Glenn Greenwald: The Outsider

The anti-establishment journalist who midwifed the Edward Snowden revelations talks about surveillance, reporting, and new fault lines in American politics.


Glenn Greenwald might be the single most polarizing figure in American journalism. In the 12 months between May 2013 and May 2014, the self-made blogger, civil libertarian, and investigative journalist was called "treasonous" by Rep. Peter King (R-N.Y.), given a prestigious Polk Award for national security reporting, accused of "paranoid libertarianism" by The New Republic, and awarded a Pulitzer Prize for public service. Along the way, the itinerant one-man shop left his job at The Guardian, wrote a book called No Place to Hide, and helped launch an intriguing if vaguely defined new digital magazine called The Intercept, backed by eBay founder Pierre Omidyar and featuring fellow left-of-center muckrakers Jeremy Scahill and Laura Poitras.

Greenwald, 47, is the man most responsible for bringing the surveillance revelations of National Security Agency (NSA) whistleblower Edward Snowden to light, in an ongoing series of articles buttressed by additional investigative corroboration. Snowden initiated the contact with Greenwald after reading his staunch, criticize-all-sides civil-liberties blogging at outlets such as Salon. To admirers, the two share an adherence to constitutional liberties so strong that they're willing to take on their own ideological bunkmates and live in exile from their homeland. (Greenwald resides in Brazil.) To detractors, they are part of a transnational movement to sabotage U.S. hegemony.

Central to Greenwald's ethos is his status as an outsider. A civil rights litigator by training, Greenwald switched careers to political commentary in the mid-'00s. He started a self-published blog called Unclaimed Territory, which leveled an acerbic critique at the Bush administration's civil liberties record and the Washington press corps that enabled it. In 2006 he wrote a book-published by the activist phone company Working Assets-called How Would a Patriot Act? Defending American Values from a President Run Amok. Improbably, it made The New York Times bestseller list and shot to No. 1 on Amazon.

In November, the Senate narrowly defeated the Snowden-inspired USA FREEDOM Act, which would have provided the first check in generations on the NSA's power to collect blanket information about American citizens. While criticized by some civil libertarians for not going far enough, the bill demonstrated that a few dedicated outsiders can influence the culture enough to at least make Washington sweat. For his unique contribution to American media and discourse, the Reason Foundation, which publishes reason, in November awarded Greenwald its second annual Lanny Friedlander Prize, which honors an individual or group who has created a publication, medium, distribution platform, or way of doing media that vastly expands human freedom by increasing people's ability to express themselves and engage in debate.

In September, Greenwald sat down with Reason TV producer Todd Krainin in Montreal to talk about surveillance, privacy, journalism, and the emerging left-right coalition on civil liberties.

reason: No Place to Hide reads in many ways like an All the President's Men for the 21st century, with you and Laura Poitras playing the role of Woodward and Bern­stein. Where they differ is what really interests me. Even though it's a timeless tale, at the end of All the President's Men you have a president who resigns, you have people who go to jail, you have some measure of accountability. I don't quite know if we're at the end game with [your] scenario, but do you see that ever happening? Do you see some measure of accountability? Or today have things changed to such a degree that the government just acts with impunity?

Glenn Greenwald: I do. Even in Watergate, that took a relatively long time from the original disclosures to the point where Washington, the political class, took it seriously enough so that there was accountability. In fact, if you look at the first year and a half to two years of Watergate reporting, overwhelmingly the polling broke down on partisan lines, where Republicans were rather dismissive of the seriousness of what was being reported and Democrats were trying to exploit it for political gain. It was only once it reached a tipping point and prominent Republicans came out and said this is really wrong, and then the battle for the tapes, it all sort of unfolded the way we now remember it. But it took a good while. The nature of politically powerful people is that they have a lot of defenses and a lot of strength-by definition-and you don't deflate them or bring them down or hold them accountable easily. It's always a battle.

I do think there have been some very significant changes as a result of [our] reporting. There hasn't been a lot of legislation passed. But I never thought that the place to look for restrictions on the power of the U.S. government would be the U.S. government itself, because human beings generally don't walk around thinking about ways to restrict their own power.

I think the much more significant changes are the changes in consciousness that people have, not just about surveillance, but about privacy, the role of government, their relationship to it, the dangers of exercising power in the dark, and the role of journalism as well. There are all kinds of ways that surveillance is now being curbed, from other governments acting in coalition to impede U.S. hegemony over the Internet, to technology companies like Facebook, Yahoo, and Google knowing that, unless they make a real commitment to protecting their users' privacy, they're going to lose a generation of users to other countries' companies. The most important of all is the awareness of individuals about the need to protect their own privacy by using things like encryption and other tools of anonymity. I think these things are a really important form of change and accountability that will come from the reporting.

reason: Is time also a factor? [As you] mention in the book, initially there's a fear of surveillance, there's a shock. And then over time, you get used to the cameras being on you. I know this just as a photojournalist: In the beginning, you put a camera on someone and they're nervous, they're worried about their appearance, and after an hour it's like it's not even there anymore. Does that dilute the urgency in any way?

Greenwald: There is definitely an extent to which you can normalize almost every form of abusive behavior on the part of the state. You can pretty much accustom a population to almost anything. There are studies that show that at the end of the Stasi, when the wall and East Germany fell-and even once East Germans became integrated into the West or at least into reunified Germany-that, behaviorally, it took a long time for East Germans to change from the population under this repressive, tyrannical microscope of surveillance to one that was free. Because they had become acculturated to simply accepting the world with those kinds of limitations.

But I also think that there is an instinctive drive that human beings have for privacy, for having a place where we can go and think and communicate and act without the judgmental eyes of other people being cast upon us. Because we understand reflexively how important that is to be able to dissent and explore who we are. So I don't ever see a time when people will be satisfied with having no privacy in the digital age.

reason: [Is the] NSA's blanket surveillance now legally permissible under any possible interpretation of the law, in your opinion?

Greenwald: What's important to understand when we talk about what's legal is the extent to which our institutions that determine legality have been completely co-opted, either by the other branches of government or just by the kind of post-9/11 fearmongering hysteria that has subsumed federal judges as much as they have everybody else, if not more so.

Take the PATRIOT Act, for example. Section 215 of the PATRIOT Act is the provision that the Justice Department cited to convince the [Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act, or FISA] court to allow the NSA to collect all telephone records from Verizon and Sprint and every other major carrier-the metadata of every person with whom every other American is communicating. If you go back and look at the debate that took place over the PATRIOT Act-and there was a debate over the PATRIOT Act, even in the wake of 9/11-there were lots of people standing up and saying, this is really alarming, this is going to vest extremist surveillance power in the government. Nobody thought-neither the proponents of the PATRIOT Act who wrote it, like Jim Sensenbrenner, who were devoted to extremist power in the wake of 9/11, nor the critics of the PATRIOT Act, who were motivated to depict as extreme a picture of the legislation as they could-nobody remotely dreamed that that law could ever be cited to justify mass indiscriminate surveillance on Americans.

All it did was lower the standards so that you no longer needed probable cause, but a much lower level of proof of reasonable suspicion to target somebody for surveillance. Yet a FISA court in secret ended up accepting this rendition of the PATRIOT Act that nobody thinks it plausibly permits. That's really become the problem: The law almost is irrelevant, and it gets twisted and distorted by the very institutions that are supposed to safeguard [it], to justify almost anything the government wants to do.

reason: It sounds like a very similar situation to how torture and water boarding were permitted, right?

Greenwald: Right. I mean, the law in its most idealized form is this consistent, objective, concrete, identifiable set of rules and principles that constrict people's behavior. But in reality, the law, like everything else, is an instrument that those who wield the greatest power can use to maximize their power and to shield themselves from challenge and protection. You're exactly right: Nobody thought water boarding and these other techniques were anything but illegal, criminal torture. In fact, the U.S. government has prosecuted people for using them exactly on that theory. But legal memos got written. Courts have, if not accepted them, accepted the fact that their existence justified the decisions. So they just become legal by sort of fiat power. That's why, although I began writing about politics as a journalist [by focusing] a lot on legal questions, I almost never focus on them now, because they're really not relevant to the struggle for power or popular opinion.

reason: Can you explain what The Intercept is, and what it is going to provide to the public that isn't already out there in this diverse world of media in which we live?

Greenwald: It's a little difficult to describe what The Intercept is because it's still very much a work in progress.

The idea behind it when we began was that there's been fundamental flaws in American journalism that we wanted to set out-I wouldn't say "to rectify," because that's too much of an ambitious aspiration-but to at least start to work to produce other models. There are two central flaws we wanted to rectify. One was the fact that most well-funded institutional media outlets have become, for a variety of reasons, far too close to and deferential to those who wield the greatest political and economic power, as opposed to adversarial to it, and therefore have kind of gutted the purpose of journalism, which is to serve as a check on those who wield power and not as an uncritical servant or amplifier of their message.

