Perhaps what stings Greenwald most is Gregory’s insistence on calling him “a polemicist” and a “columnist.” “The question of who’s a journalist,” Gregory says, “may be up to a debate with regard to what you’re doing.” Greenwald is clearly rankled by Gregory’s labels, but is most offended by his detractors’ refusal to refer to him as what he really is: journalist.
Denying Greenwald this title is churlish and misguided. As a lawyer he sounds formidable; as a journalist he is remorseless, unflinching, and hungry for truth. Since he sees himself as a continuation of those old-school reporters unaffiliated and unanswerable to governments (a characterization of our predecessors, it should be noted, that is as broadly inaccurate as Greenwald’s catch-all denunciation of today’s journalists), we could go one further and call him an updated muckraker sniffing out social wrongs, corporate malpractice, and political corruption. The muckrakers raised public awareness and so does Greenwald. In his book The Snowden Files: The Inside Story of the World’s Most Wanted Man, The Guardian’s Luke Harding suggests that “Fans view him as a radical hero in the revolutionary tradition of Thomas Paine.” Unfortunately for Greenwald, his enemies regard him as a traitor. Which raises the question, should he be prosecuted?
The short answer is no, providing he hasn’t published anything that actually jeopardizes national security. Snowden is more problematic, but the same logic applies. Snowden’s revelations and Greenwald’s reporting have spurred significant changes both in public opinion and government policy. In July 2013, the Pew Research Center released a poll that showed that Americans consider the danger of surveillance more worrying than the danger of terrorism. After admitting government overreach, President Obama ordered a White House review of intelligence collection and has promised that the United States is not spying on ordinary people or foreign leaders who pose no threat to national security. The actions of the NSA’s British counterpart, GCHQ, prompted an inquiry in which Members of Parliament concluded the Snowden files were “an embarrassing indictment” of the nature of the oversight of British intelligence agencies. And when The Guardian US and The Washington Post won the Pulitzer for public service, Snowden gave a statement saying the award was “a vindication for everyone who believes that the public has a role in government.”
And yet Snowden (and to a lesser extent Greenwald) remains a divisive figure. As Alan Rusbridger, who edits The Guardian, told The New York Times Magazine, “It’s a story that polarizes people.” One man’s traitor is another man’s whistleblower. When Craig Murray, Britain’s ambassador to Uzbekistan, was removed from his post in 2004 for exposing the Karimov government’s use of torture, he declared himself a victim of conscience. Detractors said he should have resigned or kept quiet—diplomats, after all, are expected to be diplomatic. The same criticism extends to Snowden, a man also in government employ: either put up or shut up. Snowden’s aim—neither financial nor ideological—was to highlight the NSA’s abuse of power and erosion of civil liberties so as to spark debate and spur reform. In the end, he got what he wanted. He has a huge following, not only among fellow activists and radicals but mainstream media, tech companies, and universities. Now all he needs to do is persuade his critics that he doesn’t deserve life in prison.
Greenwald dedicates No Place to Hide “to all those who have sought to shine a light on the US government’s secret mass surveillance systems, particularly the courageous whistle-blowers who have risked their liberty to do so.” At the time of writing, and no doubt for the foreseeable future, Snowden is no free man. Greenwald denies that Snowden has passed secrets to the Chinese while in Hong Kong or blabbed to the Russians while in Moscow, his current safe haven, but who knows how much of that is true? Equally uncertain is how accurate a portrait of Snowden Greenwald has given us in a book that in places borders on hagiography. Julian Assange’s ghostwriter, Andrew O’Hagan, described his subject in a London Review of Books article as “an actor who believes all the lines in the play are there to feed his lines,” a man determined to “make himself the hero of every anecdote.” In contrast, Greenwald’s Snowden is a study in humility, integrity, equanimity, and selflessness. A rival book, The Snowden Operation, by Edward Lucas, a senior editor at The Economist, offers the flipside, tarnishing Greenwald’s saint as an irresponsible saboteur. Perhaps we’ll have to wait a bit longer for the full picture to take shape.