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artisanal film reviews | by maryann johanson

wtf: documentary filmmaker’s notes copied by government agents

Filmmaker Laura Poitras makes a documentary called The Oath about Abu Jandal, who was once Osama Bin Laden’s bodyguard and is now a cab driver in Yemen. So of course she’s now probably on all sorts of government watchlists, to the point where she often has troubled getting on an airplane.

She’s a journalist, mind. Not a terrorist.

But Poitras recently let drop another tidbit about how her freedom of the press is being intruded upon by the United States government. From Fishbowl LA:

Not only do Customs agents question Poitras as a matter of routine upon her reentry into the United States, they’ve photocopied her reporters notebooks repeatedly.

“I’ve been questioned at airports since 2006 after finishing My Country, My Country,” Poitras tells FBLA. “When I started traveling to Yemen in 2007 is when my papers, including notebooks, were photocopied upon re-entry to the U.S.

“I’ve been questioned over 20 times at airports, though my notes have been copied perhaps 6-8 times. Lately I’ve denied to the photocopying consent which has been respected (although not on my last reentry frying from Toronto — my papers & business cards were copied).”

This is not America. This is America Lite. Same great taste, just without so many of those troubling freedoms.



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  • LaSargenta

    Maybe I’m cynical, but, seriously, it has always been this way.

    Signed,

    Daughter of someone investigated by the local Un-American Activites Committee because of what was borrowed from teh local public library and also daughter of someone who had his office swept for bugs on a regular basis. Yes, bugs were found. I assume I have an FBI file, although they may have decided that I’m a low-enough second-generation risk to not merit the attention.

  • Which of her freedoms have been taken away? The freedom to not be questioned if your travel activities match suspicious patterns that the government is looking out for? From the Times article:

    For security reasons the United States government does not say why people are on the watch list, or even confirm that they are on it. But Ms. Poitras said she thinks it is the frequency of her trips to the Middle East and the associations she has made in the course of making her films that have raised concerns.

    If you travel frequently to the Middle East and make contact with people who have past or current connections to Al Qaeda, I think security agents have the right–the obligation, actually–to ask you why. When their questioning revealed that she was a filmmaker and not a terrorist, they didn’t arrest her or imprison her–they let her go. According to Fishbowl LA, “Poitras says the exchanges are always polite and she’s not questioned when she flies domestically.” And she said herself that, with one exception (and who knows why), the agents respect her wishes when she denies them permission to photocopy her notes. They don’t sound like totalitarian thugs to me.

    I’m sure there are other instances of people’s rights being trampled on contrary to our American ideals, but this doesn’t seem to be one of them.

  • MaryAnn

    Oh, so, it’s all fine because TSA agents are polite and don’t harass her when she flies domestically? Bullshit.

    They aren’t merely asking her questions. *Government agents are copying her notes, her journalistic work!* (They’ve done that 6 to 8 times, not just once.) That’s a horrifying stomp on the freedom of the press. How can a journalist investigate the actions of the federal government if the feds can take her evidence whenever it wants?

    And that’s what her work is: Take a look at the trailer for *The Oath.* She is criticizing the “war on terror.”

    You don’t think that can have a chilling effect on journalism? What other purpose beyond intimidation can there be to the government peeking inside a journalist’s work, especially if that journalist is criticizing the government? Where’s the point at which we’re allowed to complain, if this isn’t it? Do we have to wait until a journalist is actually thrown into Guantanamo?

    Or maybe that wouldn’t matter, either. So many Americans appear not to understand the protections the Constitution affords everyone (NOT just citizens!), so they’re perfectly willing to accept all sorts of things they’d otherwise be outraged about.

    I’m not saying that you don’t understand, Bluejay. But how bad do things have to get before we should get mad about them?

  • Kevin

    This is just another example of the fascist shifts taking place in America. What makes it even more frightening is that the vast majority of Americans don’t even recognize these incidents as fascist shifts or even know what fascists shifts are. Then again, a dictator who rhymes with Hitler once said: “How fortunate for governments that the people they administer don’t think.”

  • I think we have different interpretations of a situation whose particulars we really don’t know. As far as the questioning goes, I just took it to be security agents doing their job: Here’s a person with travel patterns and associations that are similar to those that a terrorist might have. Let’s question her. Oh, she’s not a terrorist. Okay, she can go.

    The copying is definitely iffy, and they did it several times, but I noted that (a) they copied but didn’t confiscate her work–i.e. they didn’t prevent her from doing journalism–and (b) when she started asking them not to do it, they backed off (except for the one time she mentioned, whose details we don’t know).

