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? 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. Glenn Greenwald: The impetus principally was personal. Throughout, Greenwald and other writers at The Intercept have sharply questioned the claims and demanded the US government offer stronger evidence to the public. 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. But it would seem to me that you could have solutions to address that. 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. So the only option we had for living together was being here, and I wanted to anyway, because I wanted something new. Diplomatic relations have changed between countries, so that now protections against mass surveillance are taken much more seriously.
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. 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. Tear gas and rubber bullets have been fired. The term, “fake news,” though, has become so much broader. 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, 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. In downtown Rio, a few miles from where we sit, protesters have been waging battles with military police over an unpopular austerity law. I don’t think anyone knows how that will play out. 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. What you may not know is that Greenwald has lived for more than a decade in the mountains of Rio de Janeiro. GG: Well, that’s the danger, right? And he chose to do what he did anyway. 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. Obama wanted to put him in prison for a few decades and was thwarted by [Snowden’s] stay in Russia.
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. He is refusing to go, and observers are warning that a full-blown constitutional crisis could ensue. I ended up meeting my now-husband of 11 years on the second full day that I was here. 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. It hosted the Summer Olympics, and then impeached its president. 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. And I think it’s important to ask why? President-elect Donald Trump has opined in the past (on Twitter, where else?) that Snowden should be executed. 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. GG: I think part of it is that you just have to accept that as a journalist you have a somewhat limited role. But what about Trump’s reported cozy relationship with Russian President Vladimir Putin?
Earlier this year, Greenwald also launched The Intercept Brasil, a Portuguese-language version of the news site covering Brazilian current affairs and politics. But I think the reason that has happened is because faith in media institutions has been lost. To be a journalist reporting on Brazilian politics is just endlessly compelling. You’re not a prosecutor, you’re not a judge, you’re not a police officer. 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. GG: For one thing, [Brazil] is just a fascinating arena, politically. 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. 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. You can’t arrest people. All of which are direct byproducts of the Snowden reporting. It’s a fascinating time to be a journalist in Brazil.
But this detachment from his new home didn’t last long. 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. So, sometimes it is frustrating when the outcome isn’t exactly what you want. 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. But what I want to know, first of all, is how Greenwald ended up in Rio de Janeiro, of all places. It’s almost, at this point, something that gets applied to any type of journalism that I dislike. I think asking how faith in media institutions can be re-established is critical to battling this fake news plague. In our interview, which took place before the most recent Russian hacking reports, Greenwald had this to say about fake news. 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. And earlier this month, a Supreme Court judge ordered the Senate speaker to step down over new corruption charges. 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. Behavior has changed greatly among individual internet users, who now use encryption and other forms of technology that create a barrier for surveillance. GG: Obviously, right now, he’s in Russia and is protected with asylum, or at least a three-year residency. GG: For me, the key issue is how do you define “fake news”? I asked Greenwald if this makes him nervous for his friend and source. The Intercept Brasil is Glenn Greenwald’s latest, Portuguese-language site. 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. 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. That was our working assumption when we were in Hong Kong. (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. 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. 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. 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.
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. 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. Or even any journalism that’s misleading or false.