Documentary filmmaker tired of the gub-ment jacking her stuff

Okay, I admit, silly headline for a sort-of serious post. Salon‘s Glenn Greenwald has an interesting piece about Laura Poitras, a documentary filmmaker who has made two documentaries about various aspects of the War on Terror and is working on a third. Basically, every time she re-enters the country, she gets interrogated for hours and has all her equipment siezed and copied. This requires no search warrant, because even though she has never been accused of a crime, the government, from a legal standpoint, is considering all of her equipment (laptop, hard drive, notes, etc.) to be subject to the same kind of search baggage handlers do on your bags.

In 2004 and 2005, Poitras spent many months in Iraq filming a documentary that, as The New York Times put it in its review, “exposed the emotional toll of occupation on Iraqis and American soldiers alike.” The film, “My Country, My Country,” focused on a Sunni physician and 2005 candidate for the Iraqi Congress as he did things like protest the imprisonment of a 9-year-old boy by the U.S. military. At the time Poitras made this film, Iraqi Sunnis formed the core of the anti-American insurgency and she spent substantial time filming and reporting on the epicenter of that resistance. Poitras’ film was released in 2006 and nominated for the 2007 Academy Award for Best Documentary.

As Poitras described it to me, this next film will examine the way in which The War on Terror has been imported onto U.S. soil, with a focus on the U.S. Government’s increasing powers of domestic surveillance, its expanding covert domestic NSA activities (including construction of a massive new NSA facility in Bluffdale, Utah), its attacks on whistleblowers, and the movement to foster government transparency and to safeguard Internet anonymity.[…]

Since 2006, Poitras has left and re-entered the U.S. roughly 40 times. Virtually every time during that period she has returned to the U.S., her plane has been met by DHS agents who stand at the airplane door or tarmac and inspect the passports of every de-planing passenger until they find her. Each time, they detain her, and then interrogate her at length about where she went and with whom she met or spoke.
She has had her laptop, camera and cellphone seized, and not returned for weeks, with the contents presumably copied. On several occasions, her reporter’s notebooks were seized and their contents copied, even as she objected that doing so would invade her journalist-source relationship.[…]

In the past, Poitras has taken notes during the entire interrogation process. […]
[The most recent time, this Thursday], however, she was told by multiple CBP agents that she was prohibited from taking notes on the grounds that her pen could be used as a weapon. After she advised them that she was a journalist and that her lawyer had advised her to keep notes of her interrogations, one of them, CBP agent Wassum, threatened to handcuff her if she did not immediately stop taking notes. A CBP Deputy Chief (Lopez) also told her she was barred from taking notes, and then accused her of “refusing to cooperate with an investigation” if she continued to refuse to answer their questions (he later clarified that there was no “investigation” per se, but only a “questioning”). Requests for comment from the CBP were not returned as of the time of publication.

Poitras is now forced to take extreme steps — ones that hamper her ability to do her work — to ensure that she can engage in her journalism and produce her films without the U.S. Government intruding into everything she is doing. She now avoids traveling with any electronic devices. She uses alternative methods to deliver the most sensitive parts of her work — raw film and interview notes — to secure locations. She spends substantial time and resources protecting her computers with encryption and password defenses. Especially when she is in the U.S., she avoids talking on the phone about her work, particularly to sources. And she simply will not edit her films at her home out of fear — obviously well-grounded — that government agents will attempt to search and seize the raw footage. [Check out the rest of it at Salon]

A number of documentary filmmakers have since signed a petition protesting the Department of Homeland Security’s treatment Poitras, signed by Morgan Spurlock and others.

I’m a bit of two minds on this particular subject. The first is that the knee-jerk “OMG, she’s being profiled!” reaction that so many people have to stories like these is idiotic. Profiling is the first step any law enforcement entity is going to take in order to stop crime. You focus particular attention towards the areas from which crime is most likely to come, it’s just what you do. It’s not only human nature, it’s good practices. To pretend otherwise (making toddlers take their shoes off, etc.) is just wasting time. Israeli security (people who actually have a pretty good track record of stopping attacks) laugh at our bullshit, PR coddling. Most of the “profiling” horror stories aren’t “profiling” at all, but actual crime (illegal searches, assault, extreme force, kidnapping, etc.). We don’t need to call crimes for which there are very specific and concretely-specified definitions “profiling.” Profiling is mostly just a BS buzzword for a-holes on cable news (or Tyler Perry) to argue about all day because it’s vaguely defined and impossible to enforce, much like “bullying.”

And in this case, if the filmmaker has been known to do work with people the government considers terrorists (I realize this is a whole other issue), I’m not surprised she’s getting her stuff searched. Until they close that particular “illegal search and seizure” loophole, it just seems like the cost of doing business.

That said, the government should never be allowed to just seize your shit without cause and keep it for as long as they want, or disseminate it without your permission. That’s when it becomes actual censorship and intimidation, and it’d be nice if the people who did it were as much at risk of prosecution as the searchees.

Yay! Isn’t it awesome when you guys get to hear my opinion about stuff? Guys? ….Guys?