When Edward Snowden decided he wanted to release details about the NSA's intelligence operations to the public, he reached out to Laura Poitras, a 49-year-old film maker and political activist opposed to the war on terror. As the Washington Post noted on Monday, Poitras had "the odd distinction of sharing a byline in The Washington Post and in London’s Guardian newspaper last week on two blockbuster stories."
Poitras said in an interview on Monday with Salon that Snowden contacted her in particular because he had learned that she has been interrogated at the U.S. border dozens of times by the Department of Homeland Security. "[Snowden] told me he’d contacted me because my border harassment meant that I’d been a person who had been selected," Poitras told Salon. "To be selected — and he went through a whole litany of things — means that everything you do, every friend you have, every purchase you make, every street you cross means you’re being watched. 'You probably don’t like how this system works, I think you can tell the story.' … Of course I was suspicious, I worried that it was entrapment, it’s crazy, all the normal responses you have to someone reaching out making, claims."
Glenn Greenwald, Poitras's co-author for the The Guardian's NSA story, wrote a story about Poitras's border interrogations in April 2012. "With no oversight or legal framework whatsoever, the Department of Homeland Security routinely singles out individuals who are suspected of no crimes, detains them and questions them at the airport, often for hours, when they return to the U.S. after an international trip," Greenwald wrote. Poitras was one of these individuals who was interrogatd by DHS officials "at length about where she went and with whom she met or spoke" more than 40 times since the 2006 release of her Iraq war documentary, My Country, My Country. In 2010, Poitras released another documentary about Osama bin Laden's former bodyguard and driver, "two Yemenis caught up in America’s War on Terror," in the words of Glenn Greenwald.
Greenwald declared that the U.S. government had created a "climate of fear" for an "incredibly accomplished journalist and filmmaker who has never been accused, let alone convicted, of any wrongdoing whatsoever."
"It’s hard to overstate how oppressive it is for the U.S. Government to be able to target journalists, film-makers and activists and, without a shred of suspicion of wrongdoing," Greenwald wrote. "The ongoing, and escalating, treatment of Laura Poitras is a testament to how severe that abuse is."
But perhaps it isn't such a mystery why the U.S. government might want to question Poitras if you simply crack open John R. Bruning's 2006 book, The Devil's Sandbox: With the 2nd Battalion, 162nd Infantry at War in Iraq. Contary to Greenwald's claim that Poitras has never been accused of any wrongdoing, Devil's Sandbox details the explosive allegation that Poitras had foreknowledge of a November 20, 2004 ambush of U.S. troops but did nothing to warn them.
Brandon Ditto led the platoon that came under fire that day. Speaking Tuesday evening by phone with THE WEEKLY STANDARD, Ditto said it seemed that Poitras "had pre-knowledge" of the ambush. He recalled the events he witnessed that day, confirming the details described in Devil's Sandbox.
During a patrol of Adhamiya early in the morning of November 20, two soldiers in Ditto's platoon noticed a woman standing on a rooftop next to a man while holding a camera. They found that very odd. "Usually when you see someone planted on a rooftop with a camera, they're waiting for something, and right after that is when we got ambushed just down the road," Ditto told me Tuesday night. "So it seems that she had pre-knowledge that our convoy, or our patrol, was going to get hit."
"We took multiple casualties," Ditto said. "Things kind of erupted."
Prior to the attack, the streets were eerily quiet. "There was nothing else going on," Ditto said. "People had left the streets, which was pretty common when there was an attack about to happen. It was kind of one of the things we would look for. When things got too quiet it's because the locals were alerted that there was going to be an attack. And to see anybody up with a camera about to film something it's because they were waiting" for an attack to happen.
"It was later we had found out that Zarqawi's soldiers, basically in response to a raid on a mosque the night prior, sort of wanted to try to get revenge there," Ditto said, referring to the deceased leader of Al Qaeda in Iraq.
According to Devil's Sandbox, Poitras met with three commanding U.S. Army officers two days after the ambush: "The [Brigade Commander] turned to Laura Poitras and ask her if she had seen and filmed the attack on his men. Ditto's platoon had reported seeing windows taped around Adhamiya, a sure sign that the local civilians knew of the ambushes in advance. The fact that the shops were all secured, gates were locked, and nobody was out on the streets that morning also strongly indicated that the locals had foreknowledge of the engagements. The [Brigade Commander] and Major Warington wanted to know if Poitras had advance knowledge of the attacks. It stood to reason that she did, because she was living with Doctor Aladhadh's family in the middle of one of the kill zones."
Bruning, who was not embedded with the 2nd Battalion but conducted numerous interviews with the troops who were, told me Tuesday night that Doctor Riyadh Aladhadh, the main subject of Poitras's documentary, "was strongly suspected of being one of the key insurgent leaders for the Sunni insurgency of that particular district of Baghdad."
"If she had advance knowledge, she did not call and warn the battalion. Major Warrington had given her his contact information" 10 days prior to the attack, Bruning wrote in Devil's Sandbox. "She had the ability to report the pending attacks to her fellow countrymen. She did not do this."
During her November 22 meeting with Army officers, Poitras denied that she had been on the rooftop, and the two U.S. soldiers who saw the woman on the rooftop failed to positively identify her, so she was let go, according to the book. Bruning told me Tuesday night that if the commanding officer had known for sure she was on the roof, "he would have arrested her right there on the spot."
Bruning claims in his book that Poitras later admitted to him in an email that she had in fact been on the roof that day. Bruning revealed for the first time to THE WEEKLY STANDARD on Tuesday night that he provided a copy of the email to a U.S. soldier, who in turn contacted U.S. law enforcement, which allegedly led to a Joint Terrorism Task Force investigation. "That triggered a JTTF investigation in New York," Bruning told me. "The JTTF guys flew out here. They interviewed me. They interviewed the guys from the platoon. I turned over all the documentation I had."
No charges have ever been filed against Poitras, but Bruning and Ditto say the soldiers ambushed in Adhamiya on November 20, 2004 found the circumstantial evidence to be compelling. "To be exactly positioned to capture a vehicular ambush in the middle of Baghdad is either a huge fluke or you have foreknowledge that that was coming," Bruning told me.
"The fact that she was standing there with [Aladhadh], the guy who everybody suspected was responsible for orchestrating the attack and had been living with him was proof enough for everybody in [Battalion] 2-162 to believe that she had foreknowledge," Bruning said. "It just defied all logic that she wouldn't have known it was coming."
THE WEEKLY STANDARD tried to contact Poitras through the Freedom of the Press Foundation on Tuesday but did not receive a response.