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How a Snowdenista Kept the NSA Leaker Hidden in a Moscow Airport - Vogue 20150219

How a Snowdenista Kept the NSA Leaker Hidden in a Moscow Airport - Vogue 20150219

Sarah Harrison WikiLeaks Editor
Since spiriting NSA leaker Edward Snowden to safety in Russia two years ago, activist and WikiLeaks editor Sarah Harrison has lived quietly in Berlin. Sara Corbett meets the woman some regard as a political heroine—others as an accomplice to treason.

Moscow’s Sheremetyevo Airport is, like so many international airports, a sprawling and bland place. It has six terminals, four Burger Kings, a sweep of shops selling duty-free caviar, and a rivering flow of anonymous travelers—all of them headed out or headed in or, in any event, never planning to stay long. But for nearly six weeks in the summer of 2013, the airport also housed two fugitives: Edward Snowden, the NSA contractor who had just off-loaded an explosive trove of top-secret U.S. government documents to journalists, and a 31-year-old British woman named Sarah Harrison, described as a legal researcher who worked for the online organization WikiLeaks.

It was a tableau sprung from a spy novel—a turncoat intelligence contractor on the lam with an enigmatic blonde by his side. Snowden had based himself in Hong Kong for several weeks as his disclosures about government surveillance ripped across the global media. When the U.S. charged him under the Espionage Act on June 14, an extradition order was sent to Hong Kong. But it came too late: Before anybody made a move to capture him, Edward Snowden—led by Sarah Harrison—had quietly boarded a flight to Moscow and basically vanished.

Their whereabouts at Sheremetyevo became a mystery. There was no sign of them at the lone hotel inside the terminal area, which rented out tiny “capsule” rooms for about $15 per hour. Nor did they turn up for a flight they’d booked to Havana, where reportedly they had planned to catch a plane to South America. In the meantime, the United States revoked Snowden’s passport. Word quickly spread that the world’s most wanted man was stuck inside the airport’s transit zone, unable to leave Russia and also, without a visa, unable to stay.

‘Sarah refuses to allow intimidation to shape her decisions,’ comments Snowden. ‘If you forced her to choose between disowning her principles or being burned at the stake, I think she’d hand you a match’

As questions swirled about Snowden, the mysterious Sarah Harrison almost escaped notice. A gossipy Washington Post item claimed she was “a product of a posh British boarding school.” It also repeated a widely circulated rumor that she was, at least at one time, the girlfriend of Julian Assange, WikiLeaks’ controversial Australian founder. Old file photos showed Harrison to be strikingly attractive, with long, ringleted hair and a vivid, gap-toothed smile.

If her job was to help keep Snowden safe and hidden, she did it masterfully. For 39 days, the two managed to camp out in the airport transit zone, foiling the media hordes trying to find them. TV crews patrolled the restaurants and pay-to-enter VIP lounges. Reporters grilled airport staff about what they knew, which was invariably nothing. “I’ve spent up to eighteen hours a day beyond passport control and security looking for Snowden,” an ABC News employee reported glumly in a blog post a week into the hunt. “There is an irrational fear, even late at night, that the moment I call it quits he’ll come strolling down the hall. . . .”

And then on August 1, 2013, Snowden did exactly that. Appearing shy and pale, he strolled down a hallway and exited Sheremetyevo, having been granted a yearlong asylum by Russia. By his side was the portly Muscovite lawyer who’d assisted with the asylum effort and also Harrison, wearing leggings and a black tank top, grinning broadly. Where or how they’d subsisted in the airport remained a secret. For the next three months, Harrison stayed on in Moscow with Snowden, the two of them living in an undisclosed location before finally, late in 2013, without a lot of fanfare, she moved to Berlin, saying that her lawyers had advised her against returning to the U.K., where she could be detained under the country’s sweeping antiterrorism laws.

One might assume Harrison would have gone on to do a splashy network TV interview or pen one of those “I was there” books about shepherding Snowden through what had to count as one of the most perilous and closely watched legal limbos in recent history. But she didn’t. She remained relatively quiet, resuming her work for WikiLeaks. Harrison, it turns out, is very, very careful about what she says. To hear her story, you have to go find her.

I first meet Harrison late on a November afternoon at a café in central Berlin. Dressed in faded jeans, a leather jacket, and fawn-colored boots, she sits at a small outdoor table with a cup of hot coffee, impervious to the chill in the air. She has broad cheekbones, a frank blue-eyed gaze, and wavy russet-colored hair, which she keeps pulled back from her face with a clip. She laughs frequently and robustly, which is a little surprising, given that she’s often talking about sobering things like government surveillance and freedom of information.

