Open Letter (updated)




Update: March 23, 2021


I am releasing audio excerpts from the call in which I was fired by First Look Media, an organization I co-founded. The call took place on Nov. 30, 2020, between First Look Media’s CFO/COO Drew Wilson and myself. I am not releasing the full audio because the call also discusses sensitive security and personnel matters.

The story of my firing has been reported widely. I continue to maintain, as I have done from the start, that my firing was the culmination of the company’s retaliation against me – for raising concerns internally for years about patterns of discrimination and lack of accountability, and most recently for speaking to the press about The Intercept’s cover-up and egregious source protection failures.

These matters have still not been addressed. 

On the other hand, First Look Media has continuously changed their narrative about my termination, deflected, and released false and misleading information in a way that confirms the very toxic institutional culture I was protesting in the first place. 

While Drew Wilson placed the phone call, I was told the decision to fire me was made by the board and the company’s leadership.

I do not take lightly the decision to release this audio. In the end, I concluded any hesitation was outweighed by the serious matters discussed, and First Look Media and The Intercept’s pattern of making false claims to the public and their own staff.

1.
On the call, First Look Media’s CFO Drew Wilson told me there were “no grounds” for my termination. I was told repeatedly that the company was “moving away” from its co-founders. Here is one exchange:

Poitras: “On what grounds? On what grounds, Drew?”

Wilson: “No grounds other than they’re kind of moving away from the whole co-founder stuff, and, in general. And, no grounds for anything. Just moving to the next transitional phase of kind of moving the company to a different place.”

This ‘moving away from the co-founders’ logic did not hold up, and I pushed back on the call. Out of the three co-founders, Glenn Greenwald had resigned one month earlier, and Jeremy Scahill is still employed. Moving away from the co-founders thus meant terminating the only female co-founder. 

However, in a series of statements delivered to the Washington PostNY TimesNY MagIndiewire, and others, First Look Media falsely claimed that I was terminated for not being active “in any capacity with our company for more than two years”, and that “this and only this” is the reason I was fired from an organization built upon my work and reputation.   

This overview of my work in the past two years [pdf] shows that their statements to the press are false. Between 2019-2020, I actively worked with dozens of films and filmmakers as part of my responsibilities at First Look Media, including seven Sundance premieres and four Academy Award nominated films. I remain active today, even after my termination, out of commitment and responsibility to the filmmakers and projects I began at the company.

2.
In New York Magazine, my former colleagues made several unsupported claims regarding the closure of the NSA Snowden Archive, once again dismissing my security expertise and the company’s source protection and contractual obligations as unacceptable “conditions”. 

Some background: In 2019, The Intercept made the decision to defund and terminate the staff who had vigilantly overseen the security of the Snowden Archive, the most significant historical archive documenting the U.S. government’s global mass surveillance in the 21st century.

Rather than causing the closure of the Archive, I objected to it in meetings and in writing multiple times. The Intercept’s editors said the reason for their decision was a budget cut, so I offered multiple solutions, including telling CFO Drew Wilson that the company could reduce my salary in order to pay for the archive staff. As these documents show [pdf], Wilson and CEO Michael Bloom agreed to hold off terminating the archive staff, and Wilson let The Intercept’s Editor-in-Chief know that she did not have to make any other cuts to compensate for keeping these two staff (which totaled less than 2% of their budget). The problem seemed solved. And yet two days later, the archive staff were terminated and the Snowden Archive closed. In a company-wide email, CEO Michael Bloom justified the shut down by saying The Intercept had decided to “focus on other editorial priorities.” [pdf]

Given the risks that I and others took to secure the Snowden Archive, and the centrality of this archive to the organization’s mission, The Intercept’s effort to rewrite history is not only full of falsehoods, but is quite literally hard to stomach.

///

As the recordings and attached documents demonstrate, there is a direct line between First Look Media and The Intercept’s cover-up of their grave errors of judgement and source protection failures, to the betrayal of the founding mission by closing the Snowden Archive, to ignoring documented cases of discrimination, and their ongoing deflection and misinformation regarding the reasons behind my termination. 




