The release of hacked Democratic National Committee emails last week was followed on Wednesday by Donald Trump’s invitation to Russia to find and release Hillary Clinton’s missing emails. Trump has since claimed that he was being “sarcastic,” but some believe that he is all too happy to rely on hacked materials to further his campaign for the White House—and doesn’t appreciate the national security implications of Russian intelligence’s alleged breach of DNC servers. Others believe that Trump’s more isolationist foreign policy ideas, such as retreating from NATO, should be discussed rationally and that the DNC hack is being used as a cudgel with which to attack anyone who isn’t sufficiently hawkish on Russia. The hack, and its political and geopolitical implications, has also occasioned a debate about whether and how the media ought to cover leaked—or in this case stolen—information.
To discuss these issues, and others, I spoke by phone with Glenn Greenwald, the co-founding editor of the Intercept. Greenwald, who lives in Brazil, is best known for his role in reporting on Edward Snowden’s disclosures of National Security Agency material; that work, which appeared in the Guardian, won a Pulitzer Prize.
During the course of our conversation, which has been edited and condensed for clarity, we talked about why media elites have trouble reaching Trump supporters, Greenwald’s differences with WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange, and the future of privacy in a world of hacks.
Isaac Chotiner: How do you draw the distinction, as a journalist, between leaks and hacks?
Glenn Greenwald: I think there are two levels to it. One is, as a journalist, if there is material that is in the public interest that’s available to report on, I don’t think it should be a process that the journalist engages in to wonder whether or not the motives of the person who made it available are sufficiently pure to report on it, or whether the person who did it had some ulterior motive. If the material is in the public interest, and has been made available—regardless of how it has been made available, obviously once the authenticity is confirmed—the obligation of the journalist is to report on it, period.
Now, obviously, there are separate newsworthy questions about who did the [DNC] hack, and the reasons for it, and what the implications are that also ought to be journalistically examined. But in terms of the content of the material itself, whether it has been stolen by a whistleblower, or hacked by an adversarial government for nefarious ends, or for fun by some hacker, I ask one question: Is it in the public interest? And if the answer is yes, that’s the end of the inquiry.
Do you think one problem going forward is that the widespread reporting of information that’s stolen is a green light for people to steal more information?
I think you could make that argument about whistleblowers as well. So, Daniel Ellsberg steals the Pentagon Papers. It is clearly against the law for him to do that. It’s top secret, but he brings it to the New York Times, and the New York Times faces this question. You could argue that the New York Times shouldn’t report on it because you are going to encourage other Daniel Ellsbergs.
I don’t think the role of the journalist is to figure out how to deter future crime. That’s the role of the government and the police. The role of the journalist is to make information that is in the public interest available to the public.
Maybe the answer is that we want to encourage more Daniel Ellsbergs and don’t want to encourage more North Korean hackers or whatever.
I know, but let’s talk about that for a second. I think that any journalist will say that, so many times, their sources are motivated by impure objectives, like maybe they are trying to harm somebody’s reputation vindictively that they don’t like, or maybe they are trying to subvert somebody else’s career or agenda. There are all kinds of reasons why ordinary sources (leave Snowden and Ellsberg and WikiLeaks aside) who regularly give information to journalists and are always motivated—or not always but typically motived—by mixed motives or worse. You think the journalist should be in the business of saying, “My policy is that I am only going to report information as long as the person who made it available is sufficiently well motivated?” That view would lead to an imposition on the journalist that I don’t think most journalists should be willing to undertake.
OK but let’s return to the question of “public interest”: I would say that every major company in the world, or even maybe any medium-size company, if you released all of their emails, there would be something newsworthy. Does that mean that hackers who want to hack any company that it should all be public? The Sony hack seemed to me like a worrying sign. Some of it may have been newsworthy, but a lot of it was gossip about Angelina Jolie.
