow documentary filmmakers submitted a petition to the government protesting its continuation. Poitras first filed her FOIA request for the six years worth of records in 2013. The agencies responded by either denying the records' existence or ignoring her requests.

"We are suing the government to force it to disclose any records that would show why security officials targeted Poitras for six years, even though she had no criminal record and there was no indication that she posed any security risk," said Jamie Lee Williams, an EFF attorney. "By spurning Poitras' FOIA requests, the government leaves the impression that her detentions were a form of retaliation and harassment of a journalist whose work has focused on U.S. policy in the post-9/11 world."

Citizenfour also earned Poitras a shared 2014 Pulitzer for Public Service for NSA reporting.