And then the second flaw that we wanted to rectify was the lack of vibrancy and independence in how journalists are allowed to report and opine and talk about the world. There's kind of become this very soul-draining, soulless voice that journalists are expected to adopt. It's one of contrived neutrality or objectivity that prevents them from really having any passion or spirit behind their journalism. We really wanted to reanimate the idea of what journalism was supposed to be, which is not this cloistered profession that follows all these archaic, unwritten rules but instead was about crusading for some kind of outcome or against a particular injustice. That means letting journalists be free to pursue their own voice and not trying to homogenize them or neuter them.

I think it's much more honest to simply be candid about the subjective assumptions that you're embracing, rather than to pretend that you're something that you're not. But more to the point, I think that that kind of pseudo-objective journalism neuters it. It means that you can't really ever be perceived as taking a strong position because that somehow compromises your objectivity. It means that you're basically toothless, that you no longer have the ability to check those who are in power or to call out their lies when they're lying or to be aggressive in telling the truth. That's a big part of why journalism has been failing.

reason: In some ways, the story of Snowden is really just a springboard for some larger philosophical issues that you really get into in your book, about who gets to be considered an insider in the establishment and who's an outsider.

Greenwald: I think that this dynamic is-I wouldn't necessarily say universal, because that's probably too great of a claim-but it's extremely common across cultures and eras. The idea that orthodoxies are maintained by imposing punishment for those who defy them. I think it's always the case, or most often the case, that the path of least resistance is to embrace and act in accordance with societal convention, and [that] there are generally punishments for deviating from that convention. So a big part of it is just simply that normal human dynamic, that people who wield power have an interest in having the status quo, or the prevailing order, maintained.

One important way of doing that is to ensure that there are penalties for those who challenge it. And one important penalty that gets imposed on those who challenge it is the idea of societal scorn or shame. You'll be depicted as crazy or unstable. You can find Soviet or Chinese dissidents who were put into mental hospitals rather than prisons, on the grounds that they were crazy for challenging the prevailing order. Scientists like Galileo and Copernicus, and Socrates in philosophy, were regarded similarly. So I think there is a very important component of it there, and one of the reasons why journalists who are very amply rewarded become such reliable servants of power is because they too have an interest in preserving the status quo.

It's important to remember that even the most popular opinions, or the things that are done by those who seem like they are the guardians of convention, can also be really crazy. Like the idea of being able to target an American citizen for execution by drone without due process. That is actually a really radical, and one could say crazy, idea. And if it were being proposed by some fringe ideologue, rather than being done by a popular American president, it would be regarded as self-evidently crazy.

reason: You make the point that it is absolutely crucial that journalists be outsiders.

Greenwald: My role, as a journalist, is not to give comfort. I'm not a therapist, or a nurse, or a pastor. I think one of the most crucial parts of journalism is to constantly poke and prod at convention and orthodoxy and to challenge assumptions that people are just implicitly accepting. Not just even if it makes people uncomfortable, but especially then. I think you need, always, to have every kind of human belief being challenged and scrutinized and put under a microscope. That's an important part of what journalism is about.

reason: But do you romanticize that aspect of the journalistic viewpoint a little bit? For example, yes, you've come under fire from a lot of journalists, and people [have called] for your imprisonment in some cases. But isn't that just part of what you're actually promoting, which is adversarial journalism? Some people are going to look at you in a really negative light. They're going to ask you the same kind of hard questions that you would ask of the NSA, for example.

Greenwald: Absolutely. And journalists tend to be really thin-skinned, especially in the Internet age, where it's really the first time journalists had to be confronted with criticism. Ten years ago if you wrote a column for The New York Times, if you were Maureen Dowd or Tom Friedman, the only criticisms you ever heard were people who wrote letters to the editor and got published, and none of them ever cared at all about that. Now everywhere they go Tom Friedman and Maureen Dowd hear constant criticism, and sometimes the criticism is vicious, and it's vitriolic, and it's personal, and unproductive, and whatever. But I would rather have those people-and I would include myself in that-subjected to excessive criticism and attack than insufficient criticism and attack.

reason: A lot of the revelations that you came across from Snowden have in many ways proven to be more outrageous than even the most creative of conspiracy theorists could have ever imagined. You even write about how shocked you were personally. I'm wondering, did that have an impact on how, or even whether, you view our government, in general, as a force for good? Did it make you more skeptical about it?