Totally agree. There are two important values in conflict with one another. One is the need to impose transparency on powerful institutions. Companies like Sony do all kinds of business with the government. They influence the public in really significant ways. You cannot deny that they are powerful. The same with the DNC. The same with government agencies. So maybe you have different standards. But I think we do benefit from imposing more transparency on these institutions.
On the other hand, you can start to seriously violate people’s privacy if you have indiscriminate dumping of information. And the Sony hack was a great example, where Jezebel wrote a story about the feminine hygiene products of Amy Pascal—things that would make your stomach turn if you believe in any value of privacy at all. And the interesting thing here is that we have been attacked—we being the journalists who have kind of shepherded the Snowden archive reporting—by a lot of people, including WikiLeaks, in fact led by WikiLeaks, for not dumping all the information but instead redacting information that we thought might harm innocent people. Most of the information that we have withheld I’ve withheld on the grounds that it would invade people’s privacy, like emails that the NSA has collected between people, documents where they accuse people of engaging in certain bad acts without any proof. We’ve done a lot of withholding information in order to protect people’s privacy or reputational interests or other legitimate interests. We tried to balance these two competing values. WikiLeaks has said, criticizing us, that they no longer believe in any form of redaction. I do not ascribe to that view.
Do you have an ongoing relationship with Julian Assange?
I mean, I wouldn’t say I have an ongoing relationship with him. He and I have spoken over the years about a variety of things. We don’t talk very often, but we talk periodically. But most of the communication we’ve had in the past few years has been in public, and it’s been of a quite critical nature.
Has your opinion of him or WikiLeaks’ project changed?
Yeah, it has, because when WikiLeaks first began—one of the things that people have forgotten—they were actually very careful in redacting. In fact, there were tons of redactions when they were releasing Pentagon documents about the Afghanistan and Iraq wars. And they even wrote a letter to the State Department before they released the cables requesting the State Department’s help in figuring out which information ought to be withheld. And I used to defend WikiLeaks all the time on the grounds that they were not indiscriminate dumpers of information; they were carefully protecting people’s reputations. And they have changed their view on that—and no longer believe, as Julian says, in redacting any information of any kind for any reason—and I definitely do not agree with that approach and think that they can be harmful to innocent people or other individuals in ways that I don’t think is acceptable.
Assange seems to have withheld some of the DNC emails for a certain amount of time and then released them on the eve of the convention. Does this conflict with your comments earlier about how journalists should make sure that information in the public interest is released, presumably as soon as possible?
Well, you know what, I need to push back on that a little bit. OK, so, every news organization that I have worked with, and that means dozens of them around the world with the Snowden reporting, every single one of them, and I have zero doubt this is your experience too, talks about the timing of stories to make the biggest impact. You find a news hook for certain things, time it so that there is a lot of attention being paid to it, sometimes you might be ready to publish a story but something really big is competing with it, like a convention or a presidential debate, and you don’t want it to get drowned out. So making decisions about the timing of wanting to publish stories based on how you get the most people to pay attention is something every media outlet has done, and I think is a legitimate journalistic assessment. You can cross a line at some point if you are really just trying to manipulate perception or interfere with the natural progression of events, but I am not going to criticize WikiLeaks at all because they waited until before the convention to release information at a time when people were most interested in what the Democratic Party had been doing. I think there is a lot of hypocrisy going on in criticizing WikiLeaks for that.
But wouldn’t people like you criticize a major news organization if it withheld information and timed it to the advantage of a particular candidate or party?
Yes, but I am not convinced that that’s what WikiLeaks did here. First of all, we don’t know when WikiLeaks got the material or how much time elapsed from the time they received it until the time they published it. It could be that they got it and worked as expeditiously as possible to construct the database and then published it when it was ready, and it just happened to coincide with the Democratic Convention. It could be that the person who leaked it to them did it on purpose so as to make it likely that that’s when the information would be released. It could be that they held it a few days. Have you never held a story because you were worried there was some big event going on that would mean your story wouldn’t get more attention? Or have you ever published a story, waiting a day or two or a week, to have it linked to some news event that would make your story more relevant? I think that is a legitimate journalistic process to engage in.
We may hold this interview until one of us falls into scandal or disgrace.
Exactly, until there is some massive Glenn Greenwald scandal, and you can say, “I have the exclusive interview.”
I have never heard an editor say that we should hold a story until Oct. 15 to hurt, say, John McCain or whoever.
I agree. I don’t know of any evidence that suggests WikiLeaks did that here.
Are you still in touch with Snowden?
Yeah, I am extensively in touch with Snowden.
And how do you think his life is going?
I am actually shocked to the extent that he has normalized his life. He earns a really good living on what is essentially the speaking circuit, ironically enough, although he generally appears by video. But he also serves on the board of the Freedom of the Press Foundation with me and Laura Poitras and Dan Ellsberg. He is developing encryption technologies. He has an important voice in the debates that he helped trigger. I think his situation is more or less stable. I think it all worked out way better than any of us could have anticipated.
He has been more critical of Vladimir Putin and Russia lately, it seems.
You know the thing is, and it actually drives me fucking crazy, that he has been critical of Putin and Russia from the first moments that he began speaking out publicly as an identifiable figure. In one of the very first interviews I did with him from Russia, he said that “Unfortunately the country I am in also has extremely repressive and unjustified restrictions on internet freedom.” And subsequent to that, he has written editorials, he has tweeted, he has spoken in interviews generally about online repression, but also repression against journalists and other forms of Putin’s tyranny, which is incredibly brave because Putin is the only thing standing between him and a jail cell for the rest of his life. But no matter how many fucking times he does it, he’ll have people say that he is a coward because he won’t criticize Russia.
What did you think of Trump’s press conference? You’ve gone after people who you thought were smearing those denying a Trump-Russia connection, and you’ve used the word McCarthyite to describe them. But now Trump has encouraged the Russians to find or release more Hillary Clinton emails.
OK, so, I am glad you asked about that because this is the conflict that I am currently having: The U.S. media is essentially 100 percent united, vehemently, against Trump, and preventing him from being elected president. I don’t have an actual problem with that because I share the premises on which it is based about why he poses such extreme dangers. But that doesn’t mean that as a journalist, or even just as a citizen, that I am willing to go along with any claim, no matter how fact-free, no matter how irrational, no matter how dangerous it could be, in order to bring Trump down.
So, literally, the lead story in the New York Times today suggests, and other people have similarly suggested it, that Trump was literally putting in a request to Putin for the Russians to cyberattack the FBI, the United States government, or get Hillary Clinton’s emails. That is such unmitigated bullshit. What that was was an offhanded, trolling comment designed to make some kind of snide reference to the need to find Hillary’s emails. He wasn’t directing the Russians, in some genuine, literal way, to go on some cybermission to find Hillary’s emails. If he wanted to request the Russians to do that, why would he do it in some offhanded way in a press conference? It was a stupid, reckless comment that he made elevated into treason.
You interviewed Chris [Hayes] about Brexit and I just want to submit to you that the mistake the U.K. media and U.K. elites made with Brexit is the exact same one that the U.S. media and U.S. elites are making about Trump. U.K. elites were uniform, uniform, in their contempt for the Brexit case, other than the right-wing Murdochian tabloids. They all sat on Twitter all day long, from the left to the right, and all reinforced each other about how smart and how sophisticated they were in scorning and [being snide] about UKIP and Boris Johnson and all of the Brexit leaders, and they were convinced that they had made their case. Everyone they were talking to—which is themselves—agreed with them. It was constant reinforcement, and anyone who raised even a peep of dissent or questioned the claims they were making was instantly castigated as somebody who was endangering the future of the U.K. because they were endorsing—or at least impeding—the effort to stop Brexit. This is what’s happening now.
