A day after federal prosecutors loyal to Brazil’s far-right president, Jair Bolsonaro, filed charges against him for being a member of a “criminal organization,” Pulitzer Prize winner Glenn Greenwald of The Intercept was in good enough spirits. The Brazilian government’s decision to hit him with 126 felony charges came out of the blue — he learned about it Tuesday while preparing to go horseback riding with his son.
“I was scrolling through my phone, and suddenly I see a headline, ‘Glenn Greenwald indicted …’ ” he says. “I thought, ‘What?’ ”
A day later, he’s sorting it all out while taking a noontime walk on a farm outside Rio.
“If you’re going to get criminally indicted or something, I highly recommend nature,” he says, laughing.
Six and a half years after rattling the U.S. government by publishing revelations by former NSA contractor and whistleblower Edward Snowden, Greenwald is now once again clashing with authority in a high-profile test case for speech and press freedoms.
The charges he faces are a reaction to an exposé series he published in June with Rafael Moro Martins, Victor Pougy, Leandro Demori, and Alexandre de Santi in The Intercept Brazil. It centers around an archive of “private chats, audio recordings, videos, photos, court proceedings, and other documentation” sent to them from an unnamed source, who obtained these materials prior to contact, ostensibly by hacking cellphones.
The archive exposed corruption in Operation Car Wash, a law-enforcement case that led to the imprisonment of popular former president Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva. The hacked materials showed how a judge, Sergio Moro, gave prosecutors advance notice of his decisions, privately critiqued prosecutorial filings, and gave advice on the order of interrogations and warrant applications.
The conviction of Lula on bribery charges — he was accused of receiving an apartment as a kickback to a state oil concern — left him ineligible to run for the presidency, paving the way for Trumpian reactionary Bolsonaro to win the presidency.
Before publication, the anonymous hacker source asked Greenwald if records of contacts with The Intercept should be destroyed. Greenwald replied, carefully, that by law he could not advise the source one way or another. This non-act is at the heart of the case against him, says Greenwald.
“They’re calling that implicit encouragement to destroy evidence,” he says.
Although the case sounds like a legal absurdity, Greenwald is aware that might not be much of a consolation. “There’s a question: Does the law even matter in Brazil anymore?” he asks, in a fatalistic voice.
Some have tried to draw a distinction between his case and that of Wikileaks founder Julian Assange, who was charged with helping whistleblower Chelsea Manning escape detection. In the popular mindset, Assange helped Manning “steal” military secrets by agreeing to help her crack a password “hash,” making him guilty of actual cyber-skullduggery in a way Greenwald is not.
Greenwald, however, has never agreed with the contention that Assange helped Manning steal secret documents.
“He did it so she could avoid getting caught,” says Greenwald, pointing out that journalists do this all the time with sensitive sources, for instance, suggesting they not speak on open phone lines or in public places.
“That’s what makes that [Assange] indictment so insidious,” he says. “It takes activity that journalists regularly engage in and calls it a crime.”
In that regard, Greenwald believes Bolsonaro may have been directly encouraged by the Assange prosecution.
“Trump and Bolsonaro are best friends, right?” he says. “Bolsonaro probably thinks, ‘If the U.S. can do this to Julian on such a thin reed, let’s come up with something too.’ ”
Brazil, he explains, has an unusual legal system that requires a judge to sign off on filed charges before they become official. He and his lawyers are hoping that a judge will refuse to bless the prosecution’s case. In the meantime, he’s in limbo.
“I’m charged, but not a defendant,” he says.
Greenwald, who spoke on Rolling Stone’s Useful Idiots podcast about the Bolsonaro story at length just last week, described how his life has changed in the past year.
“I haven’t left my house since June without armed guards and an armored vehicle, nor has David,” he said. “We had to drastically enhance the security measures in our own house. Our kids are very aware of that. It radically changed our lives in every conceivable way.
“But,” he added, “that’s what it means to do actual resistance against a fascist government.”
Greenwald in recent years hasn’t enjoyed a lot of sympathy in American media circles. His vociferous opposition to the Russiagate narrative prompted a series of petty press portraits casting him as pathologically wired to take mindless contrarian stances. A common online complaint from such quarters was that Greenwald had given up reporting and become a stone-thrower and hot-taker, a stance clearly belied by this impactful series of exposés of the Brazilian government.
On Useful Idiots, he reflected about his journey within the business since the Snowden story.
“When I was able, along with Laura Poitras, to break a story of that magnitude, they kind of had to do things like give the reporting a Pulitzer and a Polk, and kind of a little bit welcome me into their castle, even though they so didn’t want to. It pained them so deeply,” he said.
“When Russiagate happened and I became one of a very few skeptics and critics of the prevailing narrative, they obviously viewed that as their chance, that they’ve longed wanted, to eject me from the halls of decency and mainstream acceptability,” he added.
After the events of this week, mainstream press figures are once again throwing support behind him.
“Mr. Greenwald’s articles did what a free press is supposed to do: They revealed a painful truth about those in power,” wrote The New York Times in an editorial. “We call on the Brazilian government to immediately halt its persecution of Greenwald,” wrote the Freedom of the Press Foundation.
Despite the real possibility that he himself will end up incarcerated, Greenwald says he won’t be leaving the country he’s called home for 15 years.
“It’s always been about more than just the journalism to me,” he says. “My husband [David Miranda] is Brazilian and an elected member of congress. We have two kids who are Brazilian. I love Brazil.”
He seems comfortable and certain in his decision, clearly viewing opposition to the Bolsonaro government as an act of devotion toward his adopted country, which has been trapped in cycles of authoritarianism for significant portions of its history.
“I can’t just flee and leave it to people who don’t have the resources I do,” he says.
More to come on this story. In the meantime, for background on this affair, tune in to the Useful Idiots interview below: