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Citizenfour director Laura Poitras was the first person to receive National Security Agency contractor-turned-whistleblower Edward Snowden‘s trove of classified documents, but she wasn’t his first choice.
In December 2012, a month before reaching out to Poitras, Snowden had tried a number of times to make contact with journalist Glenn Greenwald. Greenwald was intrigued by the messages he received from “Cincinnatus,” the alias Snowden used with Greenwald (he used the alias “citizen four” with Poitras), but there was a problem: Greenwald is not tech-savvy, and Snowden’s directions on how to encrypt messages were too burdensome for the busy journalist.
Frustrated, Snowden looked for another journalist to trust. According to a 2013 New York Times profile on Poitras, Snowden had read Greenwald’s article about Poitras being detained approximately 40 times at airports while traveling to film her documentaries about the U.S. government’s post-9/11 policies.
Read more ‘Citizenfour’: Film Review
He also knew her next film was about government surveillance programs and watched with interest her New York Times Op-Doc short The Program about William Binney, the NSA mathematical genius behind the Stellar Winds surveillance program.
Binney, after 32 years with the NSA, quit in protest when Stellar Winds was used to spy on American citizens after the 9/11 terrorist attacks. Snowden’s assumption after seeing The Program, according to the Times article, was that Poitras would “understand the programs he wanted to leak about and would know how to communicate in a secure way.”
Snowden was not wrong. Poitras had grown paranoid after having seen what had happened to her sources like Binney, whose home was raided at gunpoint and computer seized by the FBI.
The more Poitras learned about government surveillance, the more extreme measures she took to protect her communications, eventually moving to Berlin to make sure her footage was not seized by U.S. officials.
Binney plays a prominent role onscreen in Citizenfour and was in attendance for its New York Film Festival premiere on Friday night, where he told The Hollywood Reporter, “I’m proud of any small role I may have played in bringing truth to light.”
Citizenfour opens on Oct. 24. Below you can watch Poitras’ short about Binney, The Program.