The New York Times Magazine cover story by Peter Maass detailing how Edward Snowden reached out to the two reporters that broke the NSA surveillance story isn't about that surveillance. It's only sort of about journalism. Instead, it's largely a story about how close to the boundaries of civilization you must get — literally and figuratively — to be assured that you can protect your privacy. And it's about how the United States government pushes people there.
Maass focuses on Laura Poitras in part because she is the reporter about whom less is known. But it's primarily because it was Poitras' personal history that led her to become an expert in the tools that were required for Snowden to communicate with the media securely.
As you may know, Poitras is a documentary filmmaker. As Maass outlines, she spent years working in Iraq, filming those affected by the American presence, including a visit to the Abu Ghraib prison. During that same time period, Poitras began to be selected for additional screening when traveling — including, on about 40 occasions by her account, being held for hours for interrogation on her travel and work. Her electronic devices were taken from her and not returned for extended periods. Eventually, she became friends with Glenn Greenwald, who then worked for Salon. After a particularly intrusive incident at Newark International, she allowed Greenwald to write a story about those stops.
Those were the two triggers for Snowden selecting her as his point of contact (after his initial outreach to Greenwald went nowhere). Poitras had begun encrypting her electronic devices prior to travel, in order to prevent the government from being able to observe their contents. She was working on a documentary about security when Snowden first contacted her, and, having seen the Salon piece about her travel travails, Snowden knew that she and Greenwald were acquaintances.
Maass joined Poitras and Greenwald in the midst of their reporting on the NSA leaks. The two work from Greenwald's house "surrounded by tropical foliage in a remote area of Rio de Janeiro." The house was crowded during Maass' visit — not only from Greenwald's partner and 10 dogs, but from other Guardian reporters who joined the reporting team. There's no wi-fi network that the team uses to share files as they're working on stories. Everything is handed between the group on thumb drives, and Maass "was not told what was on them." Poitras did all of her work on sensitive documents from a computer that had never been connected to the internet at all.
That willingness to be hyperprotective about security is one of the reasons Snowden instilled his faith in Poitras. In a separate interview with Maass, the NSA leaker describes how he came to trust the filmmaker. "We came to a point in the verification and vetting process," he said, "where I discovered Laura was more suspicious of me than I was of her, and I'm famously paranoid." But he was surprised that Greenwald wasn't already taking the sort of precautions that Poitras insisted upon.
[T]his is 2013, and a journalist who regularly reported on the concentration and excess of state power. I was surprised to realize that there were people in news organizations who didn't recognize any unencrypted message sent over the Internet is being delivered to every intelligence service in the world. In the wake of this year's disclosures, it should be clear that unencrypted journalist-source communication is unforgivably reckless.
Poitras wasn't reckless, making her a trustworthy source. And, according to Snowden, it's the United States' government's own fault for making her that way. Her reporting, he told Maass, "resulted in Laura specifically becoming targeted by the very programs involved in the recent disclosures." The government made the leaker; the government made the leak recipient.
Even at this late date, Poitras remains skeptical of those unwilling or unable to embrace the security they depend upon. She wouldn't tell Maass details of the timeframe for when Snowden began leaking to her; at one point she ended a private text chat with Snowden when Maass entered the room. This article — and a forthcoming documentary about the Snowden leaks — promise to significantly raise Poitras' profile. But in her internet-disconnected computer in Greenwald's banana-tree-ringed house in Rio, Poitras remains remarkably out of sight.