Our get-together has taken months to arrange. Harrison, whose work has helped shake governments and shape world events, is not easy to reach. There’s no contact information for her on the WikiLeaks Web site, where her job title is now “investigations editor.” She’s also one of the founders and the director of a newly formed whistle-blower-protection organization called the Courage Foundation, but there’s no email listed for her there, either. She’s not on Twitter or Facebook or Linked­In, nor does she own a phone. I’d connected with her, finally, through a mutual acquaintance who’d agreed to forward an email, which then led to a protracted back and forth.

Now that we’re face-to-face, she politely makes two requests: She’d like me not to name places where we meet and also not to reveal the brand of laptop she uses, because it could make her more vulnerable to getting hacked. She explains that the bars and restaurants she hangs out in are frequented by other members of Berlin’s burgeoning community of privacy and civil liberties activists—“Snowdenistas,” they’ve been called—including American filmmaker Laura Poitras, whose documentary about Snowden, Citizenfour, is a strong contender for an Academy Award. It’s a close-knit circle of people who look out for one another carefully, and this extends to keeping potential eavesdroppers out of the group’s preferred watering holes.

Harrison smiles, knowing she can come off as a bit paranoid. “It’s better to err on the side of caution,” she says with a shrug. To this end, she’s taught her parents and close friends how to use encrypted email. And because mobile phones can be used to track a person’s location, she hasn’t carried one in years. (“You just get used to it,” she says.) She doesn’t necessarily believe she’s being monitored in real time, but given her association with Snowden, who has been charged with multiple felonies in the U.S., and her work with WikiLeaks, helping to release hundreds of thousands of classified documents mostly provided by whistle-blowers, she says that when it comes to government intelligence agencies, “I’m obviously a person of interest.”

The work she does requires a meticulous attention to detail and strong nerves. Much of Harrison’s time goes to verifying the authenticity of documents passed on to WikiLeaks and writing reports on their contents, which get published on the Web site alongside the raw material—often over the howls of government officials. These document releases have been delicate and controversial, shedding light on everything from civilian casualties in Iraq to U.S. policies for detainees at Guantanamo Bay and the specifics of CIA assassination programs.

In many ways, Harrison seems born for the job. As a child, she was a compulsively organized bookworm who kept her shelves ordered both alphabetically and by category. She was also politically emboldened early: Around the age of eight, she fired off a letter to Britain’s prime minister, John Major, offering suggestions on how he might address homelessness. (She got a friendly form letter in return.) The daughter of a retail-industry executive and a literacy specialist, she went on to attend a private school in Kent and then punctuated her university studies in London with long breaks to travel, especially through Asia and Australia, supporting herself by waitressing and freelance jobs. It was the travel, she says, that introduced her to the world’s vast inequities and planted the idea that she could apply her fastidiousness to a larger cause. Back in London in 2008, she took an internship at the nonprofit Centre for Investigative Journalism, quickly distinguishing herself as a skilled researcher.

When Julian Assange went to England in the summer of 2010 and contacted the center’s director, asking for help making an archive of 75,000 documents from the Afghan war available to select media outlets, Harrison volunteered immediately. What was supposed to be a two-week job quickly evolved into a staff position. She became indispensable to Assange, as a confidante and right-hand person.

Though some suggest a romantic liaison, Harrison won’t confirm whether she was—or is—involved with Assange. “We’ve never commented on that,” she says with just a hint of frostiness. She admits to being half-entertained and half-offended by the way she’s been described in the media—seeing words likeschoolgirl, companion, and lover used in headlines. Some of it seems overtly sexist, and some driven by how little is actually known about her. There have been reports that while in England, Harrison did Assange’s laundry and that, with her cheery demeanor and disarming laugh, she helped smooth over his often-prickly interactions with the press. When Harrison surfaced by Edward Snowden’s side in Moscow, an Italian paper wondered aloud if she might be a twenty-first-century Mata Hari. “I think, because there was such a void of information, the only way the press could speak about me was to identify me by the men I worked with,” she says lightly. “And sometimes they did it in quite a snarky way.”

These days, Harrison lives something of a double life in a leafy gentrified area in East Berlin, wedged between the more modernized urban center and the concrete-slab tenements left over from the city’s Stalinist era. Still an avid reader, she’s a fan of Murakami and lately has been reading novels about the French Resistance. In the evenings, she sometimes hits yoga classes or meets friends for drinks, but her days are spent largely on her computer at home alone. She and Assange remain in regular touch professionally, though they haven’t seen each other in nearly two years. Both are limited in their movements. Harrison doesn’t plan to return to England until the terrorism laws are changed. Meanwhile, Assange has spent more than two years wanted for questioning in Sweden, where he’s been accused of sexually assaulting two women during a trip there in 2010, just after Harrison met him. (Assange, who hasn’t been charged with a crime, insists the allegations are false and part of a broader conspiracy to damage his reputation. Harrison dismisses the case as “deeply politicized.”)