    I can think of a couple other reasons the government might be interested in a journalist’s notes, besides intimidation: There might be classified information that might compromise certain covert government strategies, or there might be information that’s helpful to the government’s efforts to catch terrorists. I’m not saying it justifies the copying, only that the government’s motivations may not be what we think. Or you may be right, and it’s about intimidation.

    I just think this Administration is trying to strike the right balance and catch terrorists without violating people’s rights–I’m glad there are watchlists, for instance, because they managed to nab the Times Square would-be bomber that way. They don’t always behave perfectly, but I’m not sure that there’s enough evidence to call it malicious and systematic intimidation. It might be a TSA culture of “overabundance of caution,” especially after the Times Square attempt. Maybe it’s inadvertent, and they’ll back off if there’s enough pushback, from Poitras and from vocal critics like yourself. Maybe I’m wrong and just not paying enough attention.

    It’ll be interesting to see how often Poitras’s notes get copied despite her explicit objections, now that she’s started openly denying consent. If they persist in copying, or confiscate her equipment and notes, or if the government lobbies for her films not to be released, I’d probably get mad then.

  • This is just another example of the fascist shifts taking place in America.

    Maybe there’s a way of talking about these things without comparing everything to Hitler. That’s what Glenn Beck does.

  • MaryAnn

    I can think of a couple other reasons the government might be interested in a journalist’s notes, besides intimidation: There might be classified information that might compromise certain covert government strategies, or there might be information that’s helpful to the government’s efforts to catch terrorists.

    Might might might. Surely, then, the government should just be able to do whatever it wants all the time because it *might* prevent a crime.

    If the government has viable suspicions that a journalist has committed a crime, it can go to a judge and get a subpoena or a search warrant. The government does not have the right to confiscate, or even just to copy, the notes of journalist on the basis of hypotheticals.

    I’m glad there are watchlists, for instance, because they managed to nab the Times Square would-be bomber that way.

    Yeah: they caught him AFTER he’d attempting his bombing, because they knew his name at that point! That’s not the purpose of the watchlists, which are supposed to somehow stop people from doing something bad based on the most spurious of reasons, like having a certain name similar to someone who may have done something bad in the past, maybe. As with all bullshit security theater, it treats innocent people like criminals while the actual criminals have easy workarounds.

    They don’t always behave perfectly, but I’m not sure that there’s enough evidence to call it malicious and systematic intimidation.

    The writers of the Constitution understood that the people cannot trust government, and that’s why safeguards to government’s overreaching had to be put in place. We should *expect* the government to be malicious and to intimidate: that’s why we explicitly forbid it from doing so. And that’s why we don’t allow the government to do whatever it wants unless there’s evidence that it’s being malicious.

  • MaryAnn

    (a) they copied but didn’t confiscate her work–i.e. they didn’t prevent her from doing journalism–

    And when the feds listen in on your phone calls or read your email, they’re not preventing you from communicating. So it’s all good, I guess.

    If you knew you were being observed by someone with unlimited power to imprison you forever with no trial and no access to legal representation, would that change what you wrote, or said, or did?

  • JoshB

    Might might might. Surely, then, the government should just be able to do whatever it wants all the time because it *might* prevent a crime.

    You’re indignant because the government might be trying to intimidate this Ms Poitras. There are other possible explanations.

    If the government has viable suspicions that a journalist has committed a crime

    What if they don’t suspect her of a crime?

    Suppose your neighbor was suspected of killing their spouse. Would you consider it unreasonable for the police to question you? “What did you see or hear between the hours of 12 and 1? Did you ever witness them having an argument?” That sort of thing.

    I would agree that the government’s actions here are sketchy, but there’s a big difference between “looks suspicious” and “EVIL!” and personally I don’t feel I have enough information to make that leap.

  • If you knew you were being observed by someone with unlimited power to imprison you forever with no trial and no access to legal representation, would that change what you wrote, or said, or did?

    Okay, good point.

    Here’s what’s interesting and puzzling to me, though: With one exception, they stopped copying her notes when she asked them. Also, she was questioned 20 times, but her notes were copied only 6-8 times, meaning that they weren’t copied 12-14 times.

