On NSA disclosures, has Glenn Greenwald become something other than a reporter?


Britain’s The Guardian newspaper reporter Glenn Greenwald talks to The Associated Press in Hong Kong on June 11, 2013. (Vincent Yu/AP)
June 23, 2013

Glenn Greenwald isn’t your typical journalist. Actually, he’s not your typical anything. A lawyer, columnist, reporter and constitutional liberties advocate, Greenwald blurs a number of lines in an age in which anyone can report the news.

But has Greenwald — one of two reporters who broke the story of the National Security Agency’s classified Internet surveillance program — become something other than a journalist in the activist role he has taken in the wake of the NSA disclosures?

Defining who is and who isn’t a journalist isn’t just an academic exercise when it comes to revealing matters of top-secret national security. Rep. Peter T. King (R-N.Y.), the former chairman of the House Committee on Homeland Security, suggested earlier this month that Greenwald had stepped beyond typical journalistic boundaries and should be prosecuted for revealing state secrets. (King didn’t make the same claim about Barton Gellman, the reporter who broke the story about the NSA’s PRISM program in The Washington Post.)

Greenwald, an American living in Brazil who writes for the British newspaper the Guardian, has reacted combatively to such suggestions. He bristled again when asked about it Sunday by moderator David Gregory on “Meet the Press.”

“I think it’s pretty extraordinary that anybody who would call themselves a journalist would publicly muse about whether or not other journalists should be charged with felonies,” he said. He maintained that he had done only what other investigative journalists have long done, and denied that he had “aided and abetted” Snowden in any fashion.

U.S. defense contractor Edward Snowden discusses his motivation behind the NSA leak and why he is revealing himself as the whistleblower behind the major story. Courtesy of Laura Poitras and Glenn Greenwald. (Courtesy of Laura Poitras and Glenn Greenwald)

He added that the Obama administration “is trying to criminalize investigative journalism” by searching the e-mails and phone records of Fox News reporter James Rosen and reporters from the Associated Press, all of whom have worked with government sources to disclose sensitive information.

Greenwald has been close to Snowden ever since the government contractor approached him anonymously early this year, offering to relate secret information. Snowden was apparently attracted to Greenwald’s work as an opponent of the government’s domestic and international security regimes since the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks.

Greenwald did not respond to a request for comment Sunday.

Although Greenwald has appeared frequently on TV to plead Snowden’s case as a whistleblower — an advocacy role many mainstream journalists would be uncomfortable with — there is no evidence that he has helped Snowden evade U.S. authorities who are now seeking Snowden’s arrest.

WikiLeaks, on the other hand, became an active player in the international drama surrounding Snowden on Sunday. The international organization, which has dedicated itself to revealing government secrets, said its lawyers were helping Snowden in his flight from federal prosecutors and assisting him in arranging asylum in Ecuador. The lawyers accompanied Snowden as he traveled from Hong Kong to Moscow on Sunday.

WikiLeaks’ co-founder, Julian Assange, has taken refuge in the Ecuadoran Embassy in London; he is wanted for questioning by Swedish authorities in a sexual-assault case unrelated to WikiLeaks’ disclosure of thousands of American military and diplomatic documents.

Edward Wasserman, dean of the University of California at Berkeley’s journalism school, said having a “social commitment” doesn’t disqualify anyone from being a journalist. But the public should remain skeptical of reporters who are also advocates. “Do we know if he’s pulling his punches or has his fingers on the scale because some information that should he should be reporting doesn’t fit [with his cause]?” Wasserman asked in an interview. “If that’s the case, he should be castigated.”

Wasserman said he hasn’t seen that in Greenwald’s involvement with Snowden. Federal prosecutors, meanwhile, have spent months questioning Army Pfc. Bradley Manning, who is accused of leaking documents to WikiLeaks, to establish whether Assange’s conduct goes beyond being a mere “conduit” of classified information.

Still, the line between journalism — traditionally, the dispassionate reporting of facts — and outright involvement in the news seems blurrier than ever. Greenwald, for one, has left no doubt about where he stands.

“This is how the government always tries to protect themselves from transparency . . . by accusing those who bring it of endangering national security,” Greenwald said on “Meet the Press” on Sunday. “There’s been nothing that has been revealed [in the NSA case] that has been remotely endangering national security. The only . . . people who have learned anything are the American people, who have learned the spying apparatus is directed at them.”

Paul Farhi is The Washington Post's media reporter.
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