WikiLeaks, of course, has plenty of critics—those who maintain that classified documents are classified for good reason. But Harrison feels otherwise: “Members of the public should know what their government is doing,” she says simply. Though WikiLeaks has a small staff and operates on a shoestring (a number of prominent financial organizations, including Visa, MasterCard, and PayPal, refuse to process donations to the group), it has managed to provoke large institutional adversaries, most notably the U.S. government. There’s a nimbleness that comes with being small, Harrison tells me. “Sometimes it’s easier to be a rowboat than a tanker ship.”

Just then, a waitress sets a fresh cup of steaming coffee on the table. Harrison, who has been speaking rapid-fire for nearly an hour, pauses to smile warmly and say thanks. The waitress is about her age and an English-speaker. She gestures at Harrison’s cup. “How many is this?” she says in a teasing voice. “Four?” Harrison bursts out laughing. For all her worries about privacy, it’s her caffeine intake that’s being monitored.

“It’s three,” she tells the waitress, waving a hand and pretending to be chastened. “And I’m stopping here.”

That evening, we walk to a nearby office for a meeting with two of the Courage Foundation’s Berlin-based advisory-committee members—Renata Avila, a Guatemalan human rights lawyer, and Andy Müller-Maguhn, a well-known German “hacktivist.” In a small conference room borrowed from another nonprofit, Harrison flips open her laptop and starts briskly running through her agenda. Pinned to the wall behind her is a poster of Che Guevara.

The Courage Foundation is still very much in a grassroots stage, with fund-raising being an obvious and immediate goal. Harrison is in the process of developing a network of people—an Underground Railroad of sorts—that can mobilize quickly to shield a whistle-blower at risk. She also plans to set up an advisory system for journalists to improve their online security and better protect their sources. Harrison reports to the group that she has been organizing a statement in support of Snowden, which would be published the following week, signed by celebrities like Susan Sarandon, M.I.A., and Alfonso Cuarón. She’s also actively recruiting new advisory-board members, the most recent among them Nadya Tolokonnikova and Masha Alekhina of the Russian punk group Pussy Riot.

Much of the conversation with Avila and Müller-Maguhn involves strategizing about who else might join their cause. Someone mentions that Lady Gaga once came for tea with Assange at the Ecuadoran embassy—maybe she could be approached? There’s also discussion of how to customize the foundation’s basic Web site to quickly tell any new whistle-blower’s story, including a tab for accepting donations. It’s a lesson Harrison learned at the Moscow airport, trying to help set up a defense fund for Snowden: Scrambling only makes things difficult. Next time a figure like Snowden emerges—and they seem convinced there will be a next time—they want to mobilize in an instant. “We already have bank accounts set up,” she tells the others, sounding confident. “We can go within a matter of days, if not hours. . . .”

Edward Snowden’s arrival into Sarah Harrison’s life in June 2013 was not unlike his arrival on the world scene—which is to say mind-spinningly sudden. Harrison was in Melbourne, Australia, on WikiLeaks business. Assange, who had been in touch with Snowden, called her on a Monday morning. Given the time difference, “I thought he was talking about the mountain in Wales,” Harrison admits, referring to Mount Snowdon, a legendary peak in the U.K. As Melbourne was relatively close to Hong Kong and Harrison had a working knowledge of the city, she was dispatched immediately and secretly to canvass foreign embassies to see which countries might be amenable to granting Snowden asylum.

She laughs, recalling the moment she flew to Hong Kong, saying she left half her luggage in Melbourne, thinking she’d return shortly. Meanwhile, nearly two years later, she hasn’t been back, nor has she gone to England, where the rest of her belongings reside. “I’ve got clothes everywhere,” she says.

Harrison says that for the thirteen days in Hong Kong, she consulted with various lawyers about the complexities of Snowden’s situation, and Assange, meanwhile, worked his connections in the Ecuadoran government to obtain diplomatic protection for the NSA leaker’s travels. WikiLeaks, she says, booked more than a dozen different flights for Harrison and Snowden, hoping to throw off any pursuers. “We also got Snowden to buy a ticket to India on his own credit card,” Harrison says. “We were working very hard to lay as many false trails as possible.” It was an excruciatingly anxious time. “I just kept hoping the tickets would be OK’d,” she says. She passed her parents’ phone number on to one of the lawyers, asking that they be contacted if something went wrong.

“She really put herself on the line,” says Laura Poitras, who filmed Snowden in his hotel room until the day after he revealed his identity publicly, at which point she had to back off in order not to jeopardize him. “I was being tailed,” she says. “The risks became very great.” Harrison had the right mix of steeliness and conviction to get him out of Hong Kong. “She’s extremely intelligent,” Poitras says, “and tenacious. And very motivated by her principles.”