    What does this mean? Why wasn’t there any consistency? Is it possible that there’s no top-down directive to harass her, just ad hoc decisions by whoever the agent is at the time? Is it possible that they’re unintentionally overreaching–maybe thinking that they’d better have copies of the papers of this “person of interest” to show their superiors and cover their asses–but they stop when she explains who she is and asserts her rights? Maybe that’s why they don’t take her work away or stop her from making her information public in her critical movies? I don’t know. I think these are possibilities.

    I do agree that people should be vigilant and point out sketchy government actions. I’m just not convinced that the government is “targeting” Poitras specifically because of her critical views. Poitras herself isn’t saying that that’s the case, is she?

    How are other journalists covering the “war on terror” being treated? Are the ones who are critical of the Administration being treated differently from those who are supportive?

  • MaryAnn

    I would agree that the government’s actions here are sketchy, but there’s a big difference between “looks suspicious” and “EVIL!” and personally I don’t feel I have enough information to make that leap.

    There’s also a big difference between questioning a journalist who has traveled to a country where terrorism is a problem and copying her notes!

    Suppose your neighbor was suspected of killing their spouse. Would you consider it unreasonable for the police to question you? “What did you see or hear between the hours of 12 and 1? Did you ever witness them having an argument?” That sort of thing.

    That’s not the comparison. The question is: Do the police have the right to search your house without a warrant if your neighbor is killed?

    maybe thinking that they’d better have copies of the papers of this “person of interest” to show their superiors and cover their asses

    And you think this is better? An army of low-paid, undertrained security guards — TSA airport screeners — violate the Constitutional rights of those under their authority, and we should excuse it precisely *because* they are undertrained and low-paid?

    This does not make me feel better.

    Will this be the excuse that a court accepts if these notes are ever used in a criminal action against the journalist? “Well, the TSA agents didn’t have the right to copy the notes, but they didn’t know that, so because they were acting in good faith as far as they knew it, the notes are admissable.”

    Maybe there is “no top-down directive” to harass this journalist. But that’s not really the point. Agents with the full authority of the federal government behind them are copying her notes. How is this not an outrage?

  • and we should excuse it precisely *because* they are undertrained and low-paid?

    I’m not saying we should excuse it. We should definitely call attention to it and demand that they be better-trained and better-paid. I’m saying that to go from this to saying the country is “America Lite…without freedoms” seems a little drastic to me, and suggests a level of deliberate governmental malice that I don’t think is there.

  • …And again, I want to point out that when she asks them not to copy her notes, they don’t copy her notes. They comply with her request. Which suggests to me that they’re not intent on violating her rights.

    If in the future they disregard her requests and copy her notes anyway, that’s a different story.

  • Victor Plenty

    Bluejay, I’m going to have to assume that you haven’t seen this:

    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=K-FIEd_CekM

  • Thanks for the video, Victor. You know, after I typed “I’m glad there are watchlists” and posted, I thought “Naomi Wolf is going to rip my head off for that.” I did read The End of America and went to see Wolf speak in 2008, and I thought she made some very compelling points.

    I know I tend to be biased in favor of Democrats and Democratic administrations, and I’m trying to do better in examining my own biases. I find it interesting that it was easier for me to nod vigorously to Wolf’s arguments about fascist shifts when Bush was in power; conservatives would have said I was paranoid. Now I see Glenn Beck and the Tea Party calling Obama a fascist, and I think they’re paranoid. Where does the truth lie, then?

    Of course I agree that we need to be vigilant against government’s unconstitutional actions. I just wonder if “we’re becoming fascists” is the best way to frame the argument. Now that I hear the rightwingers using it, it doesn’t seem as appealing to me.

  • JoshB

    Now I see Glenn Beck and the Tea Party calling Obama a fascist, and I think they’re paranoid. Where does the truth lie, then?

    If you’re into hyperbole but still want to be in the ballpark of correctness then Democrats/liberals are communists and Republicans/conservatives are fascists. Calling liberals fascist just means you failed Political Science, which, uh, Glenn Beck, yeeeeeeaaaahhhh….

  • I’ve been thinking more about this, and in light of the Supreme Court’s decision regarding Miranda rights, I’ve reconsidered my position on this notes-copying question. Whatever the situation–whether it’s being questioned at the airport or interrogated in prison–people should be entitled to their rights without having to expressly invoke them. To have it be otherwise is absolutely cause for outrage–because outrage may be the only response strong enough to ensure we don’t gradually lose our freedoms by attrition. (And I’m embarrassed that this wasn’t clear to me a whole lot sooner.)

    You’re right about this, MaryAnn, and I retract my argument.

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