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Glenn Greenwald may have quit the Intercept, but he can’t quit the feud

Glenn Greenwald at the at the opening of the 25th International Seminar of Criminal Sciences in Sao Paolo, Brazil, in 2019. He quit the Intercept in October 2020. (Suamy Beydoun/AGIF/AP)

It all ended badly last October when Glenn Greenwald, the pugnacious, Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist, quit the investigative news site he had co-founded six years earlier. Greenwald left the Intercept with a parting shot, publicly accusing the publication of “censoring” an article he wrote about media silence surrounding allegations of corruption by then-candidate Joe Biden and his son, Hunter.

The Intercept’s editors fired back, counter-accusing Greenwald of trying to pass off a factually suspect piece.

And that should have been that. Greenwald went on to write a popular and lucrative newsletter. He was his own man, no more meddlesome editors to please.

Except he wasn’t finished with his old shop.

In recent days, Greenwald has renewed his feud with the Intercept, engaging in an increasingly bitter war of words. On Twitter and on Fox News, where Greenwald appears frequently, he has accused the publication of exposing private citizens to online harassment through two articles. One was a lengthy exposé of the “Riot Squad,” a group of conservative journalists who shoot video of violent episodes at BLM protests; the second analyzed hacked data about users of Gab, a social media platform favored by white supremacists and other extremists.

“This is repulsive,” Greenwald tweeted to his 1.6 million Twitter followers about the Gab story. He added an expletive to describe his former workplace.

Greenwald’s ex-colleagues at the Intercept say that he has lied about their work. Worse, they say, his attacks have helped stir an angry and dangerous reaction in right-wing circles, leading to harassment of some of the publication’s journalists — the very thing Greenwald accused the Intercept of inciting. In the wake of Greenwald’s criticism, the author of the Gab story was threatened and “doxed,” meaning his personal information was exposed online. It prompted the publication to assign a security detail to him and his wife.

Staffers suggest Greenwald, 54, is motivated by more than just psychic payback for his acrimonious divorce from the Intercept seven months ago. They say he is cynically fomenting controversy to attract subscribers to his online newsletter.

“I feel like Glenn has lost his moral compass and his grip on reality,” Betsy Reed, the Intercept’s editor in chief, said in an interview. “He’s done a good job of torching his journalistic reputation. He’s a huge bully.” (The Intercept has stood by its reporting).

Greenwald denies any motivation other than fairness. “They’ve been irresponsible,” he said in a phone interview from his home in Brazil. “They should be called on it.”

During an appearance last week on Laura Ingraham’s Fox program, Greenwald claimed that the Intercept had made the videographers targets of protesters by “dragging their faces into the light.” The story’s author, Robert Mackey, responded on Twitter that this was a curious charge to make, given that the videographers themselves appear semi-regularly on Fox and other conservative outlets to promote their work — and indeed preceded Greenwald on Ingraham’s show.

Perhaps most disturbing to his former colleagues is the personal nature of some of Greenwald’s comments. He disparaged Mackey by tweeting that he had “tried to depict himself as some battle-hardened reporter because he ‘live-blogged’ the Arab Spring from his ucouch.” He included an emoji of a smiley face spouting tears of laughter.

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Mackey replied that Greenwald himself had recruited him to the Intercept from the New York Times.

Greenwald also went after the author of the Gab article, Micah Lee, tweeting that Lee was perusing the hacked data on Gab users with the intent to expose them “if they had the wrong ideology.” Over a photo of Lee, he wrote, “The Intercept took this person trained to do computer work and now lets him pretend to be a journalist.”

Greenwald’s criticism of Lee was especially surprising because of the long and fruitful collaboration between the two men. Lee managed the massive databases of leaked information that were the basis of Greenwald’s two career-making stories — his Pulitzer Prize-winning reporting on the National Security Agency’s domestic surveillance program for the Guardian in 2013 and his revelations of widespread judicial and political corruption in Brazil for the Intercept in 2019.