Harrison says she didn’t actually meet Snowden until they climbed into a car together on Sunday morning to head to the airport. Harrison was dressed in jeans and flip-flops. Snowden, too, looked casual. The idea was that they might pass for a young couple headed off on vacation. On the drive, they said very little. “I was just so nervous and concentrated on the next steps,” she remembers.

They boarded the Moscow-bound Aeroflot plane, and it wasn’t until the plane was airborne that Snowden turned to her and spoke what was almost his first complete sentence: “I didn’t expect that WikiLeaks was going to send a ninja to get me out.”

Harrison says that she and Snowden disembarked in Moscow and went to check in for their next flight, which is when they learned of his canceled passport. Citing “security reasons,” she won’t provide specific details about where they stayed during the days that ensued, saying only that they shared a single, windowless room, did their laundry in the sink, watched movies on their laptops, and quickly grew tired of airport food. “If I have to ever eat another Burger King meal, I’ll die,” she says. The intimacy of the situation may have been uncomfortable, but it was also deliberate. “If anything untoward happened to him, I was there as a witness,” Harrison says, adding that WikiLeaks, with its ability to reach a vast global audience, served as a form of protection. “We would have made sure that the world knew.” She claims to have wandered the airport terminals freely, despite the roving media. “For girls, it’s a bit easier to fit in,” she tells me, saying that putting her curly hair into a bun served as enough of a disguise.

Harrison describes having a collegial friendship with Snowden. What pains her most are the accusations that he betrayed his country. Both she and Snowden have said that he was approached by Russian intelligence agents during their time at Sheremetyevo, but that he turned them away. “The last thing in the world he is,” Harrison says, “is a traitor and a spy.” She jokingly describes how Snowden quoted the U.S. Constitution so often in their conversations about the NSA’s overreaching programs that it ultimately grew annoying. “It got to the point where I was like, ‘All right, all right, the Constitution!’ ” More seriously she adds, “He’s the strongest patriot of any American I’ve ever met.”

Jacob Appelbaum, an American journalist and computer-security researcher who is based in Berlin, says that Harrison is something of an unsung hero. “She really saved Snowden’s life,” he says, noting that she’s now “basically in exile” in Berlin. “It’s a heavy price to pay.”

Snowden himself is aware that it was, in part, Harrison’s commitment to his cause that got him out of peril. In an email sent from Russia, he tells me that his lawyers initially informed him that it was dangerous for anybody at all to help him, that “anyone within a three-mile radius is going to get hammered.” But still, Harrison stepped forward. She could have left Moscow at any time but chose instead to stay—not for days or even weeks but for months. This, according to Snowden, is in keeping with her character. “In the face of very real risks, Sarah refuses to allow intimidation to shape her decisions,” he writes. “If you forced her to choose between disowning her principles or being burned at the stake, I think she’d hand you a match.”

On my final night in Berlin, I join Harrison for the German premiere ofCitizenfour, which is held in a beautiful theater near Alexanderplatz and packed with people from Berlin’s tech and activist communities. Among them, Harrison, wearing a skirt and a pair of dangly earrings, is a minor celebrity, accepting hugs and handshakes. Laura Poitras is also on hand, looking modest and a bit drained. The film has already had premieres in London, Los Angeles, and New York, and is due to air on HBO at the end of February.

If there’s cynicism in the Berlin crowd regarding Snowden, it’s impossible to detect. Germany, in general, has shown more receptivity to Snowden’s cause than other countries, particularly the U.S., where opinions remain divided. There are reports of German homes displaying signs that read, i have a bed for ed.

As the theater lights dim, Harrison puts on a pair of eyeglasses and sinks down in her seat. Someone hands her a glass of champagne, which she sips slowly in the darkness as the film starts to roll, and after a time, Edward Snowden’s face appears on the screen. The film is shot almost entirely inside a Hong Kong hotel room. Snowden comes across as thoughtful, intelligent, committed, and also under mounting duress. It leaves off at almost precisely the moment Harrison steps in.

Next to me, Harrison says nothing until the movie is over and the audience is applauding wildly, clearly won over by the whistle-blower’s audacity. When I ask if the man on-screen reflects the man with whom she went on to spend four months, whose plight decidedly changed her own, she nods her head. “That’s him,” she says. “Exactly.” Earlier, she’d told me that part of the reason she stayed with Snowden was to help him become a symbol, to demonstrate to others that it’s possible to speak out and still live freely. There was a touch of triumph in her voice as she said it. “I’m not saying Snowden’s got the best situation in the world,” she said. “But basically, he’s free.”

Oscar-winning documentarian Laura Poitras is emerging, carefully, into the spotlight - Vogue 20160127

Oscar-winning documentarian Laura Poitras is emerging, carefully, into the spotlight - Vogue 20160127

Laura Poitras
Laura Poitras in her New York studio.

The sky over Yemen at 1:30 a.m. is dark and still, a vault of deep blackness brushed with a faint smattering of stars. Sprawled on an office chair beneath it, the filmmaker Laura Poitras stares upward, taking in the view.

Yemen’s a complicated place, a flash point in America’s war on terror and currently in the throes of a devastating civil war. Poitras lived there for a while, in a small apartment in the middle of Sana’a, the capital city, filming her 2010 documentary, The Oath. She’d spent much of her adult life in New York, but after 9/11, as so many artists and journalists examined what the attacks had done to America, Poitras picked up her camera and set off to explore what 9/11—or, more accurately, America’s response to it—was doing to the rest of the world. Her work has taken her to Iraq, to Guantánamo Bay, and perhaps most famously to Hong Kong in 2013, where she spent eight tense days holed up in a hotel room with Edward Snowden, filming him up close and in real time as he went from an anonymous computer nerd to the world’s most wanted fugitive. Her filmCitizenfour swept the awards season last year, culminating in an Oscar win.

Poitras is once again in New York, having moved back to the city after several years basing herself out of Berlin. We’re in her studio, a few blocks from the Hudson River, peering at the sky in Yemen. It’s a sunny afternoon, but the window shades have been drawn against the light, so that a live video feed from Sana’a can be projected clearly onto a ceiling-mounted screen. Dressed casually in a black cotton shirt, jeans, and sneakers, Poitras, who is 51, leans back in her chair. The sky-cam is an experiment. She is putting together her first major art exhibition, which will occupy the top floor of the Whitney Museum of American Art beginning this month. The exhibit includes a number of short films but is primarily a series of immersive installations, designed almost as a walk-through narrative about the world post 9/11. One idea is to project onto the museum’s ceiling overhead views from parts of the world where the U.S. drone program is active. “I’m interested in going back to these themes of the war on terror,” Poitras says. “What does it mean? How can we understand it on more human terms?”

Laura Poitras Anarchist: Satellite Feed With Doppler Track (Intercepted May 28, 2009)
An image of intercepted satellite data from Poitras’s Whitney show. Laura Poitras, Anarchist: Satellite Feed With Doppler Track (Intercepted May 28, 2009), (detail), 2016. Inkjet print. Photo: © Laura Poitras/Praxis Films, New York / Courtesy of the artist

The studio is a large concrete-floored room filled primarily with computer equipment. In a cluttered corner, sitting on a file cabinet, is a bronze BAFTA Award looking as if nobody has given it a second thought. Pretty much everyone I speak with about Poitras tells me that she is a seven-day-a-week worker, someone who is both too humble and too driven to pause and survey her achievements, which in addition to her raft of film awards includes a Pulitzer Prize and a MacArthur “genius grant.” “I’m pretty obsessive,” Poitras says, referring to her marathon workweeks and myriad projects, “but these are good problems to have.”

Poitras feels strongly that the U.S. government, through a number of secretive anti-terror programs and a lack of Congressional oversight, has done more to breed the kind of anti-American sentiment that fuels terrorism than to squelch it. “I really think that the war on terror makes us less safe,” she tells me. “Look at something like ISIS. ISIS emerged out of the power vacuum that we created in the Iraq War.” She cites as evidence everything from the use of torture at Guantánamo to the top-secret drone assassination program that’s put unmanned, buzzing aircraft in the skies over places like Yemen, Pakistan, and Somalia. “It creates a completely unstable world,” she says.

A lot of people think, Oh, the Snowden story is a great story that any journalist would want to get ahold of. But it didn’t feel that way then. I was seriously scared LAURA POITRAS

Her work could be seen as attempting, again and again, to redirect the American gaze. Her film My Country, My Country offered a stirring look at the life of an Iraqi doctor running for political office in Baghdad. The Oath told parallel stories of a former jihadist living freely in Yemen while his brother-in-law languished in Guantánamo. Lately she’s focused on drones. Drone strikes aimed at terrorists, Poitras will tell you, have killed scores of civilians. The first day I meet Poitras in October, the Intercept, the online media organization she founded in 2014 with journalists Glenn Greenwald and Jeremy Scahill, has just published an explosive series of stories about the U.S. drone program. Among its chief revelations is a leaked military review showing that nearly 90 percent of people killed in drone strikes in Afghanistan were “not the intended target.” And while Scahill is out making the rounds on cable talk shows, while Greenwald offers a stream of spitfire outrage on Twitter, Poitras is attempting to hit a deeper vein—that of human empathy. In putting video of Yemen on the ceiling of the Whitney Museum, she’s quietly inviting Americans to consider skies that are not their own.

“Artists have always dealt with the critical issues of their time,” says the Whitney’s director, Adam Weinberg. “And Laura Poitras knows the issues firsthand.” She’s titled the exhibition “Astro Noise,” which is also the nickname Edward Snowden gave to the massive file of leaked documents he sent her in 2013, which landed in her life with the force of a meteor. Weinberg predicts that the exhibition will serve as a lightning rod for public discourse. “You’ll have people on one end of the spectrum who’ll say it’s not radical enough,” he says, “and another side feeling like it’s an incredible breach of national security.”

Later that evening, Poitras sits in a low-lit Japanese restaurant in SoHo, sipping a green-tea mojito and mulling over all that’s happened in the last two years. “To be quite honest, I don’t think I’ve taken the time to take a breath,” she says. She seems a bit stunned, like a diver who’s only just surfaced. “In retrospect, a lot of people think, Oh, the Snowden story is a great story that any journalist would want to get ahold of,” she says. “But it didn’t feel that way then. I was seriously scared.”

Poitras has flowing dark hair and gray-green eyes that are wide and watchful. In conversation, she’s thoughtful and earnest, laughing often but never appearing fully relaxed. The restaurant is dim enough that, tucked into a corner, she’s hardly visible. Which, it would seem, is how she likes it. Poitras is a dialed-down presence in any room, soft-spoken and unshowy, almost invariably dressed in black. Twice now, I’ve attended premieres of her films—crowded, celebratory affairs meant to be all about her—and each time she seemed deliberately to get lost in the crowd. “With my work, being under the radar is sort of a good thing,” she tells me.

There’s a distinct irony to this, of course. These days, there’s little chance of her staying under the radar. If she was once a respected but little-known documentarian, Poitras—post-Snowden—has become a powerful force in both film and news media. Through the Intercept, she recently launched a bold new outlet that funds and posts short-form documentaries (“visual journalism” is how she refers to it), called “Field of Vision.” At the New York Film Festival in late September, she previewed her next film project, Asylum, which has been edited into thirteen short episodes and chronicles the plight of controversial WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange, whom Poitras has been filming off and on since 2011.

All the while, she continues to work with a small team of journalists, divining information from the seemingly inexhaustible Snowden archive. “I still feel an intense obligation to report on it,” Poitras says, adding that there’s pressure to handle the material responsibly, to weigh which government secrets are important for the public to know and which are best left undisclosed. Her colleague Glenn Greenwald—whose reporting from Hong Kong introduced the world to NSA spying—says that the archive represents “both a massive opportunity but also a very heavy burden” for Poitras, adding that “Laura is one of the most creative, passionate, intense, and complicated people I’ve ever met.” And while Greenwald is verbose and comfortable in the spotlight, Poitras seems bent on keeping a lower profile. “She has this profound regard for art and its ability to enlighten and move people,” he says. “She channels all of that into her filmmaking rather than into polemics or words.”

Laura Poitras
Poitras’s exhibition at the Whitney Museum, “Astro Noise,” opens February 5. Pictured, the filmmaker capturing footage of the construction of an NSA data repository in 2011. Photo: Conor Provenzano / Courtesy of Whitney Museum of American Art

When she was a child growing up in an affluent suburb of Boston, Poitras says, she was quiet and serious, interested in art at an early age. Her father was a computer programmer at a hospital, her mother a registered nurse. She attended a private school that emphasized student-led learning. “There was a lot of unstructured time, which allowed me to develop my senses creatively,” she says. As a teen, she often escaped into the city to see live music (David Bowie, Talking Heads) and movies (A Clockwork Orange, Taxi Driver) at art houses.

By the time she was twelve, she had fallen in love with cooking. After finishing high school, she worked for a number of years as a sous-chef in prominent French restaurants—first in Boston, then in San Francisco. “I loved the challenge,” she says now. “I loved the creativity. I loved the fact that every day you had to make something new.” It was also, she adds, good training for the quick-paced, high-stress filmmaking she would later do. In her free time, she took classes at the San Francisco Art Institute, drawn to experimental, avant-garde film. Eventually, she relocated to New York, studying political theory and media studies at the New School. Nowadays, Poitras enjoys eating a great meal but doesn’t often cook herself, finding it too stressful. “I go into work mode,” she says with a laugh. “I take it too seriously. It’s not relaxing at all.”

Poitras was 35 years old when she embarked on her first long-form documentary, collaborating with a filmmaker named Linda Goode Bryant on Flag Wars, which followed a conflict over gentrification in a traditionally African-American neighborhood of Columbus, Ohio. The film aired on PBS in 2003 and was nominated for an Emmy. More important, it was a revelation for Poitras about what she wanted to do with her life. “It was a very profound experience,” she says. “I learned that I actually love filming people, being with them for these long periods of time, in moments of uncertainty, not knowing what will happen.”

She and Goode Bryant were in the midst of editing Flag Wars when the September 11 attacks took place. Poitras was living on 101st Street and remembers walking in the morning to work, unaware of what was happening. Her first inkling came when she passed a homeless person on the street, who looked at her and said, “The world is ending.” She was moved by the outpouring of compassion that flowed through the city. “It was actually a very profound time to be in New York,” she says. But later, as the drumbeat for the Iraq war picked up, she felt the stirrings of genuine alarm. “I had a real sense that we were moving in a direction that was really dangerous,” she says. “That was when I realized I wanted to say something about it.”

In her films, Poitras is mostly invisible, dedicated to the let-it-happen style of cinema vérité. Her steeliness behind the camera is legendary. Diane Weyermann, executive vice president for documentaries at Participant Media and one of the producers on Citizenfour, remembers seeing My Country, My Country, which received an Academy Award nomination. Poitras had moved herself to Baghdad in the summer of 2004, as the insurgency was beginning, spending much of her time in the home of Dr. Riyadh al-Adhadh, who is profiled in the film, and in the homes of other Iraqis. “There’s this moment when she’s filming and a bomb goes off—an explosion,” says Weyermann. “And the camera doesn’t move. The people in the kitchen all jump up and run, but Laura doesn’t. It was that moment, that scene, that made me understand what a singular talent she is.”

Snowden also recognized Poitras’s grit. He contacted her after seeing a short documentary she’d made about William Binney, a whistle-blower who left the NSA in 2001. She was one of few journalists well versed in digital security at the time. For reasons she didn’t understand, Poitras had been put on a terrorism-related watch list by the U.S. government. Over the course of several years, she was detained and questioned more than 40 times at airports, having her notes photocopied and at one point, a laptop confiscated, which led her to start securing her communications and eventually to move from New York to Berlin, where she felt less compromised.

When a message arrived from an anonymous source calling himself Citizen Four, she worried it was a trap. “I had immediate ‘alert’ instincts,” Poitras says now. “I thought, This is dangerous. And it was.”

She and Snowden corresponded with mutual caution for several months. Knowing the stakes were high, she limited contact with friends, moved to a new apartment, and stopped carrying a cell phone, knowing it could be used to track her location. She played out different scenarios in her head, including one in which she went to jail in order to protect her then-anonymous source. The anxiety was crushing. Her eyes twitched; her throat felt clenched. She did yoga to try to stay calm. “I’m battling with my nervous system,” she wrote in her journal at the time. “It doesn’t let me rest or sleep.”

Earlier that day, Poitras allowed me to read excerpts of the journal she kept in Berlin, which she has decided, after some hesitation, to publish in the catalog accompanying the Whitney exhibition. The journal entries reveal both a churning intellect (“What is this film really about? It might be about the courage to resist power . . . ”), bouts of what seems like depression (“I don’t feel good or grounded. I’m off-balance”), and a mounting sense of paranoia.

The decision to publish the journal feels significant. Poitras is unswervingly guarded when it comes to her private life. She will speak animatedly about films she loves (the documentary Man on Wire, the HBO miniseries The Jinx), artists who’ve inspired her (American photographer Trevor Paglen), or books that have given her insight (George Orwell’s 1984). But pose any sort of question about her life outside of work, and you are likely to be met with a gentle smackdown, usually in the form of “I’d rather not say.”

Our conversation begins to take on a kind of comic push-pull as Poitras declines to give details, even when the details—it seems to me—are harmless. She won’t tell me which part of Berlin she lived in, whether her journal was a bound or spiral notebook, whether she wrote in it with pen. She doesn’t want to discuss her family, her relationship status, or what she does in her free time. “I’ve never talked about my private life,” she says. “I feel like that’s private.” After this comes a long silence.

Perhaps this is the residue of being surveilled. Perhaps it’s an inbred cautiousness—a deep, protective impulse that’s kept her safe and productive through years of working in high-risk environments. Poitras tells me she doesn’t much enjoy being well known. “I don’t love it when someone comes up to me in a coffee shop,” she says, almost sheepishly. She also recognizes that there’s something “ungenerous,” as she puts it, in being a filmmaker who finds her way into the inner sanctum of other people’s lives, but insists on keeping prying outsiders out of her own. Nonetheless, the line holds.

“I feel bad,” she says finally, acknowledging all the things she won’t tell me.

“I feel bad, too,” I say, acknowledging all the things I want to know.

