Glenn Greenwald would like to go home to the United States, at least for a visit. But the Guardian journalist and blogger is afraid to do so. He still has material and unpublished stories from his contacts with fugitive whistleblower Edward Snowden that he believes U.S. authorities would love to get their hands on. The nine-hour detention and interrogation of Greenwald’s Brazilian partner David Miranda by British security services at London’s Heathrow airport in August has only compounded his fears.
“I have been told by pretty much everybody I have asked, including lawyers for the Guardian, my personal lawyer, lawyers I trust, political people who are well connected that it would be very ill-advised for me to travel back to the United States right now because the chances that I would be arrested are something more than trivial,” Greenwald told CPJ in Rio de Janeiro.
“I’ve had lots of prominent political and media figures calling for my arrest and prosecution and strongly suggesting, if not outright stating, that what I am doing is criminal.”
Fear, however, is the last impression that Greenwald gives as he is sought out by journalists attending a meeting of the Global Investigative Journalism Conference in his adoptive city. Greenwald is confident, assertive, and speaks in the fully rounded sentences of the lawyer he was trained to be.
He has tried to find out what fate would await him at a U.S. border crossing but authorities have not returned his calls.
“My lawyers have tried to get some indication and have not succeeded….I haven’t had any kind of official communications from them at all.” U.S. prosecutors have not brought criminal cases against any journalists who received material from Snowden, including Barton Gellman, who published accounts of National Security Agency surveillance in The Washington Post.
Greenwald says he has more revelations from Snowden, who ended up with temporary asylum in Russia after leaving Hong Kong–where he first went public with a trove of documents about NSA snooping on private citizens both inside and outside the U.S.
He is careful not disclose just what further exclusives on surveillance he might be preparing, but when asked if he has more material he answers: “Oh, yeah. Lots.” And he intends to use it.
He says he is in “almost daily” contact with Snowden. “We speak through encrypted chat technologies.”
Obviously Greenwald would not go into detail about his contacts with the former NSA contractor but he feels comfortable that his communications are “reasonably secure.”
“It helps having NSA documents that discuss what they are able to do and what they are not able to do…so that you can use the things they are not able to do,” he said.
All the same, Greenwald is cautious and convinced that he and those around him are under surveillance. This was confirmed, he says, when his partner Miranda was held while transiting through London en route to Brazil from Germany, where he had met with Laura Poitras, a Berlin-based filmmaker also working on revelations about NSA spying. Miranda’s laptop and phone were taken out of his sight while he was questioned by British authorities.
“I think it’s pretty safe to assume that all of my electronic conversations are being monitored,” Greenwald said. “I think the reason they detained David and not numerous other Guardian journalists who have traveled in and out of Heathrow or Laura herself, who three weeks earlier went to Heathrow without incident, is because they have learned through surveillance of electronic communications of either myself and/or David that he had intended to transport documents between me and Laura for material we were working on.”
Greenwald believes that in his dealings with Snowden he has acted as a journalist and observed journalistic standards.
“I don’t spend a lot of time thinking about the labels, quite honestly,” he replied when asked if he considered himself a journalist. “Sometimes I do classic journalism, other times I do classic reporting, other times I do classic advocacy journalism and then other times I do classic activism where I try to achieve a political outcome. I think I wear different hats and have different objectives and strive for different goals at different times.”
Greenwald said that for his work on the NSA he should fall under the protection of any future U.S. federal shield law.
“I think even under the strictest, most controversial definition I would qualify because I work for a large establishment media organization and get paid for that work…even under Diane Feinstein’s incredibly restrictive and cramped definition I qualify. But I think every single individual blogger who has never gotten paid a penny in their life ought to have equal claim to those laws. If you look at what the Founders conceived of in terms of what journalism was protected, it is not protected for a class of people called journalists, it is protected for the activity called journalism.”
Greenwald believes in respecting the anonymity of sources, but he said Snowden wanted publicity.
“He not only expected to lose his anonymity, he wanted to lose it. He thought it was extremely important to account to the world for what he had done, to take responsibility for it, he was proud of what he did,” Greenwald said. “There was no hope of being anonymous anyway given how massive the compromise was of the system that he had taken these documents from.”
Nevertheless, Greenwald believes reporters have a duty to take all measures possible to protect their sources by using whatever encryption technologies are available.
“I think it very irresponsible at this point for any journalists working on sensitive material or who want to protect their sources not to use advanced methods of encryption for everything they do online. So that means using an encrypted email program like PGP; it means using encrypted chat technologies like OTR, Pidgin, and using encryption methods like Truecrypt to protect documents; it means using air gap computers, computers that never connect to the Internet, when working with sensitive materials so they can’t be hacked thought the Internet; and it means using instruments like Tor to ensure anonymity with all computer and online activity.”
Greenwald thinks the extent of the NSA revelations has hurt the U.S.’s standing as champion of press freedom.
“The United States has constructed this worldwide, secret, suspicionless surveillance system that among other things collects the data who was talking to whom. [It] is seen quite rightly by journalists around the world as probably the greatest menace to press freedom because if you don’t have sources who can come to you in confidence that they are speaking to you in anonymity it destroys the newsgathering process.”
He also believes the Obama administration’s vigorous pursuit of whistleblowers and leakers has chilled journalism and highlighted “the massive gap between the rhetoric of the United States and the reality of the United States when it comes to press freedoms.”
The U.S. is not Greenwald’s only problem. He believes he dare not set foot in Britain either.
“The U.K. is literally a country that doesn’t have any pretense of constitutional protections for a free press They have already said there is an ongoing criminal investigation and they have already detained my partner…the chances are quite good [that] my going to the U.K. will result in my detention if not arrest.”
Canada and Australia are not on his must-visit list either. “And I would probably think twice about visiting certain EU states that are particularly subservient to the United States as well.”
Despite all this, Greenwald still wants to go home: “I absolutely intend to return to the United States. I refuse to be exiled or excluded from my own country because of doing journalism. I was a constitutional lawyer, I take the constitution seriously, I believe in the First Amendment and I intend to insist upon its protections. I just want some greater sense of what the risks are and what the situation is before I do it.”
[Reporting from Rio de Janiero]
UPDATE: This post has been corrected to reflect the correct spelling of Greenwald’s first name.