In a tweet last week, Lee called those two projects Greenwald’s only “real journalism” in several years. “Everything else has been supporting the American fascist movement dressed up as ‘media criticism,’ ” he wrote.

Greenwald offers no apologies, though he does allow that he may have come on a bit strong regarding Lee. “I admit there’s a personal element there,” he said, noting that Lee had criticized him and unfollowed him on Twitter. “I was hurt that Micah would do that after all we’ve been through. I’m not going to justify it. I just felt betrayed.”

Greenwald’s battle with his former mates is the latest in a long series of fights he’s picked since leaving a career as a lawyer behind in late 2005 to start a blog. His targets, first on his own blog and later in association with Salon and the Guardian, ranged across the political spectrum: President George W. Bush’s military and surveillance policies, the Valerie Plame affair, the Obama administration’s intelligence apparatus, Chelsea Manning as whistleblower. While sometimes celebrated by liberals — MSNBC’s Rachel Maddow once called him “the American left’s most fearless political commentator” — Greenwald prefers to be known as a “civil libertarian” with deep misgivings about government power and beholden to no party.

In the wake of his NSA reporting in 2014, Greenwald teamed up with documentary filmmaker Laura Poitras and investigative journalist Jeremy Scahill to start the Intercept. The publication aimed to zero in on subjects that had brought its three co-founders to prominence, such as national security, the military-industrial complex, terrorism and domestic surveillance. The nonprofit venture received backing from Pierre Omidyar, the billionaire co-founder of eBay.

Award-winning reporting followed, including the Intercept’s much-lauded series about the U.S. military’s drone assassination program and an investigation of corruption within the Chicago police force.

But the Intercept also drew attention for its internal turmoil and public pratfalls.

Most notably: In 2017, the Intercept published a leaked NSA report showing evidence of a Russian hacking operation into state voter registration databases. In doing so, the website inadvertently helped expose its anonymous source for the information, a government contractor named Reality Winner who was consequently convicted of leaking classified material and sentenced to more than five years in prison.

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Reed quickly acknowledged that the Intercept “fell short” in protecting Winner’s identity, but the fallout from the episode continued for years. Poitras said in January that she was fired last year by the Intercept’s parent company, First Look Media, for publicly criticizing its handling of the Winner matter. First Look Media denied the claim, calling their parting a “natural” decision to not renew Poitras’s contract after she “decided to step away from her role at the company to pursue her own projects.”

The blowup between Greenwald and the Intercept had a long gestation, people at the publication say. Although he was its founding editor, he had little involvement in managing the newsroom and never met many of its staffers, they said. He was often critical of internal decisions, including its handling of Winner, though he typically didn’t go public with his complaints.

Greenwald describes his growing alienation in both editorial and political terms. “It’s gotten away from its original mission,” he said. Rather than speaking truth to power, no matter who, “they stand left,” he said. He called people at the Intercept “spokesmen” for the left-wing politicians Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) and Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-N.Y.), as well as the anti-fascist and Black Lives Matter movements. “They see their role as political activists,” he said.

Greenwald was talking about leaving the publication by last summer, colleagues say. He spoke enviously about the editorial freedom and riches offered by Substack, the newsletter publishing platform where he now has tens of thousands of subscribers, according to the Financial Times. Greenwald purportedly told people that his friend and fellow firebrand, the writer Matt Taibbi, was earning more than $1 million a year on Substack, easily twice Greenwald’s Intercept salary.

These former colleagues speculated that Greenwald was simply looking for an excuse to leave the Intercept last fall when he submitted his column about Biden, which he eventually self-published a few days before the presidential election. The nearly 6,000-word essay largely repeated disputed claims that President Donald Trump and other conservatives had leveled at Biden.

Greenwald says the Intercept’s refusal to print that column was simply his last straw.

As to why he has attacked the Intercept via the most overtly conservative programs on Fox News, Greenwald has a simple answer: They asked.

“If [MSNBC hosts] Joy Reid or Rachel Maddow or [CNN’s] Chris Cuomo called me, I’d say sure,” he said, noting he hasn’t appeared on either network in years. “But they won’t have me.”