Glenn Greenwald and the Future of Leaks

In an exclusive interview, the journalist behind the NSA scandal talks spies, surveillance, and his next bombshell REUTERS/Sergio Moraes

Glenn Greenwald, the lawyer-turned-journalist-turned-global headline for his reporting on leaked NSA documents, says there is about to be a revolution that will radically change how news organizations cover governments and other big institutions.

The change, he insists, is inevitable because of the pervasiveness of digital content, which has already remade the global economy by allowing instant access to vast troves of information. “Government and businesses cannot function without enormous amounts of data, and many people have to have access to that data,” Greenwald says, adding that it only takes one person with access and an assaulted conscience to leak, no matter what controls are in place.

Information that governments, companies, and associations would rather keep private, especially when it contradicts what they tell the public, can be quickly downloaded and spirited away, as shown by the Edward Snowden National Security Agency files and the diplomatic and military files leaked by Army Private Chelsea Manning.

Greenwald says news has always been mostly the official version of events and the official criticisms of those events, with unofficial criticism as an occasional condiment. But he declares that the condiment is about to become a main course, thanks in part to a mighty push from Greenwald and eBay billionaire Pierre Omidyar.

The Journalist Who Came in From the Cold

The man some Americans regard as a traitor or spy is a hero to many Brazilians, from the president on down, and looks more like a fit, middle-aged surfer than a John le Carré character. Glenn Greenwald now lives under the protection of the Brazilian government – Brazilian President Dilma Rousseff responded to the Snowden revelations by calling the spying a violation of Brazil’s sovereignty and canceling a state dinner with President Obama – and his hillside home in Rio de Janeiro’s wealthy São Conrado neighborhood is just steps from the mayor’s official residence and next to what Greenwald notes is the largest favela, as Brazilian slums are called, in Latin America.

He sat down with Newsweek this week for his first extended interview since word leaked he was leaving The Guardian, the British newspaper that published his most sensational revelations, to join a global Internet news startup funded by Omidyar.

The first question seemed obvious: How does it feel to be the victim of an unauthorized leak?

“I don’t mind,” he says, grinning, as he puts down a can of soda and reaches for a ring of lightly fried calamari. He is wearing a short-sleeve pullover shirt, tan shorts and flip-flops; the backpack at his side holds a cell phone that rings often as we talk. “We’re talking to lots of big powers in journalism about coming to work for us, so I shouldn’t be surprised that it leaked.”

He says Omidyar’s new venture will hire influential journalists from around the world and present a package of general news, all delivered without a lapdog approach to journalism. He vows it will be rife with skepticism, and cover news across the board. Even sports.

Surveillance, in Greenwald’s view, destroys journalism because it allows the government to monitor the reporting being done on it. A world in which the government operates in private while the lives of individuals are exposed, is the appalling opposite of what America’s Founders intended and a healthy democracy demands.

Government Agents Smashing Computers

Greenwald started out as a lawyer at Wachtell Lipton, one of America’s most highly respected law firms, but he hated corporate work. “I spent much too much time on pro bono cases” involving civil rights and other causes instead of developing paying clients.

Although he bailed on his career as a lawyer, his legal training at NYU Law School still permeates his comments, and he clearly has a long-term legal strategy to avoid arrest or being shut down. He also has a nuanced appreciation of the strengths – and weaknesses – of the American government in trying to limit what he can report.

He says a big reason he left The Guardian, the paper that made him world-famous, is the Official Secrets Act, a 19th-century British law that grants the government powerful tools to protect secrets. The law had a “public interest” defense for leakers until 1989, when Parliament struck it from the statute.

Downing Street demanded that Guardian computers and discs laden with Snowden secrets be smashed. Guardian editor Alan Rusbridger was obliged to stand watch this summer as British agents oversaw the destruction of hard disc drives. Greenwald sees that act as an egregious abuse of power—Where, he asks rhetorically, is the outrage over government agents coming into a newsroom to destroy the work of journalists?

His most telling story is one that went virtually unreported in America, other than a photograph a few months ago in The New York Times Magazine, that showed young people wearing Snowden masks when Greenwald spoke at a Brazilian Senate hearing.

What made the news in Brazil, but not America, was what the members of the Brazilian Senate did after hearing Greenwald talk about NSA spying on Rousseff, Brazilian mining firms and government-run oil company Petrobras. They put on the Snowden masks, which he says would be unthinkable in the U.S. Senate.

“The American national security state is totally bipartisan. My biggest problem is with the Democrats, like Feinstein and Pelosi, who are defending it because there is a Democrat in the White House, and they are party loyalists and hacks before they are public servants.”

Snowden masks in the Brazilian Senate is a powerful indication of how much revelations about America's massive spying apperatus are turning world opinion against the United States.

“The Obama administration says we only destroy the privacy of non-Americans,“ Greenwald says. “That is not true. The government is spying on Americans. But what do we expect the rest of the world will think about our government’s repeated declarations that we have no regard for the privacy of" the rest of the world?

“Washington has said over and over that only China spies for economic advantage, but the (Snowden) documents show that is not true.”

This week, Greenwald shared a byline in Le Monde that revealed extensive NSA surveillance inside France, including gathering 70 million electronic messages in a single month. Sharing bylines is crucial to Greenwald. “We are journalists,” he says referring to himself and his associates, including documentary filmmaker Laura Poitras. “We are not distributors of leaked information.”

Giving documents to others without a byline, he fears, could expose him to federal prosecution.

Much as Greenwald rails about mainstream journalism’s shortcomings, he acknowledges that without the megaphone it provides he would still be a blogger with a limited audience. He sees the NSA leaks as a gigantic story of abuse of unchecked power that deserves far more scrutiny. A government that can sweep up massive data on every telephone call and email, issue secret orders to turn over records of innocent conduct and, as the Snowden files show, listen in on for sport to calls (including some telephone sex) is, in his view, not a government of the free.

Beyond the political fallout from the Snowden files, White House declarations are raising questions about whether foreign governments and corporations should stop buying American high-tech products like Cisco routers, IBM computers and Intel microchips. Leaks about backdoor entry points to devices, and features designed to defeat encryption, raise the specter of hidden features that will allow the NSA to break into foreign government, corporate and private files.

The People’s Spy

When I ask Greenwald how it feels to be called a traitor or a spy, his head bobbles. “The idea that I am engaged in espionage is bizarre.” He points out that spies work for governments, corporations or their proxies, and channel secret data in secret to their paymasters, while Greenwald says “I have written about maybe 300 of the tens of thousands of documents I have and I made them known to the public.”

He says that when David Gregory asked him on NBC’s Meet the Press if he should be arrested, “the question did not bother me, but why isn’t Gregory like that with all of his guests? He had [National Security director] James Clapper on, but he did not say, ‘Here is a video of you lying to the U.S. Senate’ – which is a crime – and then asking Clapper, ‘Do you think you should be arrested?’”

Most of the journalism done in Washington and Wall Street, Greenwald says, “is like a private club where loyalty to sources” counts more than informing the public. “We need skepticism, not fealty to sources.”

Washington “runs on leaks and Bob Woodward has become the richest journalist in America because of leaks. But because those leaks serve the interests of those in power, no one would compare him to Kim Philby,” Greenwald says, referring to a notorious Cold War spy for the Soviets.

He believes the Snowden case and other recent leaks have evoked “the authoritarian response that at its core says when someone in power decrees something is secret we have to quiver in deference, and to challenge that decree is somehow a moral and legal crime. I reject that.

“My nature is that when I see abuses of power, I want to expose those abuses.” 

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