Greenwald: Definitely. I don't see how it can not do that.

I've been writing about the dangers of state surveillance, U.S. surveillance, for a lot of years. And we've gotten little snippets of the magnitude of this surveillance, just how unaccountable and out of control it is. But to see the sheer breadth of it-the fact that their explicit institutional ambition is to collect all communications on the Internet, literally all-is something that is difficult to explain in terms of how you react. It does feel like you're confronted with this almost caricature of tyranny, which is a hard word to use when you're talking about your own government, because we are so inculcated to think that tyranny is something that happens elsewhere, in bad countries. But to watch the U.S. government, in its own documents, not just trying but coming very close to converting the Internet into a realm of unlimited, indiscriminate surveillance, which is another way of saying eliminating privacy in the digital age, is really stunning.

But the more jarring part of it is how secretive it all was. You watch your government, that claims to be a democracy and claims to be accountable to its citizenry through the ballot box, engaging in this indescribably consequential behavior, and purposefully keeping not just the details but the broad strokes of what they're doing completely secret from the people who are supposed to be deciding whether they want their government to be doing that. It's a real subversion of not just privacy but of democracy itself. And yeah, to watch it in action, essentially, with definitive proof of what they are doing, definitely heightened my skepticism over the reliability of the U.S. government's claims, the role they play in the world, and its motives as well.

reason: Have you been surprised or disappointed in any way with the weak reaction against the NSA by a lot of the people on the left?

Greenwald: No, I haven't been surprised, in part because there were so many other policies that progressives-or liberals, or Democrats, whatever you want to describe them as being-pretended not just to oppose but to vehemently condemn and be offended by when they were done by George Bush, and when Barack Obama was condemning them. And then they just stood by quietly, meekly acquiescing if not outright endorsing Obama once he was in power [and] embracing these same theories, in some cases even expanding them. So this kind of radical, grotesque form of progressive hypocrisy was something that I had become extremely accustomed to, had written about, and had just expected as a fact of life.

At the same time, the reaction to the NSA reporting on the conservative side was actually quite mixed. It is true that there were a lot of conservatives who were consistent, meaning they defended eavesdropping in the Bush regime and they defended it when done under Obama, and were hostile to the reporting. But a huge amount of the support for Edward Snowden and the reporting that we were doing came from the right, as well as the left. A lot of that was just as hypocritical as the hypocrisy on the left, because a lot of those conservatives were perfectly fine with the NSA scandal under George Bush, and suddenly got worried about individual privacy when a Democrat was in control. But a lot of it was this kind of small government, pro-individual privacy strain on the right that was offended by the idea of this level of government spying. It was really interesting because it didn't break down at all along partisan or ideological lines.

In fact, if you look at the first NSA vote to defund the bulk metadata program, the two sponsors were John Conyers [D-Mich.] and Justin Amash [R-Mich.]. You can't find more disparate members of Congress than those two, and the people that lined up behind them to do that were across the range of the political spectrum. Ultimately, the big breakdown was along demographic lines, where young people tend to support Snowden and to be really offended and alarmed by this kind of surveillance, while older people were more tolerant of it. But the behavior of Democrats was completely predictable. They pretended to be hideously bothered by a much smaller-scale amount of eavesdropping revealed under George Bush and then were completely supportive of what was done under President Obama.

I think that the much more relevant split, politically, is no longer left vs. right or Democrat vs. Republican but insider vs. outsider. You saw this most prominently in the last year with that NSA vote, where the people who saved the bulk metadata program were the White House, Nancy Pelosi, and John Boehner-this kind of unholy trinity of establishment insiders-who whipped all their establishment members of Congress in defense of the NSA. And you had the kind of Tea Party outsiders with the outsiders on the left joining together to try to defund it. This coalition has actually become more apparent in lots of different areas, including drug policy and penal reform and intervention and war questions.

Even if you look at the two outside agitation movements of the last five years, which were Occupy Wall Street and the Tea Party movement, perceived as polar opposites, they were both actually born out of anger over the bailout. So I think objections to crony capitalism and the kind of inherent corruption of how the public and private sectors are interacting are also commonalities among the left and the right, and those are some extremely significant issues. You can [add] social issues to that as well, whether it be choice or marriage equality, where you find advocates of those positions on both the right and the left. There is a lot more common ground than people typically recognize.