Early one morning last December, Glenn Greenwald opened his laptop, scanned through his e-mail, and made a decision that almost cost him the story of his life. A columnist and blogger with a large and devoted following, Greenwald receives hundreds of e-mails every day, many from readers who claim to have "great stuff." Occasionally these claims turn out to be credible; most of the time they're cranks. There are some that seem promising but also require serious vetting. This takes time, and Greenwald, who starts each morning deluged with messages, has almost none. "My inbox is the enemy," he told me recently.
And so it was that on December 1st, 2012, Greenwald received a note from a person asking for his public encryption, or PGP, key so he could send him an e-mail securely. Greenwald didn't have one, which he now acknowledges was fairly inexcusable given that he wrote almost daily about national-security issues, and had likely been on the government's radar for some time over his vocal support of Bradley Manning and WikiLeaks. "I didn't really know what PGP was," he admits. "I had no idea how to install it or how to use it." It seemed time-consuming and complicated, and Greenwald, who was working on a book about how the media control political discourse, while also writing his column for The Guardian, had more pressing things to do.
"It felt Anonymous-ish to me," Greenwald says. "It was this cryptic 'I and others have things you would be interested in. . . .' He never sent me neon lights – it was much more ambiguous than that."
So he ignored the note. Soon after, the source sent Greenwald a step-by-step tutorial on encryption. Then he sent him a video Greenwald describes as "Encryption for Journalists," which "walked me through the process like I was a complete idiot."
And yet, Greenwald still didn't bother learning security protocols. "The more he sent me, the more difficult it seemed," he says. "I mean, now I had to watch a fucking video . . . ?" Greenwald still had no idea who the source was, nor what he wanted to say. "It was this Catch-22: Unless he tells me something motivating, I'm not going to drop what I'm doing, and from his side, unless I drop what I'm doing and get PGP, he can't tell me anything."
The dance went on for a month. Finally, after trying and failing to get Greenwald's attention, the source gave up.
Greenwald went back to his book and his column, publishing, among other things, scathing attacks on the Obama administration's Guantánamo and drone policies. It would take until May, six months after the anonymous stranger reached out, before Greenwald would hear from him again, through a friend, the documentarian Laura Poitras, whom the source had contacted, suggesting she and Greenwald form a partnership. In June, the three would meet face to face, in a Hong Kong hotel room, where Edward Snowden, the mysterious source, would hand over many thousands of top-secret documents: a mother lode laying bare the architecture of the national-security state. It was the "most serious compromise of classified information in the history of the U.S. intelligence community," as former CIA deputy director Michael Morell said, exposing the seemingly limitless reach of the National Security Agency, and sparking a global debate on the use of surveillance – ostensibly to fight terrorism – versus the individual right to privacy. And its disclosure was also a triumph for Greenwald's unique brand of journalism.
Greenwald is a former litigator whose messianic defense of civil liberties has made him a hero of left-libertarian circles, though he has alienated elites across the political spectrum. Famously combative, he "lives to piss people off," as one colleague says. And in the past eight years he has done an excellent job: taking on Presidents Bush and Obama, Congress, the Democratic Party, the Tea Party, the Republicans, the "liberal establishment" and, notably, the mainstream media, which he accuses – often while being interviewed by those same mainstream, liberal-establishment journalists – of cozying up to power. "I crave the hatred of those people," Greenwald says about the small, somewhat incestuous community of Beltway pundits, government officials, think-tank experts and other opinion-makers he targets routinely. "If you're not provoking that reaction in people, you're not provoking or challenging anyone, which means you're pointless."
This perspective has earned Greenwald tremendous support, especially among young, idealistic readers hungry for an uncompromised voice. "There are few writers out there who are as passionate about communicating uncomfortable truths," Snowden, who was one of Greenwald's longtime readers, tells me in an e-mail. "Glenn tells the truth no matter the cost, and that matters."
The same, of course, could be said of Snowden, who, from the moment he revealed himself as the source of the leaks, has baffled the mainstream critics who've tried to make sense of him. "The founders did not create the United States so that some solitary 29-year-old could make unilateral decisions about what should be exposed," wrote New York Times columnist David Brooks, who held up Snowden as one of "an apparently growing share of young men in their 20s who are living technological existences in the fuzzy land between their childhood institutions and adult family commitments."
To the likes of Brooks, Snowden was a disconcerting mystery; Glenn Greenwald, though, got him right away. "He had no power, no prestige, he grew up in a lower-middle-class family, totally obscure, totally ordinary," Greenwald says. "He didn't even have a high school diploma. But he was going to change the world – and I knew that." And, Greenwald also believed, so would he. "In all kinds of ways, my whole life has been in preparation for this moment," he says.
For a man living in the middle of a John le Carré novel, Greenwald has a pretty good life. Based in Brazil since 2005, he lives about 10 minutes from the beach in the hills above Rio de Janeiro, in an airy, four-bedroom wood-and-glass house that backs directly into the jungle. There are monkeys, birds and a small waterfall, and with its sparse furnishing, the place has the feel of a treehouse. It also smells distinctly of dog – of which there are 10, rescued by Greenwald and his partner, David Miranda, whom Greenwald calls the "dog whisperer" for his Cesar Millan-like command over the pack. The dogs, which occupy every imaginable space there is, provide an ever-present backdrop to the couple's domesticity, following Greenwald and Miranda from room to room and, from time to time, breaking into exultant barks for no real reason (other than maybe just the fact that they live in paradise).
Contrary to his confrontational persona, Greenwald is actually quite sweet in person, apologizing for his car, a somewhat beat-up, doggy-smelling, red Kia with tennis clothes tossed in the back, and a Pink CD case on the dashboard that Greenwald, 46, is quick to explain belongs to Miranda, who is 28. "I still listen to all the stuff I liked in high school – Elton John, Queen," he says, shrugging, and then immediately wonders if it's weird that "music just never spoke to me all that much."
Politics, on the other hand, had a powerful hold on him from an early age. Originally from Queens, his family settled in South Florida, in the bland, cookie-cutter enclave of Lauderdale Lakes, then inhabited largely by ethnic, working-class families and wealthier Jewish retirees. The oldest of two, Greenwald was raised in a small house on the low-rent side of town, where his mother, "a typically 1960s-1970s housewife who married young and never went to college," as he says, ended up supporting her sons by working as a cashier at McDonald's, among other jobs.
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