Enemy of the State

How Glenn Greenwald is taking on the world, and why he'll never stop.



David Miranda (left) and Glenn Greenwald
David Miranda (left) and Glenn Greenwald

Glenn Greenwald scrunches over his laptop, the fizzing, glinty look in his eyes settling into something more staid and intense. It’s twilight in Gavea, the upscale enclave of Rio de Janeiro built alongside a hand-planted rainforest in the Zona Sul. The monkeys who routinely raise hell from the rubber trees that adorn Greenwald’s backyard have fled for the evening. A knot of ten dogs, mostly strays scooped off Rio’s traffic-gnarled streets, snore and grumble on the cream tiled floor. Without warning, Greenwald, who has the rat-tat-tat chattiness of Midnight Cowboy’s Ratso Rizzo crossing a Manhattan street corner, falls into a chilly silence. His small, fleshy hands flutter over the keyboard. Who knows what business is afoot inside his browser.

The tense quiet stretches on for minutes, made all the more uneasy by legions of invisible toads shamelessly burping from the mangroves. He could be devising his next series of explosive reports on secret Unites States and United Kingdom surveillance programs (he has been working on classified documents on U.S. assassination initiatives). Or, given his open contempt for major media organizations, he could be typing his resignation email to The Guardian. Or he could be prepping for his upcoming testimony before the Brazilian senate about how David Miranda, Greenwald’s partner of eight years, was detained and interrogated in Heathrow airport by U.K. officials for nine hours under the Terrorism Act in August. Maybe word has come down that the U.S. Department of Justice has launched a long-anticipated criminal investigation against Greenwald.

Or maybe he’s just paying a parking ticket.

“Here.” Greenwald snaps his head up and flips his laptop screen toward me as a hyper baby pinscher leaps into his lap. He points to his onscreen chat window. “I’m just talking with Snowden right now.” He flashes a chummy grin. “It’s our nightly check-in.” Greenwald giggles, sips a little red wine, and continues chatting with the 30-year-old former systems analyst whose explosive revelations about the American surveillance state have rocked Washington, put the Obama administration on the defensive, and damaged U.S. relations around the world.

“Moscow kinda sucks,” Greenwald reports.

One of the problems with political ideologues is that they can be such a drag. While I’ve always admired Greenwald’s work — rigorous 3,000-word columns packed with hyperlinks to federal court documents, obscure government memoranda, and dissident dispatches by foreign bloggers — I worried that in the flesh, Greenwald would be grim, cold, and wonky. His obsession with surveillance and privacy issues have made him into an ideological pillar of the rather sterile, unfriendly world of civil libertarian politics, a group not known for its warmth and humanism.

My hesitation dissipates the instant Greenwald and Miranda pick me up off an Ipanema boulevard in their red mini station wagon. I’m tagging along with the couple to a photo shoot for a feature spread (fully clothed) for the Brazilian edition of Playboy. “It’s a very tasteful magazine,” Greenwald insists. “It’s run by gays!” With Katy Perry playing on the radio, we spend our first hour together mostly talking about Cesar Millan and the tyrannical nature of chihuahuas. Miranda, who has found his own global acclaim and notoriety since being detained at Heathrow, is on his phone trying to coordinate picking up scalped tickets to a sold-out Bon Jovi/Nickleback concert in Rio. “I am going to this concert!” he declares. Greenwald credits Miranda, a Brazilian native who is currently finishing a degree in communications, for his success in journalism. “He’s like my Svengali,” says Greenwald.

Greenwald, 46, met Miranda, 28, in 2005, on the first day of a two-month vacation in Rio. At the time, Greenwald was just beginning to transition from his job as a constitutional law litigator to fiery polemicist. He was reading on the beach at Copacabana; Miranda was playing beach volleyball. Miranda’s beach ball rolled onto Greenwald’s towel: “Oi! Meu nome é Glenn.” They moved in together that week. “As a gay man, when you come to Rio for seven weeks, you’re not looking for a relationship,” Greenwald says with a bawdy laugh, “but I never fell in love so fast.”

Miranda, born to a protsitute and passed from alcoholic aunt to alcoholic aunt after his mother died when he was four years old, was uneducated until he met Greenwald, and had worked in low-wage jobs in Rio all his life. Their first night together they spoke in broken English and Portuguese. Miranda closed by serenading Greenwald with love songs. “He has the most monotone, atrocious voice,” says Greenwald as the three of us have lunch in an upscale Rio mall. “If he sings now, I’m like, ‘Oh my god, I can’t stand this!’ but I was so instantly in love with him that I was convinced I’d found my own Enrique Iglesias on the first note.” Now multiple movie studios and TV show developers are courting the couple to dramatize their story:

Woodward and Bernstein for the digital age — just slightly gayer.

Greenwald and Miranda never moved to the U.S. together because, until the Supreme Court struck down the Defense of Marriage Act in June, Miranda could not get an immigration visa. “For eight years we didn’t have that option,” Greenwald says, “but then, literally the week DOMA got struck down, this other little barrier to living in the United States popped up: I might be arrested indefinitely the second I got off the plane.”

Not that Brazil has been some kind of tropical detention center for Greenwald: “Rio is the best fucking place in the world,” he says as we cruise along the white sands of Copacabana. “The people and the culture have taught me a different way to live; it’s all spoken to my soul since I got here. The U.S. is more concerned with being an actor in the world and influencing the world. You don’t have to be here too long to figure out there’s never any thought at any time of invading another country. I mean, I assume if Argentina invaded Brazil for some reason then, yes, OK, but you realize when staying in another country that the notion of constant invasion is extremely radical.”

Exile, self-imposed or otherwise, is a state of being that Greenwald seems most comfortable with, anyway. He prides himself on being an iconoclastic outsider and maintains an open disdain for beltway journalists and media pundits whom he regards as “sleazeballs” and “courtiers of power.” Media is the church of the “savvy” insiders who only care about who won what, Greenwald says, paraphrasing NYU media critic Jay Rosen. “They hate idealism or anyone who believes in something, because that just seems really naïve or loser-ish to them. It makes you a hopeless ideologue or a fringe-y weirdo. The currency they respect is power and success in Washington, and for them that is something to admire instead of be suspicious about or object to.” Greenwald delivers this little outlander manifesto with an effusive, cheeky verve. There’s no trace of solemnity or pathological political correctness, just a plucky fuck-you attitude that for anyone who has a natural distrust of authority serves as an easy entrée to quick camaraderie. Us vs. them.

Edward Snowden broke his general radio silence to tell me via email why he picked Greenwald to bust open his story rather than, say, a more mainstream reporter for the Washington Post or the New York Times.

 “The bottom line is that sources risking serious harm to return public information to public hands must have absolute confidence that the journalists they go to will report on that information rather than bury it,” Snowden says, clearly referring to the Times’ year-long equivocation over publishing reports of the Bush administration’s warrantless wiretapping — a major turning point in both Snowden’s and Greenwald’s political development. “Glenn’s writing consistently demonstrated his belief that journalists should serve people rather than governments, and that gives sources the confidence to shoulder great risks to do good.”

In the five days I spent with Greenwald, he revealed himself to be buoyant, chummy, emotional, and a total charmer. It also became clear that the greatest engine driving his work is not a dogged commitment to abstract ideals but the tender relationships he builds with the few who are very close to him, be it Miranda, Snowden, a disembodied screen name on an Internet message board, or the flock of half-blind sclerotic mutts he shepherds.