Brazil, Snowden, Russia and fake news: a conversation with Glenn Greenwald

Journalist Glenn Greenwald

You probably know Glenn Greenwald as the American lawyer-turned-journalist who worked with whistleblower Edward Snowden to reveal global systems of secret government surveillance.

What you may not know is that Greenwald has lived for more than a decade in the mountains of Rio de Janeiro. From his home in the hills, Greenwald, 49, has continued to dissect and roil US politics via The Intercept, a news organization he launched with filmmaker Laura Poitras and journalist Jeremy Scahill in 2014.

The Intercept Brasil

The Intercept Brasil is Glenn Greenwald's latest, Portuguese-language site.



Earlier this year, Greenwald also launched The Intercept Brasil, a Portuguese-language version of the news site covering Brazilian current affairs and politics.

I meet Greenwald in the lobby of a hotel in Rio’s Sao Conrado neighborhood on a hot, clammy afternoon at an exhausting and chaotic time for Brazil.

It hosted the Summer Olympics, and then impeached its president. And earlier this month, a Supreme Court judge ordered the Senate speaker to step down over new corruption charges. He is refusing to go, and observers are warning that a full-blown constitutional crisis could ensue.

In downtown Rio, a few miles from where we sit, protesters have been waging battles with military police over an unpopular austerity law. Tear gas and rubber bullets have been fired.

It’s a fascinating time to be a journalist in Brazil. But what I want to know, first of all, is how Greenwald ended up in Rio de Janeiro, of all places.

Glenn Greenwald: The impetus principally was personal. I was practicing law in New York in 2005, and had begun to think that I wanted to just kind of explore different options for life.

So, I just kind of cleared my schedule for eight weeks, rented an apartment in Rio, where I had been visiting many times, and came here with the intention of just walking on the beach and clearing my head and figuring things out.

I ended up meeting my now-husband of 11 years on the second full day that I was here.

At the time, the US had an explicit ban on granting immigration rights to same-sex couples, while Brazil, amazingly, given that it’s the largest Catholic country on the planet, actually offered immigration rights based on same-sex marriage.

So the only option we had for living together was being here, and I wanted to anyway, because I wanted something new.

(You can listen to Greenwald below.)

For the first few years Greenwald lived in Rio, he continued almost exclusively to write about politics and constitutional issues in the US. He explained how his new home gave him a new perspective for that work:

GG: I was motivated to become more political in large part as a result of post-9/11 developments in American political discourse and the climate there — putting people in prison with no charges, those kinds of issues.

I actually liked living in a place — Brazil — where people didn’t know my work and didn’t care about my work because it was often polarizing and controversial, and it was nice to be in a place where no one cared.

But this detachment from his new home didn’t last long. Greenwald described how the Snowden revelations of US spying on Brazilian officials, followed by the impeachment of President Dilma Rousseff, landed him wholeheartedly in the maw of Brazilian politics.

GG: For one thing, [Brazil] is just a fascinating arena, politically. To be a journalist reporting on Brazilian politics is just endlessly compelling.

Because it’s a young democracy, I do think it tends to be a little more unstable than, say, in the US or older democracies.

And that instability, although it can be risky and scary sometimes, actually makes you feel like you do have more of a potential impact in doing your journalism, because it can have a much more direct effect on large numbers of people who are still figuring out what their country and their government are going to be.

Speaking of impact, I asked Greenwald how he feels knowing that despite all of his reporting on secret spying by the National Security Agency and other governments, the main architects of those programs are still walking free and government surveillance remains as strong as ever.

GG: I think part of it is that you just have to accept that as a journalist you have a somewhat limited role. You’re not a prosecutor, you’re not a judge, you’re not a police officer. You can’t arrest people. What you’re really here to do is to make information available to the public and to institutions, and let them decide what ought to be done about it democratically and legally.

So, sometimes it is frustrating when the outcome isn’t exactly what you want.

But one of the things the Snowden reporting taught me was that good journalism, and high-impact journalism, actually does have a very high potential for change.

So, even though the head of the NSA wasn’t arrested and prosecuted as a result of what we revealed — in large part because the scandal wasn’t that the NSA was breaking the law, the scandal was what had been made legal unbeknownst to most people — there have been really fundamental changes in terms of how mass surveillance is conducted.

Behavior has changed greatly among individual internet users, who now use encryption and other forms of technology that create a barrier for surveillance.

Diplomatic relations have changed between countries, so that now protections against mass surveillance are taken much more seriously.

And then, most of all, consumers have pressured tech companies to such a great extent that you have companies like Facebook and Google using end-to-end encryption, which is a genuine threat to the surveillance state’s ability to monitor. All of which are direct byproducts of the Snowden reporting.

Edward Snowden, the former defense contractor who leaked Greenwald and other journalists thousands of classified documents, is currently living in de-facto exile in Russia. President-elect Donald Trump has opined in the past (on Twitter, where else?) that Snowden should be executed. I asked Greenwald if this makes him nervous for his friend and source.

GG: Obviously, right now, he’s in Russia and is protected with asylum, or at least a three-year residency.

But what about Trump’s reported cozy relationship with Russian President Vladimir Putin?

GG: Well, that’s the danger, right? As long as [Snowden’s] in Russia, it doesn’t matter what Trump wants to do to him, because he can’t get his hands on him, just like Obama couldn’t.

Obama wanted to put him in prison for a few decades and was thwarted by [Snowden’s] stay in Russia.

So, I think the fear is that if Putin and Trump are serious about re-establishing détente or better relations, one of the prizes that Putin can give to Trump is Edward Snowden.

I don’t think anyone knows how that will play out. Of course it’s a concern, but you know the amazing thing is that Snowden did what he did not just knowing that it was a risk, but believing he would likely end up in prison for many decades. That was our working assumption when we were in Hong Kong.

And he chose to do what he did anyway.

So, there’s always been varying risks hanging over Edward Snowden’s head and perhaps it’s gotten a little bit more intense, and sure, I do worry about it, but there’s not a lot that can be done.

Russia has been in the news recently for another major reason: US officials are accusing the Kremlin of historic meddling in the 2016 US election. Media outlets have reported a slew of allegations ranging from the Russian government ordered hacks of damaging internal Democratic Party files to the claim that it spread “fake news” during the campaign. Throughout, Greenwald and other writers at The Intercept have sharply questioned the claims and demanded the US government offer stronger evidence to the public.

In our interview, which took place before the most recent Russian hacking reports, Greenwald had this to say about fake news.

GG: For me, the key issue is how do you define “fake news”?

If it’s this narrow, concrete term that refers to this very specific phenomenon of Macedonian teenagers purposefully manufacturing what they know are false [stories] to make people spread and click it in order to generate ad revenue, I think it remains to be seen how significant that really has been. But it would seem to me that you could have solutions to address that.

The term, “fake news,” though, has become so much broader. It’s almost, at this point, something that gets applied to any type of journalism that I dislike. Or even any journalism that’s misleading or false.

The reason that there is an issue with fake news, however you want to define it, is to me twofold:

One is that it’s just the nature of internet technologies, which has so many good things. But one of its dangers is that we can just Balkanize our world and we can become atomized and only consume information that is pleasing or self-affirming, which is really dangerous in a democracy, right?

But I think the reason that has happened is because faith in media institutions has been lost. And I think it’s important to ask why?

So you have the most trusted names in news, from the New York Times to the Washington Post, to NBC News, that convinced an entire country to go to war over weapons that didn’t exist. Or you have a financial collapse that all of the experts that at these media outlets long venerated failed to see and contributed to, of course you’re going to have a loss in institutions.

I think asking how faith in media institutions can be re-established is critical to battling this fake news plague.

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