Award-winning journalist and filmmaker Laura Poitras on Monday filed a lawsuit against the U.S. Department of Justice (DOJ) and U.S. intelligence agencies for subjecting her to what she called "Kafkaesque" harassment at airports throughout the U.S. and the world on dozens of occasions.
Poitras, who won an Academy Award last year for Citizenfour, the documentary about NSA whistleblower Edward Snowden, said she has been detained, searched without warrant, interrogated for hours, and had vital belongings confiscated more than 50 times over the course of six years—without ever being charged with a crime.
The Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) lawsuit names the DOJ, the Department of Homeland Security, and the Office of the Director of National Intelligence and demands the release of all records from those agencies on Poitras.
In a statement on Monday, the filmmaker, who is being represented by the civil liberties group Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF), made clear that her lawsuit stood for more than just her own experiences.
"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."
—Jamie Lee Williams, Electronic Frontier Foundation
"I'm filing this lawsuit because the government uses the U.S. border to bypass the rule of law," Poitras said. "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."
Poitras has spoken openly about her harassment at U.S. borders, which included reportedly being placed on the government's No Fly List after returning home from filming My Country, My Country, a 2006 documentary which profiled Iraqi critics of the U.S. occupation.
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She has also had her laptop, camera, mobile phone, and reporter notebooks seized and their contents copied, according to the suit. On one occasion, Poitras was allegedly threatened with handcuffing for taking notes during her detention, as border agents said her pen could be used as a weapon.
This is not the first time that Poitras has filed FOIAs with intelligence agencies for their records on her detainment, but the departments have evaded her requests at every turn.
"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."
EFF attorney Jamie Lee Williams added: "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. 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."
In addition to her documentary film work, Poitras is a recipient of the MacArthur Genius Grant and has won the Pulitzer for her reporting on the NSA leaks. My Country, My Country and Citizenfour are part of a series of films exploring post-9/11 America, along with 2010's The Oath, a documentary about Guantanamo Bay prison. She also writes for The Intercept.