By Natasha Vargas-Cooper
Originally published on Advocate.com November 12 2013 6:00 AM ET
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.
Greenwald’s immediate family was small and unlucky. Originally from New York City, they settled in South Lake, Fla., then a lower middle-class enclave filled with small, cheap rental housing under constant threat of demolition by condo developers. Greenwald had a housewife mother, Arlene, and an accountant father, Daniel. His parents were never abusive or neglectful. “They were decent,” Greenwald assures, “but fucked up in their own ways.” Greenwald’s father, a short, small, Jewish man, idealized a campy sort of conservatism that repulsed Greenwald. “He had pictures of Oliver North, Ronald Reagan, and John Wayne in his office,” Greenwald recalls. “It didn’t really have anything to do with politics — he just idealized this fake machismo, which is something he lacked.”
During Greenwald’s teen years, his father left his mother, and she was forced to take a series of low-wage jobs to support Greenwald and his brother while their father racked up debt from second and third marriages. She worked as a cashier at McDonald’s, coming home at night with hundreds of scratch cards from the restaurant to win free hamburgers and sodas. “That’s how we ate for a while.” Greenwald says. It’s all a far cry from his current digs, a spacious two-story wood-and-glass home five minutes from Rio’s glistening beaches but nestled in a bucolic canyon that bleeds into jungle. And yet, a lack of furniture and the towels on the sofa to protect against his pack of rescued dogs gives the whole place a slap-dash feel. “You can’t have a pristine house with ten dogs,” he says as his pets gurgle for his attention while we sit on the back porch that he uses as his office. “And I’d rather have the ten dogs.”
Greenwald’s political development skipped a generation; it can be traced back to his socialist grandparents, with whom he and his mother lived in South Lake for a while when he was in high school. Appalled by the rapacious efforts of land developers, Greenwald’s grandfather, Louis L. Greenwald, ran for city council on a populist ticket, rallying working-class renters, largely immigrants and single women, to take on the condo overlords. The elder Greenwald went by LL and took pride in his campaign slogan, “Give ’em hell, LL!” “He was elected on this totally insurgent campaign,” Greenwald recalls. “Very ideological about fighting power structures.”
Greenwald’s nascent political philosophy was also fueled by his adolescent sexual awakening. “I came of age in the late ’70s, early ’80s, when things were way worse than they are now. And, you know, you get this strong sense that somehow the prevailing order is antithetical to who you are—it rejects you, is hostile to you, it teaches you that you’re bad and wrong and dirty. You feel like you can’t reason or deal with it. You just feel it and its powerful force. So there’s a lot of different ways to cope and deal with that.”
This all comes from Greenwald in an unstoppable verbal torrent. He doesn’t skip a beat as he hand-feeds raw hot dogs to more canine strays that wander in from the trees. He gushes, “One way is people internalize those judgments. Like, ‘I’m horrible, I’m filthy, I’m broken, I’m wrong, I’m defective, I’m going to go destroy myself’ — which is why gay teens end up killing themselves, right? I just decided to turn the aggression on the people I felt were attacking me. I was like, ‘You’re not going to tell me that I’m wrong, I’m going to show you that your actions are wrong.’ So that was the approach I took toward authority. This very hostile, aggressive way of being that required me to analyze all figures of power and that eventually became waging war on prevailing orthodoxies. And when you do that, it’s an intellectually lonely exercise, but you become much stronger.”
It’s 1985 and you’re angry, you’re gay, you’re Jewish — what do you in your senior year of high school to channel your existentialist angst and alienation? If you’re Glenn Greenwald, you run for city council. His grandfather was getting too old to carry out his “vendettas” against the council, so Greenwald — a veteran of high school speech and debate clubs — ran for his seat. “I came to believe if you’re smart, skilled, and have the resources, you should use those things to fuck with the powerful.” He officially entered the race at age 17 but would turn 18 by the day of the vote, making his candidacy legal. “Those incumbent pigs went to court to try to get me off the ballot,” Greenwald snorts. At the first public debate, Greenwald slaughtered his rivals and won the endorsement of all the local news rags and the biggies, the Sun Sentinel and Miami Herald. Greenwald ran twice, coming in close each time but not close enough.
Grappling with the powerful head-on was more attractive to Greenwald than actual politicking or policymaking, so he went off to law school at NYU, graduated top of his class, and went to work for one of the most slickly prestigious law firms in New York: Wachtell, Lipton, Rosen & Katz. As a junior associate, Greenwald had a dazzling number of zeroes on his paychecks, suspenders on his shoulders, and wildly expensive shoes on his feet. He got access to the gilt-edged world of corporate law. But he only lasted 18 months. “I just wanted to know I could enter this world of power,” he says. “It was riveting and exotic. But I wanted to prove that I could conquer it and that there was not a part of that world that wasn’t accessible to me.”
Part of Greenwald’s decision to leave his firm was over a pair of Rollerblades. His then-long-term boyfriend bought a pair, strapped them on, fell, and broke both his wrists. Greenwald sued Rollerblade on his boyfriend’s behalf, but his firm protested: They hadn’t given him permission, and what if Rollerblade had been a potential client? “I can’t deal with constraints like that,” Greenwald says with a tinge of self-effacement. “I chafe at any restraints on what I can do or say.”
He used his year-one bonus to start his own law firm with a small, scrappy, staff that specialized in constitutional law and civil rights. There was a strict dress code: Everyone had to be in suits all the time. To this day, Greenwald wears sober suits whenever he makes any public appearance — no open-shirted radical with a shaggy haircut here. He did five years of pro bono work defending neo-Nazis, among other unpopular clients, over First Amendment issues. Eternally restless, Greenwald predictably found too many constraints in the practice of law as well. “I was pouring my energy into these
institutions that were created to yield these unjust outcomes,” he says. “So it just felt like hitting your head into a brick wall.”
Greenwald’s focus drifted away from the courts, and by mid-decade he was spending more and more time online, stirred by the fuck-all attitude of insurgent political bloggers who were trying to break the stranglehold that stodgy mainstream institutions like the Washington Post and CNN held over political discourse. “This was a time when Ezra Klein, who is now, like, the mayor of Washington hack media, used to write things like ‘Fuck Tim Russert with a spiky acid-tipped dick!’” Greenwald cackles gleefully. Klein has since apologized for his thorny phallus comment, saying “it haunts [him] to this day.” In 2005, Greenwald started his own blog, where, as he puts it, “I could say whatever the fuck I wanted, however I wanted,” and has since apologized for absolutely nothing.
Back before the words Google and Zuckerberg were branded on our psyches, Greenwald was seduced by the strange and unruly promise of Web 1.0. He would argue for hours with strangers on right-wing message boards and experiment with different identities, sexual and otherwise, in chat rooms and over instant messaging, all in service of what he describes as a fundamental part of his self-exploration. It’s only inside a private, anonymous space, away from judgmental eyes, that people can violate orthodoxy and explore new boundaries, Greenwald argues. “The private realm is where creativity, dissent, and innovation exclusively reside,” he says. Even the most radical exhibitionist has parts of their life that they want kept hidden, he reasons. “If you eliminate that private realm, you breed conformity. When all your behavior is public, then you’re going to do the things that the society insists you do and nothing else,” Greenwald says, “and you lose so much of who you are as a human being.”
At left: Edward Snowden
“When I was talking to strangers over the Internet in the 1990s, there would be a much more intense connection because they’re disembodied, so it’s just your brain and your soul interacting with this other person and it just frees you up in this incredibly empowering way,” he says over fries at an outdoor café in Leblon, the Beverly Hills of Rio. Over our heads looms a huge poster of an illustrated magazine cover that depicts a bespectacled Snowden gently kissing Vladimir Putin while he surreptitiously places a “Free Pussy Riot” sticker on the Russian prime minister’s back. Greenwald sneers, “I hate that cover. It’s so stupid.”
Greenwald concedes he gets “a little mean” when asked about his or Snowden’s feelings on Russia. “I’m well aware of the flaws in Russian society, just like I’m well aware of all the flaws in American society,” Greenwald says. “Thousands of people apply for and are given asylum in the U.S. every year, and nobody says, ‘Isn’t it so weird and ironic that people are applying for asylum in a country that has an ocean prison where people are put in cages without trial for 10 years, uses drones, or torture?’” he says, half annoyed. “The point of asylum is not to declare to the world what country you think is the pinnacle of civilization. The point of asylum is to find a country that’s both willing and able to protect you from political persecution.” Greenwald adds, “In no way is asylum an endorsement of a country’s politics, laws, or values. He didn’t choose to be there. He was trying to get transit to Latin America, and then the U.S. revoked his passport and threatened other countries out of offering Snowden safe passage.”
At the end of Greenwald’s trip to meet Snowden in Hong Kong, he was convinced that Snowden would be snatched up by the U.S. and held in custody without trial for years, much like whistleblower Chelsea Manning, whom Greenwald considers a hero. Manning’s three-year pre-trial incarceration and 35-year sentence proves, Greenwald says, that Snowden was right to find harbor anywhere he could. “The question shouldn’t be why is Snowden in Russia? The question should be why is America no longer safe for whistleblowers?”
Greenwald’s early experimental phase on the Internet — which overlapped with the Bush administration’s warrantless wiretapping scandals — stoked much of his obsession with surveillance and privacy, first for sport on his own blog, then as a full-time columnist for Salon, followed by a year long stint at The Guardian. Greenwald quit the London-based outlet two weeks after our visit to join a new media venture backed by billionaire and eBay founder Pierre Omidyar, which Greenwald describes as a “once in-a-career dream journalistic opportunity.” If Greenwald’s notoriety as a civil liberties purist emerged during the Bush years, he really stuck out as one of the few voices on the liberal side of the spectrum that did not go easy on Barack Obama’s own transgressions. His work in breaking the surveillance program documents gathered by Snowden has made him a household name.
Greenwald has been very careful about the way he talks about his relationship with Snowden, not just for security reasons but because Snowden told Greenwald before they met in Hong Kong that he wanted to be out of the public eye in order for people to focus on the substance of the NSA leaks. Greenwald publicly cheered Snowden’s bravery and integrity for coming forward so others would not be blamed or interrogated, but today, Greenwald has more chest-thumping swagger about Snowden; he is practically pink with pride.
“Here’s the real reason Snowden came forward,” Greenwald says, a charge of adrenaline bursting through him as he throws his arms out. “He wanted to undermine the culture of fear by saying ‘Yeah, motherfuckers, not only did I spoil your secrets but here’s who I am! I look like every Midwestern son, you can’t marginalize me because I’m like you; this is my beautiful girlfriend and my stable career! I’m not some Ted Kaczynski maladjusted maniac living in the forest!’ It was a deliberately and provocatively bold thing to do.”
Greenwald also admires Snowden for not uploading the tens of thousands of classified documents to which he had access to the Internet, WikiLeaks style, forcing the public to sort through countless memoranda and policy papers without quite knowing what they’re looking at (though Greenwald is a staunch defender of Julian Assange’s work and actively fundraises for WikiLeaks). Instead, Snowden has worked with Greenwald to select the most essential documents and underscore their impact.
Unlike Assange, the editor-in-chief of WikiLeaks who now lives in the Ecuadorian embassy in London, Greenwald praises Snowden for not going to the New York Times or the Washington Post to break the NSA stories. He often chides his friend for his reliance on mainstream media to broadcast WikiLeaks stories. “I’m like, ‘Hey, asshole! Why do you keep handing documents to the New York Times when you could give them to an independent journalist and elevate independent media?’” Greenwald believes Snowden’s decision to give him the documents has prompted some soul-searching in places like the New York Times. Snowden echoes this belief as well, as he wrote in his email to me:
“Glenn’s work is a foreshadowing of the death of ‘access journalism.’ What we’re seeing with the NSA reporting is that prioritizing the interests of officials over the public, the news audience, is not a winning strategy. Journalists and institutions that hold power to account will attract sources who can provide the facts you aren’t going to get in a briefing room. The access game is a mirage; the officials alienated by hard questions have no choice but to take your calls when confronted with the truth.”
At left: Greenwald and Miranda at home in Rio de Jainero
A lot has been written about Snowden and Greenwald’s professional relationship and the comedy of errors-style course of events surrounding their first meeting. Vastly under-reported is the emotional relationship that has bonded the two men.
When Greenwald first saw Snowden in the restaurant of a Hong Kong hotel, his heart sank. Greenwald had flown across the globe with documentary filmmaker Laura Poitras to meet their anonymous source and was picturing a dandruff-dusted former spook in his 60s — not an IT guy in his 20s. “He looked so young!” Greenwald exclaims. “He was wearing a white T-shirt, hipster glasses, and sneakers, and I was like, ‘Is this the source’s son? His assistant? His gay lover? What the fuck is going on?’”
Greenwald and Poitras escorted Snowden to his grungy hotel room. Snowden had not left the room in two weeks and did not want to let any maids in to tidy, so there were stacks of plates everywhere. “I didn’t judge,” Greenwald says. “I knew he’d worked for the NSA at some point and the situation was fucked in ways I couldn’t even understand.” Snowden, Greenwald remembers, sensed their disappointment and tension. “It was so tense between us at first, we were both so stiff, and I think we didn’t like each other at first,” he says. Poitras set up a camera and immediately started filming the two, and Greenwald went into full-blown litigator mode, conducting a six-hour, nonstop examination of Snowden.
“I wanted to find his solid foundation,” Greenwald recalls. “I wanted to know he had agency and autonomy.” He wanted a deeply satisfying explanation of Snowden’s motivations, not only for leaking but for wanting to go public with his identity. “I just needed to know that it was real and grounded in clear-eyed analysis and self-awareness,” Greenwald says. “Snowden was giving me bullshit answers.”
Snowden continued to insist he was no hero and was just trying to do the right thing as Greenwald fired questions, trying to isolate what informed Snowden’s sense of right and wrong, until Snowden gave Greenwald an answer he didn’t expect but immediately understood. It wasn’t Hegelian theories on power structures or Ron Paul rhetoric about privacy; it wasn’t Nietzsche’s Genealogy of Morals (Greenwald’s greatest influence) or Jeffersonian notions of government. It was comic books and video games. “You have good guys who are forced to do difficult but good things,” Snowden said to Greenwald, a bit embarrassed.
Greenwald, who has no interest in either video games or comics, knows first-hand what sort of moral universe they can create for their devotees; Miranda has built his entire ethical code on countless hours of video gameplay.
“It’s not a simplistic ideology. David is one of the most complex, intellectually curious, and sophisticated people I’ve ever met, and he’s the one who convinced me that being influenced by the moral dynamics of a comic book or video game is no less noble than being shaped by a novel or a book,” Greenwald reasons. “You can watch The Matrix and take it as an action movie, or you can delve into all its greater existentialist meanings. All of the narratives in these comic books are about these single individuals devoted to justice who have the willingness to be brave, who can defeat even the most powerful edifices of evil.”
When Miranda was detained in England, Greenwald spent most of those nine hours binge-eating Doritos and talking to Snowden over encrypted chat. “I was furious; I felt so powerless, but I think Snowden was even more outraged.”
I ask Greenwald if Snowden told him the names of any of the video games or comic books that influenced him. “No,” Greenwald says, laughing. “How the fuck would I know any of that Dungeons and Dragons shit?” But it was the answer he was looking for, authentic and solid. They moved forward and the rest is history, still unfolding before us.
And there’s more to come. During our last meeting over a candlelit Thai dinner lubricated with some local red wine, Greenwald is veritably fizzing with all his plans. He’s pounding out a book on the Snowden story, set for publication in the spring. And, he warns, there’s still a lot of grenades to be thrown from the Snowden document cache. He has some dreams, of course, but the Work comes first.
“I’ve always thought stability was suffocating and deadly. Like, when I read that the kids I went to law school with have stayed at the same firm, I feel like I’m reading an obituary. How much money do you need? Six million, seven million? Put that in the bank and do something else. Get out!” he says with another sip of wine.
“Can I tell you what I would do with $6 million?” he says with a faraway, almost bashful tone to his voice. “I have this fantasy of buying farmland in Brazil with David and just taking care of as many dogs as we can. Is that totally crazy?”