Laura Poitras’ travel nightmare began more than a decade ago when the award-winning filmmaker started getting detained at airports every time she tried to set foot back in the United States.
Published in partnership with Shadowproof.
Documents released in response to a lawsuit suggest Oscar-winning documentary filmmaker Laura Poitras was stopped routinely by airport security because she was falsely accused of involvement in an ambush in Iraq. The attack resulted in the death of a United States soldier in 2004.
Poitras shared more than 1,000 pages of documents with the Associated Press. While the AP did not indicate what specific agencies released documents, it reported members of a U.S. Army National Guard unit from Oregon claimed to have seen a “white female” with a “camera on a rooftop just before they were attacked.” Multiple guardsmen believed she may have known about the attack ahead of time and failed to share this information with U.S. forces “because she wanted to film” the ambush.
At the time, Poitras was in Iraq filming her documentary, “My Country, My Country.” She unequivocally denied this spurious allegation.
“There is no ambush footage,” Poitras asserted. “That’s the narrative that they created, but it doesn’t correspond with any facts.”
Author John Bruning, who wrote “The Devil’s Sandbox: With the 2nd Battalion, 162nd Infantry at War in Iraq,” dedicated a full chapter (“The Woman On the Roof”) to soldiers in the battalion who believed they saw Poitras. He also apparently passed allegations about Poitras on to the U.S. military.
There was a lieutenant colonel, who thought he may have seen Poitras on a rooftop. He returned home and was later interviewed by Bruning.
“In February 2006, a military police agent from Fort Lewis, Washington, interviewed the lieutenant colonel and the author,” according to the Associated Press.
Not only did Bruning speak to military police about Poitras, but he later told a lieutenant colonel, who suspected Poitras was on the roof, that he was certain Poitras was the “woman on the rooftop” after he exchanged emails with her. That prompted the lieutenant colonel to pass what Bruning had told him on to the military.
Poitras never suggested she was the woman in any email to Bruning. He chose to identify with the soldiers in the battalion and act against her.
Watch the trailer for Poitras ‘ documentary My Country, My Country:
“She was not in fear of her life or being kidnapped at a time when Western journalists were being abducted and executed,” Bruning maintained in a sworn statement to military investigators. But that ignores what Poitras told him via email, which is that she “did not venture out onto the street” the day of the attack because she did not think it would be a “good idea.”
The Army Criminal Investigation Command could not substantiate the allegations against her.
“A review by our legal staff of the information developed thus far revealed credible information does not presently exist to believe Ms. Poitras committed a criminal offense; however, this could quickly change if Ms. Poitras were to be interviewed and admitted she had knowledge of the ambush and refused to notify U.S. forces in order to further her documentary and media interest,” according to a letter to the Federal Bureau of Investigation.
It was in May 2006 that Army officials summarized the status of the investigation for the FBI and soon after the harassment by airport security started.
Between July 2006 and April 2012, Poitras was “subjected to ‘Secondary Security Screening Selection,” detained and questioned at the United States border on every international flight she took.”
When traveling from the U.S., when she was outside the U.S. traveling internationally, and even when she was traveling within the U.S., Poitras was “occasionally subjected to secondary security screening.” More than 50 times she was given this designation, which allowed Transportation Security Administration (TSA) agents to subject her to extra scrutiny.
The stops were intended to intimidate her into possibly confessing that she knew U.S. soldiers would be ambushed. However, as Poitras insists, she has no footage of this attack and there is nothing to this narrative.
At no point, according to Poitras, did the Army ever ask her to come in and provide information for an investigation. Instead, it appears the government chose to prey on her when she would be most vulnerable to interrogation.
Routine stops by airport security came to an abrupt halt in 2012 without any explanation from authorities. It was not long after her treatment was publicized by news media.
AP did not publish any of the documents the outlet examined so it is difficult to assess whether this is the only important detail in the documents released.
The release of documents barely settles the matter. The FBI still refuses to provide relevant records to Poitras, and a federal judge in Washington recently concluded the agency did not appropriately justify withholding documents.
Poitras has no idea if the investigation into her is still open. She does not know why it was ended or if it ended. She has no idea why it would remain open if it is still open. And with President Donald Trump granting the military greater discretion for operations, there is a very real possibility that routine stops could target her work as a journalist once again.
When Poitras filed the lawsuit in 2015, she indicated she was “filing this lawsuit because the government uses the U.S. border to bypass the rule of law.” It was filed in solidarity with “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 won an Academy Award for her work on “Citizenfour,” which documented NSA whistleblower Edward Snowden’s decision to release documents revealing mass surveillance programs that infringed upon the privacy of Americans and citizens all over the world.
Her most recent project, “Risk,” captures the life of WikiLeaks editor-in-chief Julian Assange inside the Ecuadorian embassy in London. It will screen in select theaters this summer and later air on Showtime.
Watch the trailer for Poitras’ latest film, Risk: