Glenn Greenwald has been making new enemies lately. Once feted on the left for his reporting on government surveillance – based on documents leaked to him by the intelligence analyst Edward Snowden – America’s most conspicuous journalist spent much of the last few years taking issue with liberal suspicions of a plot between Donald Trump and Russia. The result of this impudence was Greenwald’s disappearance from liberal news networks such as MSNBC. He became instead a frequent guest on conservative network Fox News.
Under normal circumstances, within the factional landscape of US political discourse, this fraternising with the right would have caused Greenwald to be cast out of left-of-centre polite society. But the Trump years were not normal. A new generation of self-styled leftists scorned the Democratic Party for its moderation. They felt the Beltway resistance theatrics were a distraction from real issues of class and were less offended by Greenwald’s turn as a Fox pundit.
This left-wing tendency lost its momentum with the defeat of Bernie Sanders in the 2020 Democratic primaries. With promises of concessions, such as professed openness to overturning the filibuster in the Senate, Joe Biden wooed the young left back towards the Democratic Party. During the heady days of the Sanders campaign many on the left considered the parties equally corrupt and condemnable – now the consensus seems to be once more that the Democrats are the lesser of two evils. Greenwald, refusing to grant this, has found himself exposed.
Matters intensified in October 2020 when, shortly before the November presidential election, Greenwald filed an article on corruption allegations against Biden’s son Hunter to the Intercept, the news website he co-founded in 2014. The editors resisted publishing the article without shifting its focus. Greenwald resigned, accusing his colleagues of censorship in a post on his blog.
Since his resignation, Greenwald has become an ever more vocal critic of a new censoriousness in elite American society. “The cultural left (meaning the part of the left focused on cultural issues rather than imperialism or corporatism)”, he wrote on Twitter, “has become increasingly censorious, moralising, controlling, repressive, petulant, joyless, self-victimising, trivial and status-quo-perpetuating”. Showing a willingness to engage on friendly terms with right-wing outlets and figures, some in the reaches beyond the conservative mainstream, Greenwald has also criticised his former colleagues’ reporting on right-wing extremists, calling reporters at the Intercept “cops” and arguing they infringe on their subjects’ right to privacy.
His recent pronouncements have prompted former friends and allies on the left to turn on him. Intercept editor Betsy Reed was quoted by the Washington Post as saying Greenwald “has lost his moral compass and his grip on reality”. Nathan J Robinson, the editor of the left-liberal magazine Current Affairs, recently accused him of “swallowing new right-wing propaganda”.
Greenwald’s critics on the left find it hard to dismiss him entirely. One reason for this is his high-profile reporting work in Brazil, where he has lived since the beginning of his career as a journalist and political writer in 2005. This comes as a surprise: that a figure so steeped in the headlines and internecine squabbles of US political media should not just live abroad but have a separate and undeniable influence in a foreign country. No other figure in the media criticism wars can claim the same.
Greenwald had maintained his own litigation firm in New York, where he had taken on pro bono civil liberties cases – doing the type of work the American Civil Liberties Union once did – until he fell in love while on a vacation to Brazil. He closed the firm to join David Miranda, now Greenwald’s husband and a representative of the Socialism and Liberty Party in Brazil’s lower house. Greenwald’s time in Brazil has coincided with the apogee and then the decline of the Brazilian left, which under the Workers’ Party (PT) held the presidency from 2002 to 2016 under Lula da Silva and his successor Dilma Rousseff.
Economic downturn, large anti-PT protests and discontent with Rousseff in Congress and elite circles prompted her impeachment in 2016 – on a technical charge related to government accounts. As elections in 2018 approached, Rousseff’s more popular predecessor Lula pondered a run for a third term against a highly polarised political backdrop.
At the same time, an anti-corruption investigation led by hard-charging judges and prosecutors in the rich southern city of Curitiba was convulsing Brazilian elite circles. The Car Wash investigations, spearheaded by judge Sergio Moro, had exposed a widespread ring of bribery and kickbacks around the construction company Odebrecht and the state-owned oil giant Petrobras. Through high-profile arrests, well-timed leaks to the media and liberal use of tactics like pre-trial imprisonment, the investigation galvanised a popular anti-corruption movement. Moro became a celebrity.
The investigation soon implicated the PT. Lula himself fell under suspicion in 2016 and, the next year, was convicted of corruption charges surrounding real estate deals. As the 2018 election approached – with an insurgent right-wing congressman named Jair Bolsonaro seeking to attach himself to the anti-corruption movement – Lula’s candidacy was in doubt. With his appeals process still ongoing, the Supreme Court rejected Lula’s habeas corpus petition before the election, precluding him from running. When Bolsonaro handily beat out the PT’s replacement candidate, Moro joined his cabinet as justice minister, a move that seemed to belie his own claims to political impartiality – especially in the eyes of the Brazilian left, which had long been inclined to see the investigation as a conservative ploy.
The following May, someone began messaging Greenwald on Telegram, an encrypted messaging service, claiming to have incriminating records hacked from internal correspondence between the Car Wash prosecutors and judges. In his new book on his reporting on the leaked materials, Securing Democracy: My Fight for Press Freedom and Justice in Brazil, Greenwald says he was put in touch with the hacker by a left-wing politician, Manuela d’Ávila of the Communist Party of Brazil (PCdoB).
The resulting exposés, known as ‘Vaza Jato’ (roughly ‘Car Wash leaks’) published in June 2019 by the Intercept’s Brazilian division, used the leaked materials to report that Car Wash prosecutors had sought to undermine Lula and the Workers’ Party, and had collaborated on cases with judges, including Moro, in a violation of the separation of their legal roles. Greenwald notes the matter is made more severe by the fact that in Brazil, in most cases verdicts are decided by judges rather than juries.
After the release of the leaked materials – widely publicised in Brazil and abroad – a reversal of fortune began for the Car Wash investigation and its most prominent subject. By November 2019, the Supreme Court allowed Lula to be released from prison – amid a raucous crowd of supporters – and by April 2020 Moro had left the government, launching his own attack on Bolsonaro, alleging interference with the police. Most consequential was the Supreme Court’s March 2021 decision to annul Lula’s convictions, allowing him to run in the upcoming election next year – which looks like a left-right showdown as Bolsonaro seeks a second term.
The ‘Vaza Jato’ leaks provided an opportunity for a reaction against the anti-corruption investigation that had already been building for some time. By 2019 the tide of popular anti-corruption sentiment had abated, while some political elites, eager to preserve the status quo, felt anti-corruption ought not to go too much further and welcomed Moro’s exit. More recently, as Bolsonaro’s popularity plummets further amid a criminal probe over vaccine procurement, some in political and business circles are now contemplating whether Lula – so recently an object of antipathy – might be a better option.
Greenwald is not lacking in pride for his accomplishments. At the outset of Securing Democracy, he does not reject a comparison to Carl Bernstein, one half of the reporting duo that broke the news of US president Richard Nixon’s cover-up over the 1972 Watergate burglary. Both published “the most important story of our respective generations” – Greenwald’s contribution being the Snowden reports. But Greenwald appears to tacitly place himself above Bernstein in having broken two massive stories, suggesting the Car Wash leaks were even more important than his Snowden work. Neither story, of course, toppled a country’s leader, as did Woodward’s and Bernstein’s, although Greenwald can claim to have contributed to reviving the political fortunes of Brazil’s Lula.
Asked for comment, Greenwald maintained the Snowden reporting made it “much more difficult for governments to spy on their citizens” and credited the Brazil reporting with having given Brazilians “the very stark and consequential choice in 2022 that they were so unjustly denied in 2018—whether to be governed by Jair Bolsonaro or Lula”.
Greenwald was an ideal figure to publish the Car Wash leaks. A former defender on civil liberties, he possessed an instinctive suspicion of prosecutors. Though a longstanding and public sceptic of the Car Wash investigation, Greenwald had long kept Lula and the PT at arm’s length. His political sympathy has generally been stronger with the non-PT left – for example, veteran senator Ciro Gomes of the Democratic Labour Party. He also had experience dealing with leaked materials from the Snowden reports of 2013.
And Greenwald’s situation in Brazil generally? He is connected to the left in Rio de Janeiro through his husband – the couple were close friends of city councillor Marielle Franco, the spokeswoman for the poor of Rio’s favelas who became a martyr after her death in a suspected political assassination in 2018. The Intercept has maintained a division in Brazil since 2016, but Greenwald himself only became a household name in Brazil after his reporting on the Car Wash leaks. His new reputation in the country was divisive. A hero to the left, he found himself the target of insults and harassment from the bolsonarista right.
Brazil serves Greenwald as a vantage from which to launch his interventions into the US political-journalistic conversation, a purpose to which the country is well suited culturally. Interpersonal warmth and, in this historically Catholic country, an openness to individual atonement and transformation provide a stark contrast to the “cancel culture” of Protestant America that he so deprecates. Separated by the Equator from the cultural crosscurrents of Washington and New York, he remains from afar a compulsive participant in the intramural scuffles of the American political media.
“Media criticism” – criticism of journalists by journalists – inevitably involves some grandstanding and exposes one to charges of hypocrisy. Not unsusceptible to these pitfalls, Greenwald is otherwise at home in the current landscape, demonstrating a talent for identifying and applying pressure to points of tension in the left-liberal dispensation. In the age of Biden, when the potential of the American left seems simultaneously submerged and primed to win major victories through a newly receptive Democratic Party, many left-of-centre Americans seem to want things both ways.
Is it possible to be both a democratic socialist and a Democrat; to praise big companies when they support progressive causes like Black Lives Matter while campaigning for them to be broken up? Not without some tension. A portion of Greenwald’s recent infamy must be ascribed to the way in which his interventions compel his interlocutors to choose between the liberal and leftist strands of their position. By criticising American journalists for “abusing their platforms to attack and expose anything other than the real power centres” or for taking the side of federal agencies against individual rights, Greenwald sets loyalties of profession and faction – to journalists as a class, to the Democratic Party – against the broader leftist aims to which many of those who read and write for liberal outlets pledged themselves after 2016.
Greenwald’s American critics are often baffled by the apparent contrast between his role in Brazil, where he is a hero of the left, and in the US, where he is a mounting irritation. They note a change through time, wondering what happened to the man who once criticised Barack Obama from the left but now is a fixture on Fox.
Yet the most salient fact of Greenwald’s incessant activity across the years is its consistency. He still demonstrates all the qualities one would expect from his early influences: college debate, a law firm in Manhattan, pro bono work as a civil liberties defender, blogging during its 2000s heyday. He argues forcefully and prepares briefs quickly. He makes enemies with relish but seldom holds personal grudges. Temperamental like a latter-day Jean-Jacques Rousseau, he has a tendency successively to alienate each group he finds himself a part of, and to accept the results with petulant equanimity. He is the last civil-libertarian blogger standing – a happy warrior who stands out in an ever more unhappy American political climate.
And his politics? Sean Wilentz, writing in the New Republic (and then the New Statesman) in 2014, saw Greenwald belonging to “a peculiar corner of the political forest, where the far left meets the far right, often but not always under the rubric of libertarianism”. It is tempting to include Greenwald in a tradition of eccentric figures who made this “peculiar corner” their scene of operations – on the left, Alexander Cockburn and Gore Vidal; on the right, Justin Raimondo and Ron Paul. Strong emphasis on defending civil liberties, opposition to US intervention abroad, and polemical unpredictability on cultural issues are characteristic traits of this dispensation. Under this heading might go Greenwald’s early opposition to illegal immigration, which he said caused a “parade of evils” in 2005.
Greenwald has also found reliable allies on the non-libertarian, anti-imperialist left. Noam Chomsky, a critic from the left of US foreign policy, is an old friend of Greenwald’s who appears to have remained loyal amid the rising and falling tides of his reputation. Greenwald shares Chomsky’s moral opposition to American intervention abroad but not his emphasis on foreign policy, which occupies him less frequently than media intrigues and domestic civil liberties matters.
A defining trait of Greenwald’s activity in the US and Brazil seems to be resistance to prevailing currents of moral denunciation. The historian Andre Pagliarini, writing in Jacobin magazine, has described the Car Wash investigation as giving rise to a moralising campaign. Popular TV networks and weekly magazines envisioned a chance to destroy corruption in Brazil once and for all. The censorious turn among American progressives that Greenwald criticises also seems to enjoy support from major outlets and is doubly moralising, in that the corruption it wants to stamp out is not financial but concerns the morally freighted issues of race and gender.
But Greenwald has his own moralism, too. Despite much touting of his efforts to correct the abuses of the Car Wash investigation, he has little to say in Securing Democracy on the figures caught in the dragnet who were truly corrupt – the oil-company oligarchs and political hacks who enriched themselves at the expense of a whole country. Might the fallout from his reporting contribute, in proportion, to overturning the just convictions emanating from the investigation as well as the unjust ones? Greenwald might reply that this is a small price to pay for combating judicial abuses. The matter seems to deserve a more detailed accounting – and Greenwald’s American critics may also be right to suspect that the habit of counterpunching, brave as it may be, involves its own set of hazards.