Moral Low Ground


Oscar-Nominated American Filmmaker Laura Poitras Repeatedly Detained, Harassed at US Border

An Oscar-nominated American filmmaker has been repeatedly detained and harassed by Homeland Security officials when reentering the United States, most recently last week at Newark Liberty International Airport. reports that award-winning filmmaker Laura Poitras was leaving Britain to return to the United States on Thursday when Customs and Border Patrol agents questioned her in London about who she met and what she did there. The harassment continued upon her arrival in Newark when agents met her plane, detained her and took her to an interrogation room. Poitras, who has been detained in such a manner nearly every time she returns from abroad, prepared to take notes in order to document the abuse she suffers at the hands of agents of her own government.

But multiple Customs and Border Protection (CBP) agents told Poitras she couldn’t take notes because her pen might be used as a weapon. She retorted that she was a journalist and her lawyer advised her to take notes on her interrogations. At that point, CBP agent Wassum threatened to handcuff her if she did not stop writing. CBP agent Lopez then accused her of “refusing to cooperate with an investigation,” even though there was no investigation.

Just what would prompt Homeland Security officials to treat an American journalist like she was some sort of suspected terrorist?

It turns out that Poitras is detested by the powers-that-be because she makes incisive documentaries about the impact of US invasions and occupations on the people that suffer through them as well as the Americans who participate in them. In 2004 and 2005, she made “My Country, My Country,” a look at the “emotional toll of occupation on Iraqis and American soldiers alike.” That film received a 2007 Academy Award nomination for Best Documentary.

Then, in 2010 Poitras made “The Oath,” which chronicled the lives of a pair of Yemenis imprisoned by the United States in the War on Terror. In a glowing review, the New York Times said that along with “My County, My County,” Poitras has made “two of the most searching documentaries of the post- 9/11 era, on-the-ground chronicles that are sensitive to both the political and the human consequences of American foreign policy.” “The Oath” won the 2010 Sundance Film Festival award for Best Cinematography.

Poitras is currently working on the third installment of what she calls a War on Terror trilogy. Her latest film will investigate the ways in which the terror war has been waged inside the United States, focusing on the alarming government intrusion on Americans’ civil liberties.

It is her critical work that has landed her on the government’s shit list. Poitras is the victim of constant harassment, invasive searches and intimidation. Nearly every time she returns to the United States– and she’s left and returned around 40 times– Homeland Security officials are standing at the airplane door to “greet” her. Each time, she is detained for long periods and interrogated about who she met and what she did. Her personal electronic items have been seized, sometimes for weeks at a time, with the contents copied by government agents. Even her credit cards and receipts have been investigated. One agent once told her that he “finds it very suspicious that you’re not willing to help your country by answering our questions.”

Poitras told’s Glenn Greenwald that it is “very traumatizing to come home to your own country and have to go through this every time,” adding that the constant invasions of her civil liberties are “infuriating,” “horrible” and “intimidating.” She says she “hates to travel.” But her work so often takes her overseas, and so Poitras has been forced to resort to countermeasures to combat government harassment. She avoids traveling with electronic devices. She uses “alternative methods” to deliver important parts of her work. She has encrypted her electronic files. She does not talk over the phone about her work. She does not edit films in her own home out of fear government agents will seize and search her footage.

Through all the detentions and interrogations, government agents have found nothing incriminating about her that would warrant such blatant and shocking violations of her Fourth Amendment rights against unreasonable search and seizure. But such is the American in which we all now live, a country where journalists are harassed for doing their jobs and where the government has the power to indefinitely detain without charge nor trial anyone it believes poses a “terrorist” threat to the nation, even US citizens.

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