Do you think the people voting for Donald Trump because they feel their economic future has been destroyed, or because they are racist, or because they feel fear of immigrants and hate the U.S. elite structure and want Trump to go and blow it up, give the slightest shit about Ukraine, that Trump is some kind of agent of Putin? They don’t! Just like the Brexit supporters. The U.K. media tried the same thing, telling the Brexit advocates that they were playing into Putin’s hands, that Putin wanted the U.K. out of the EU to weaken both. They didn’t care about that. That didn’t drive them. Nobody who listened to Trump could think that was genuinely a treasonous request for the Russians to go and cyberattack the U.S. government.
I get that, but I am not sure what you would recommend the media do. Shouldn’t the media cover the fact that this guy is a blowhard who says often crazy, frequently racist things, and things that could put national security at risk.
I totally agree with that, as far as it goes. So for example, people make the argument that fact-checking Trump doesn’t have any effect on his supporters because they don’t listen to the media and they don’t care. If your response is, That may be or that may not be, but our job is to find out when Trump is lying, whether it has an effect or not, I completely agree with you. Just like I don’t try and decide what my journalism is based on how much it is going to resonate with people or how much people are going to agree. I try to cover the things I think are important and need to be covered.
What I’m saying is that I think a media climate has been created. Part of journalism is communicating with a large number of people: finding ways to get information into their hands in a way that they do care about and that does inform them. There is a conversation going on in America among a group of people who are socioeconomically very far removed from the New York/Washington/Los Angeles/San Francisco media circles. And what I also think is that, look at the Russia stuff: the history of linking your political opponents to Russia is a really dangerous and ugly one in the U.S.. That’s basically how, for a decade, the right demonized the left, but also liberals. This is the rhetoric that has been resurrected in order to demonize Trump, and I do find it disturbing because, what has he said about Russia? The platform change that he wanted said that he didn’t think the U.S. should be funding factions in the Ukraine in order to defend themselves against Russia because he didn’t think we had a vital interest in Russia’s neighborhood. Let’s leave that to them. You can argue with that and say it’s an irresponsible thing to do. But that’s been a standard liberal view for decades.
I think the concern there was less about the content than the fact that it’s one of the very few issues where it seems like he has an opinion. And the NATO comments: NATO collective security does seem like it has worked and it does seem like he wants to undermine that.
OK that’s true, but questioning NATO and the value and purpose of NATO with the fall of the Soviet Union is a totally legitimate policy debate to have. Whether NATO brings us into ill-advised conflicts such as Libya, and whether it has this ongoing value and whether the U.S. should be expending the resources it is expending on NATO when we have massive income inequality and our working class is being deprived in ways previously unimaginable, those are perfectly legitimate questions to ask. NATO is not a religion.
The media has used Trump as this kind of once in a lifetime threat, like Hitler, and there is this kind of moral exercise that you engage in when you say, “If I were a German in the 1930s, what would I want history to have recorded that I did? I would want history to record that I did everything I possibly could to stop Hitler.” I think that is now translating into everything and anything goes when it comes to stopping Trump. I think journalists are now of the mindset where they are saying, “Anything we can use against Trump, we can.” And I think that in and of itself is pretty dangerous, and I am just not comfortable with that, notwithstanding how much I share the view that Trump is this sort of unique evil.
You can make rational arguments about things like how much we spend on NATO, but at the same time, Trump doesn’t know anything. He doesn’t want to take money from NATO and spend it on working Americans. He wants a $10 trillion tax cut.
Right, but that’s the proper critique of Trump, not that Trump is this traitor agent of Putin. I worry when we start to implement the rhetorical foundations against any questioning of NATO, or any advocacy of reducing our belligerence towards Russia.
I think it is important for journalists to stand up and say: “With all this groupthink, we should slow down a little bit. Some of what you are saying is not supported by the evidence, a lot of it is kind of hysterical”—without having your own loyalty being questioned. Do you see that being created, this kind of stampede, journalistic stampede, that feels almost like 2002, where not very much dissent is permitted?
