Laura Poitras told The Daily Beast that British newspaper The Guardian had “a freak-out” at one point in Hong Kong when first meeting Edward Snowden, and began to destroy some of the source material. Ultimately they would go ahead along with the Washington Post and publish a host of revelations from the Snowden cache.
MS: How did you get the footage out of Hong Kong? Did you have to pull a This Is Not a Film, where they smuggled the footage from Iran to Cannes on a flash drive hidden inside a birthday cake?
LP: There was a bit of that. I had a contact in Hong Kong and was copying the footage onto an encrypted drive and getting it out of the hotel room every day just to make sure if we got raided I wouldn’t lose everything. It was actually a lawyer. And then I was destroying the physical media, because you can’t encrypt SD cards.
MS: I’m picturing that sequence in the film where The Guardian staffers are destroying machinery in the bowels of the building with a chainsaw after being threatened by the GCHQ.
LP: Actually, it hasn’t been reported yet but The Guardian did destroy some material in Hong Kong. They had a freak-out moment and destroyed some source material. So, I was copying it and getting it out, and I kept a copy on myself at all times with really, really strong passwords. I stayed longer in Hong Kong than Glenn and Ewen, and was hoping to film Snowden one more time where he was hiding out. But it was too risky. I was being followed. It was probably local… but [Snowden’s] lawyer said they could try and get me to a couple of safe houses and then try to film with him, but I didn’t want to jeopardize his situation. We published the video interview on Monday, and then on Saturday, I had a choice to meet with the lawyer and try and stay longer and I was online talking to Glenn, and he said, “You need to leave now. What the fuck are you still doing there? You need to get out of the country.” So I went straight to the airport, bought a one-way ticket, and flew out.
LP: One thing I’d like to stress is I think in retrospect, journalists or media organizations think of this story as a big story that any news organization would want to get, but in truth there was a lot of fear in news organizations.
The Washington Post decided in the end not to send Barton Gellman because they were concerned about some of the risks, and when we were in Hong Kong there was a lot of concern also with The Guardian about publishing.
LF: I’m imagining that some people might want me to press you a little bit about the comment you made to The Daily Beast where you talked about a sort of freak-out there in Hong Kong. Want to elaborate on that at all?
LP: So the first reporting that we had done when we got there was focusing on the NSA and I think that The Guardian, because it was U.S. intelligence that we were reporting on, maybe felt that it was less risky for them.
But what happens in Hong Kong is that when Ewen MacAskill from The Guardian joins us, Snowden starts to explain to him that GCHQ is actually worse than the NSA in terms of it’s collection, and he starts to describe a program called Tempora. He shared with MacAskill documents relating to GCHQ, and at some point some of those documents made it to London and that’s when they had a bit of a freak-out. There was another person who came to Hong Kong when we were there who was helping with some technical things, and that person was instructed to destroy some material, but nothing actually in the end was lost.
I think that what happened was, once the reporting shifted not only to the NSA but also to GCHQ, The Guardian was put under enormous pressure. And in terms of doing the reporting we saw the GCHQ requested and oversaw the destruction of the hard drives, and The Guardian moved their reporting to The New York Times.
So that’s the sort of context to that freak-out.