Poitras assumes that she’s still “of interest” to intelligence agencies. She recently sued the federal government to obtain records of her various detentions at airports, receiving 800-plus pages, some of which she intends to hang on the walls of the Whitney. Reading the documents, she discovered that a secret grand jury was convened in 2007 to investigate her on charges of conspiracy, stemming from a day in Iraq when U.S. soldiers spotted Poitras on a Baghdad rooftop holding a camera and apparently deemed it suspicious. (Poitras says any suggestion she abetted Iraqi insurgents is spurious.) “That was definitely shocking,” she says. It’s unclear what the grand jury’s ultimate findings were, but she’s no longer hassled at airports. She’s also relaxed her guard enough to start carrying an iPhone. Happy to be back in New York, she often meets friends for dinner and turns up regularly at documentary-film premieres and art openings. It all seems to be part of the post-Snowden resurfacing. When I ask if it feels good to have a cell phone again, Poitras laughs. “No, but it feels practical,” she says. “I mean, for a long time, I was very hard to reach.”

As the backstory to the Snowden affair has grown more public, Poitras has taken on the glimmer of an icon. The latest season of the TV show Homeland, for example, is set in Berlin and features hackers, government agents, top-secret leaked documents, and a hard-driving journalist named Laura. Everyone from theWall Street Journal to The New York Times has noted the parallel to Poitras. When I mention this to her, she flares her eyelids as if to say, “Can you believe it?” but offers no comment.

“It’s gotten surreal,” says Brenda Coughlin, a producer at Poitras’s film company who’s working closely with her on the Whitney exhibition. “Her life has changed dramatically, and I think that’s weird for her.” Last year, during a visit to Hong Kong, Poitras stayed at the Mira Hotel, where she first filmed Snowden. Stepping onto an elevator one day, she bumped into actor Zachary Quinto and a Hollywood film crew working on the Oliver Stone version of the Snowden story, due out this spring, featuring Joseph Gordon-Levitt as Snowden, Quinto as Greenwald, and Melissa Leo playing the role of Poitras. (Poitras is not involved with the film.)

Hollywood remains a strange kind of otherworld. Several colleagues told me stories of Poitras doing red-carpet interviews at awards shows, patiently enduring questions about her wardrobe while also talking, in the least obnoxious way possible, about civil liberties. “It’s always a contradictory experience,” Poitras says with a laugh. “I’ve been nominated twice now [for Academy Awards], both times for films about dark and depressing events. And then you have to get all dressed up and go.” Her go-to designer, she adds, is German Annette Görtz. Poitras accepted her Oscar last year with a nervous, gracious dignity, thanking her many collaborators but also taking the opportunity to remind the audience that Snowden’s revelations exposed what she sees as not just “a threat to our privacy but to our democracy itself.”

She and her Citizenfour crew then practically closed down the Vanity Fair after-party. The mood was celebratory, but what she felt, more than anything, was relief. “There were so many potential bad outcomes for so many people,” she says now. “It was pretty extraordinary that this was the outcome.” Coughlin recalls sitting on a couch at 4:00 a.m. next to Poitras and her Oscar. “I turned to her and had a kind of ‘Holy shit’ moment, like, ‘Look at where you are. You could have been in jail, or you could be at the Vanity Fair Oscar party!’ ”

Despite the hubbub and occasional glitz of the last year, Poitras remains solidly devoted to documentary filmmaking. “It’s a way to express who people are and also bigger things—what situation they are in—and that’s really powerful,” she says. “I love it. Like, I really, really love it.” She seems wistful, recalling how working onFlag Wars initially seized hold of her. “It was a surprise. I’d just assumed that as an artist or a creative person, I would always work in a solitary way.”

In the time I spend with Poitras, this moment would strike me as the most touching. All these years later, she still seems genuinely surprised by what she’s found in herself. She’s an inward person who has thrust herself outward into the world, perhaps against her nature. It’s a stretch, maybe a painful one, but inside that stretch is Poitras’s particular genius—the solitary artist who plants herself in the center of unfolding history. “I’m a different person, holding a camera. I’m normally pretty shy. I don’t actually love to travel,” she tells me. “But I love doing this work. And when I’m doing work, I have to put those things aside.”

We are done with our drinks. It’s a Friday evening, and the restaurant is now crowded. Poitras picks up the two tote bags she’s brought from her studio, stuffed with work she plans to tackle over the weekend. “I love weekends,” she says. “They’re quiet. I can think. I get so much done.” It’s the most revealing disclosure she’s made about her personal life yet. Outside, dusk has fallen. Before we part ways, I ask Poitras which direction she’s heading, what neighborhood she lives in. She gives me a friendly hug and then a last, enigmatic smile. “I’d rather not say,” she says. “I hope you’ll understand.” And as she heads off to someplace I’ll never know, I realize that I do.