Well, I don’t feel like it’s 2002.
Maybe you don’t see it because you’ve been along for the ride.
I myself am pretty horrified by Trump, and that’s played some role in my own journalism. But I also think that, while people shouldn’t state things as facts that aren’t, there is something weird going on with Trump and Russia. I do think it has more to do with his authoritarian tendencies than it does with a spy ring.
Yeah, I totally agree. I totally agree. Trump comes from this recognizable, identifiable, ideological tradition in the United States. I don’t know if you read Michael Brendan Dougherty’s article in the Week about Samuel Francis. It is really fascinating and probably the best explanation of Trump I have seen. Trump comes from this ideological position of Charles Lindbergh, Father Coughlin, America First, this Buchananite mindset. Buchanan is always an advocate of not going to war with dictators, let’s get along with them, let’s trade with them, let’s have them serve our interest. That’s why [Pat] Buchanan was against the Iraq war and almost every other intervention. So even though [Trump] is a clown and an idiot and mentally unstable, there is this coherent philosophy that is noninterventionist, isolationist, and uber-nationalistic. In that context it makes sense that he admires Putin and wants to reduce the level of tension between the United States and Russia.
How do you think about Trump vs. Clinton, given your strong anti-establishment feelings?
Just take a step back for a second. One of the things that is bothering me and bothered me about the Brexit debate, and is bothering me a huge amount about the Trump debate, is that there is zero elite reckoning with their own responsibility in creating the situation that led to both Brexit and Trump and then the broader collapse of elite authority. The reason why Brexit resonated and Trump resonated isn’t that people are too stupid to understand the arguments. The reason they resonated is that people have been so fucked by the prevailing order in such deep and fundamental and enduring ways that they can’t imagine that anything is worse than preservation of the status quo. You have this huge portion of the populace in both the U.K. and the US that is so angry and so helpless that they view exploding things without any idea of what the resulting debris is going to be to be preferable to having things continue, and the people they view as having done this to them to continue in power. That is a really serious and dangerous and not completely invalid perception that a lot of people who spend their days scorning Trump and his supporters or Brexit played a great deal in creating.
So rather than just side with one side or the other and say I am against Brexit or against Trump, I mean, who the fuck needs me to say that? Do you think anyone is going to be influenced by my endorsement? I am not so self-important that I think it matters for me to come out and endorse a candidate.
I know you’re not. I am asked that a lot, or asked why I won’t say that I endorse Hillary or whatever. I see my role as being a corrective to whatever consensus emerges that I don’t think is being subjected to enough critical scrutiny. Just pushing back against that is the most you can hope to do as a journalist, against unquestioned assumptions embedded within the conventional wisdom. I am not a political prognosticator, but I always thought and still think that the chances are overwhelmingly high that Hillary is going to be the next president. I always thought that and still think that. So when I think about the outcome, and what the ultimate result is going to be, I generally look past that, and think about things that can be accomplished before that, or things that can be accomplished once that happens.
I guess the counter is that the people who have been fucked over in our society, and they aren’t just Trump voters, who are almost all white, a Trump presidency for them would mean something much worse. John Lanchester has an essay in the London Review of Books where he says that Brexit probably won’t end up happening, which will screw over the wishes of the white working class who voted for it. Well, if the elites allow it to happen, the white working classes will suffer more and everyone will blame the elites.
Yes, exactly, I agree with that. But this gets back to the point I was trying to make earlier, which is, if you are someone who wants to stop Trump or Brexit, your goal should be to communicate effectively with the people who believe it is in their interest to support Trump or Brexit. I think in general there is no effort on the part of media elites to communicate with those people and do anything other than tell them that they are primitive, racist, and stupid. And if the message being sent is that you are primitive, racist, and stupid, and not that you have been fucked over in ways that are really bad and need to be rectified, of course those people are not going to be receptive to the message coming from the people who view them with contempt and scorn. I think that is why Brexit won, and I think that is the real danger of Trump winning.