Report — From the May 2017 issue

Snowden’s Box

The human network behind the biggest leak of all

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It was a frigid winter, and the Manhattan loft was cold — very cold. Something was wrong with the gas line and there was no heat. In a corner, surrounding the bed, sheets had been hung from cords to form a de facto tent with a small electric heater running inside. But the oddities didn’t end there: when I talked to the woman who lived in the loft about her work, she made me take the battery out of my cell phone and stash the device in her refrigerator. People who have dated in New York City for any length of time believe that they’ve seen everything — this was something new.

Illustrations by Taylor Callery

Illustrations by Taylor Callery

That I was in her loft in the first place was strange enough. A year earlier, I was supposed to get married, but the engagement fell apart. After that, I was in no shape for a relationship, and was in any case finishing two books on tight deadlines. I should have been too busy, then, to go to a party in Park Slope, Brooklyn, on a December evening in 2011. The host, Julian Rubinstein, had invited a group of his friends, many of whom were writers, musicians, editors, and documentary-film makers. His email billed the event as a “fireside gathering,” although when he attempted to get a blaze going in the hearth, the apartment filled with smoke. Through the haze, I noticed a striking woman with dark hair occasionally glancing my way.

“Who’s that?” I asked Julian.

He introduced me to Laura Poitras. I was aware of her 2006 documentary, My Country, My Country, about an Iraqi physician running for office in his country’s first democratic election. Her current project, she told me, involved filming the massive data center the National Security Agency was building in Utah. Our conversation was intense, and I found myself wondering why somebody as sophisticated as Laura would be interested in me — at heart, I still felt like a blue-collar kid from Cleveland.

Suddenly, she announced it was late. “Want to share a cab?” she asked.

I shambled down two flights of stairs after Laura, and we hailed a taxi. We shook hands when we reached her stop and I continued north. Two nights later, we met for drinks, and exchanged a lot of passionate talk — about our work. When I saw her name in my email inbox the next morning, I clicked eagerly. Maybe she wanted to go out again? She briefly raised that as a possibility, but Laura had something more important in mind. Her message read:

If you want to set up a secure way to communicate (which I think every journalist should) the best method is IM with an OTR encryption. You’ll need: a Jabber account, Pidgin IM client, and OTR plug-in.

Five years ago, this request — which would now strike many journalists as completely reasonable — sounded like gibberish. Why did I need encryption? I’d never done a story that would interest the NSA or any other federal agency. I initially blew off her advice, even as we got involved and began opening up about our projects. Which is how I came to be in that freezing loft, where Laura patiently explained why it made sense for me to put my phone in the fridge. I hadn’t known that a refrigerator could block cellular signals. For that matter, I hadn’t known that even when a cell phone is switched off, the NSA can still use it to eavesdrop on conversations.

Hers, I soon realized, was anything but idle paranoia. Laura had been interrogated by U.S. Customs and Border Patrol agents on more than forty occasions when traveling internationally. Sometimes they temporarily confiscated her notebooks. Once, they took away her computer. On April 6, 2012, after we had known each other for about four months, Laura was grilled at Newark Liberty International Airport when she was coming home from London. As always, following her lawyer’s instructions, she took notes. This time, a federal agent declared that her pen was a potential weapon and threatened to handcuff her. I was on a reporting trip in the rust belt, en route home from the Monongahela Valley, and expressed my concern in an email. “It was actually quite humorous,” she replied, “if it weren’t so outrageous.”1

1 On this occasion, Laura reached out to the journalist Glenn Greenwald, who had offered to write a piece about her experiences, calling them “one of the true untold travesties.” An intensely private person, she asked me whether it made sense to air her grievance in the press. I said yes: “Cockroaches are repelled by light.” Greenwald published his piece in Salon on April 8, and Laura has not been detained by border agents since.

In early August, Laura visited the solar-powered off-the-grid home I’d built in northern California, overlooking the Pacific. The place is very remote, with the nearest utility lines some three miles away and the closest neighbor a half mile (as the spotted owl flies) across a canyon. There she edited The Program, a short documentary for the New York Times about the NSA’s collection of personal data, featuring the whistleblower William Binney. She returned to New York to resume work on a larger project, and ultimately decided that she needed a more secure location to edit it. A few weeks later, she found one: Berlin.

Meanwhile, she was contracting out a major renovation of her New York loft. Having been a professional chef in the Bay Area before she made her first film, Flag Wars, she was especially eager to have a working kitchen. Because I’d remodeled and built homes, she asked for advice. I offered suggestions on such things as countertop materials (she chose concrete).

We remained involved, albeit with an ocean between us. She briefly visited New York in October. I tried (and failed) to fix a leaking bathroom pipe in her apartment, which was still without heat. That aside, I didn’t see her for the rest of the year. We emailed — she answered promptly no matter what time of the day or night I wrote her. I knew some of what was going on in her life, but not everything. There was, for example, the note she made in her diary on January 17, 2013:

2 Excerpts from Laura’s diary, “Berlin Journal,” first appeared in Astro Noise: A Survival Guide for Living Under Total Surveillance, published by the Whitney Museum of American Art in conjunction with her 2016 show there.

Just received email from a potential source in the intelligence community. Is it a trap, is he crazy, or is this something real?2

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’s article “The End of Retirement” appeared in the August 2014 issue of Harper’s Magazine. Her book Nomadland will be published by W. W. Norton in September.


is the author of ten books, the most recent of which is Bringing Mulligan Home.

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