Oscar-Winning Director Of Snowden Documentary Trying To Find Out Why She’s Been Detained At Airports So Much

Laura Poitras recently won the Academy Award for CITIZENFOUR, her documentary on NSA whistleblower Edward Snowden, but the director claims that she’s long been hassled by U.S. federal authorities for years, resulting in multiple unmerited airport detentions. Now she’s suing the government to find out exactly why.

Poitras, represented by the Electronic Frontier Foundation, filed a Freedom Of Information Act [FOIA] complaint [PDF] in federal court against the Dept. of Homeland Security, the Justice Department, and the Office of the Director of National Intelligence, “seeking the disclosure and release of agency records improperly withheld” from the filmmaker by these agencies and affiliated sub-agencies like U.S. Customs and Border Protection, Citizenship and Immigration Services, Immigration and Customs Enforcement, Transportation Security Administration, and the FBI.

Poitras says that during the six-year period from 2006 to 2012, she was searched, questioned, and subjected to hours-long security screenings at U.S. and overseas airports on more than 50 occasions — every time she entered the country.

The lawsuit says the harassment began in the summer of 2006, when airline agents were compelled to call Homeland Security before issuing Poitras a boarding pass. Following that incident, her boarding passes were all marked “SSSS,” and she claims she was subjected to increased security.

Among the incidents in the timeline given in the complaint:

• July 2006: Poitras arrived at Newark International on a flight from Israel and was met at the gate (not at the customs checkpoint) by Customs officials who subsequently detained her for two hours of questioning.

• August 2006: Poitras was en route from Sarajevo to New York City, but during her transfer in Vienna, Austria, she was paged by airport security. She says she was then taken in a van to a separate inspection location where all her bags were searched. The head of airport security allegedly told Poitras that her “Threat Score” was 400 out of 400 points, but ultimately allowed her to continue on to NYC. When she landed at JFK International, Customs agents again met her at the gate and detained her for hours before allowing her to enter the country.

• December 2006: After landing at JFK on a flight from Dubai, Poitras says she was again detained by Customs agents. This time, she was told she had a criminal record, but Poitras says she’s never been arrested.

• May 2007: Customs officials met her at the gate at JFK following her flight from Yemen. The CBP didn’t just detain and question her, but allegedly photocopied all of her reporters’ notebooks, receipts, and business cards.

• February 2010: While trying to depart JFK for Berlin, airport security told Poitras that she had been put on a “No Fly” list by the FBI’s Terrorist Screening Center. Days later, while trying to return from Berlin, she was once again told that she was on one of these lists.

• August 2010: Another flight from Yemen to New York. This time, when she arrive at JFK, Poitras says her laptop, video camera, footage, and cellphone were taken by border agents and held for 41 days.

The detentions did not end, contends the complaint, until after Glenn Greenwald wrote about Poitras’s ordeal on Salon.com in April 2012.

Poitras attempted to get some answers about why she’d been targeted, filing FOIA requests with the various agencies in 2014.

In response, the agencies claim they either don’t have the requested records or simply not responded, in violation of the terms of FOIA. The FBI recently told her that it had only located a total of six pages relevant to her request, and that it was withholding all six of those pages due to grand jury secrecy rules.

“I’m filing this lawsuit because the government uses the U.S. border to bypass the rule of law,” explains Poitras in a statement. “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 government used its power to detain people at airports, in the name of national security, to target a journalist whose work has focused on the effects of the U.S. war on terror,” said David Sobel, EFF senior counsel. “In refusing to respond to Poitras’ FOIA requests and wrongfully withholding the documents about her it has located, the government is flouting its responsibility to explain and defend why it subjected a law-abiding citizen—whose work has shone a light on post-9/11 military and intelligence activities—to interrogations and searches every time she entered her country.”

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