Behind the Cover Story: How I Reported on Poitras, Greenwald and Snowden

The following is a question-and-answer interview published on the New York Times Magazine’s blog, “The 6th Floor.” Rachel Nolan conducted the interview.

RN: Everyone wants to talk to Snowden, and, failing that, everyone wants to talk to the two people talking to Snowden. How did you get Greenwald and Poitras to agree to the story?

PM: It goes back a number of years. Laura’s second film in a trilogy about American power, “The Oath,” had just come out. A friend of mine who is a documentary maker recommended it to me and my wife. I was familiar with Laura’s work but was amazed by the documentary. It was visually beautiful and imaginative while at the same time being information-dense and telling a good story. I knew that she was still being stopped at airports while working on a project about surveillance, so I got in touch. A year and a half ago we met several times for coffee or lunch, and I said, “You know, I’d like to do a story about you.” This was long before Snowden entered her life. She was a little bit reluctant, because any spotlight on her makes it more difficult for her to do her work. But she agreed. I got into another couple of stories first. Then the Snowden thing happened, and I sent her another e-mail asking if she’d be amenable to doing the profile now. Since she already knew me and my work, and probably also because I’d been interested in her before, she agreed to let me do the story.

RN: She and Greenwald weren’t worried about disclosing their location in Rio to you, or having you watch them work with secret files?

PM: It was understood that I wouldn’t write anything that would jeopardize their security. I also knew they wouldn’t show me their documents or tell me every detail about how they got them from Snowden or what they planned to do with them. Snowden has been charged with espionage. They could be still be charged with something. They don’t want to make public the types of information, beyond the documents themselves, that could be used to build a case against him or them. Basic things like where Glenn’s house is in Rio I don’t mention in the story, just in case. I think it’s safe to assume the U.S. government knows where Glenn lives, but other governments and private individuals probably don’t. And we did have some explicit conversations about what they preferred I not include.

RN: Did their need for secrecy hinder your reporting?

PM: When I first arrived on a Saturday morning, Laura had sent me an e-mail with the name of the hotel where she was meeting with Glenn and the other two Guardian reporters who were visiting to help with stories. I went straight there from the airport and watched the four of them working on stories and on computer-security issues. It was like an embed. I’ve done military embeds in Iraq. It was either explicitly stated in Iraq, or just really clear, that you didn’t write about operational matters — tactics, perimeter security, patrol plans — that could jeopardize the present or future security of the troops you were with. The military doesn’t show you everything, but it is there in the room, and they are not necessarily able or trying to hide everything. They depend somewhat on your discretion. Both were classified environments.

RN: Did you use encrypted messages in reporting this story?

PM: I exchanged both encrypted and nonencrypted messages with Poitras. If something was not supersensitive, we used normal e-mail. I thought about not bringing my smartphone to Rio, but then I ended up bringing it. When I was with Laura and Glenn, I for the most part left my smartphone in a secure place that was not on my person. If it was on me, it was usually off. I didn’t bring my own laptop to Rio. I brought a clean computer. I thought that maybe as I came back, someone might want to take a look at what was on my computer. Then when I returned to New York and Laura returned to Berlin, I had more questions for her. So there were two levels of security: We used an encrypted chat program and anonymizing software.

RN: Through an encrypted chat via Laura, you got a chance to ask Snowden some questions. What sense did you get of him?

PM: I didn’t know whether he would answer any of my questions, and neither did Laura. So I thought the best thing would be to keep them focused on the topic of my story. I didn’t learn more about him personally, but what was most interesting and what has gotten a lot of reaction was his surprise about the lack of encryption that journalists use and journalists’ lack of awareness of how their communications are so easy for organizations, including the N.S.A., to capture. He expressed his disappointment that in the beginning Glenn was not only not encryption savvy but wouldn’t take the steps to become encryption savvy until Laura went to him and said, “Hey, this is for real.” Snowden knew very well what the N.S.A. was capturing, so it was useful to hear directly from him that encryption is a crucial step.

Author: Peter Maass

I was born and raised in Los Angeles. In 1983, after graduating from the University of California at Berkeley, I went to Brussels as a copy editor for The Wall Street Journal/Europe. I left the Journal in 1985 to write for The New York Times and The International Herald Tribune, covering NATO and the European Union. In 1987 I moved to Seoul, South Korea, where I wrote primarily for The Washington Post. After three years in Asia I moved to Budapest to cover Eastern Europe and the Balkans. I spent most of 1992 and 1993 covering the war in Bosnia for the Post.