Award-winning filmmaker Laura Poitras says her newest documentary short, Project X, explores “What does it feel like to be a spy? How do they move in the world?”
The answer, it seems, is to behave with the care and paranoia that you would expect in operating behind enemy lines. The difference is that the spies whose stories she tells are always at home: Americans snooping here in the USA on behalf of the National Security Agency (NSA).
Poitras was the director who, along with journalist Glenn Greenwald, introduced the world to Edward Snowden and the top secret electronic surveillance conducted by the NSA. Her film about Snowden’s leaks, Citizenfour, won Best Documentary Feature at the 2015 Academy Awards.
Even with a considerably shorter running time—just 10 minutes—Project X is no less chilling. Its source material is a top secret NSA handbook, leaked by Snowden, instructing agency employees about the existence of Titanpoint—the agency’s code name for a surveillance hub housed inside the windowless, 29-story building at 33 Thomas Street in Manhattan. The building is owned by the telecommunications giant AT&T, and the NSA’s spooks are told to “remember, this is a partnership.”
Visiting the site requires “anonymity,” so no uniforms or badges should be worn. Cover vehicles are provided through a contractor that does business with the FBI, but is “unaware of NSA involvement.” The handbook also recommends “following an indirect route between NSA and covert sites” like Titanpoint. In the event of an accident, don’t disclose your identity as an NSA employee to police, and don’t worry about lying to the cops because the FBI will cover for you.