January 14, 2021


On Monday, November 30, 2020, I was fired from First Look Media, an organization I co-founded. My termination came two months after I spoke to the press about The Intercept’s failure to protect whistleblower Reality Winner and the cover-up and lack of accountability that followed, and after years of raising concerns internally about patterns of discrimination and retaliation. 

I was told my firing was effective immediately and without cause, my access to email was shut down, and that the company had no plans to communicate my abrupt termination to the public.

First Look Media and The Intercept were founded upon Edward Snowden’s whistleblowing and the investigative journalism that Glenn Greenwald and I all risked our lives to bring to the public, exposing the National Security Agency’s illegal global mass surveillance programs.

First Look Media’s decision to fire me after I raised concerns about source protection and accountability – rather than to demote or seek the resignation of anyone responsible for the journalistic malpractice, cover-up, and retaliation – speaks to the priorities of The Intercept’s Editor-in-Chief Betsy Reed and First Look Media’s CEO Michael Bloom.

Journalists make mistakes, sometimes with serious consequences. What is alarming about this case is the multitude of mistakes, the egregious disregard for source protection, and the mishandling of an internal review that ended with a cover-up. It goes without saying that no one should participate in an investigation into themselves, yet this is what happened at The Intercept. Editor-in-Chief Betsy Reed, who oversaw the reporting on Winner’s NSA leak, took an active behind-the-scenes role in the investigation, assigned staff who reported directly to her to gather facts, and, when the facts pointed to editorial failures, Reed removed the staff person from the investigation.

The Intercept’s claim that an independent investigation was conducted is false. The so-called “independent” review was done by the same lawyer who worked on the NSA/Winner story. The Intercept should correct the record and apologize to its readers.

CEO Michael Bloom and Editor-in-Chief Betsy Reed have demonstrated repeatedly that they consider the whistleblowers and journalists who risk their lives on behalf of the organization as disposable. They demonstrated this by their lack of effort to protect Reality Winner. And again when they didn’t bother to inform Edward Snowden of their decision to defund the NSA archive. And now by firing me on a day’s notice from an organization built upon my work and reputation without even informing the staff or the public of their decision.  

First Look Media will issue a statement saying that they did not terminate me in retaliation, that the organization is moving away from its co-founders’ mission (even though this mission still appears on tax filings and fundraising emails), that The Intercept is “under attack”, that Reality Winner is to blame for the evidence The Intercept handed to the government, that my contract “wrapped up” though it has no end date, and that I never really contributed much of value anyway.

I will share a few things I’m proud of: co-founding The Intercept, First Look Media, and Field of Vision; supporting filmmakers with uncompromising artistic and political vision who reach wide audiences and recognition (including 5 Academy Award nominations); fighting for non-extractive contracts in which filmmakers maintain copyright of their creative work; working alongside many extraordinary journalists and filmmakers; and speaking out when a pattern of impunity and retaliation puts sources at risk.

Because of The Intercept’s negligence – including their failure to consult with their own security experts – Reality Winner was arrested before the story was even published, denying her the crucial window of time for the focus to be on the information she risked her personal freedom to reveal to the public. Reality Winner is still imprisoned as I write this letter. 

The government’s prosecution of Winner and her extreme prison sentence are unconscionable. As I argued last month, the Espionage Act is being abused by the government to selectively prosecute sources and whistleblowers, and to intimidate journalists and news organizations seeking to publish information that the government wants to suppress. The Biden administration should pardon Reality Winner on their first day in office. But this does not excuse journalists and news organizations from doing their job to protect sources.

The tragedy here is that First Look Media and The Intercept had all the financial resources and digital security expertise to do this right, and yet they failed to apply their basic founding principles of source protection and accountability to themselves. Instead of conducting an honest, independent and transparent assessment with meaningful consequences, First Look Media fired me for speaking out, exposing the gulf between the organization’s purported values and its practice. 

– Laura Poitras
Co-Founder, The Intercept, First Look Media, Field of Vision