It's a heroic attribute to be so committed to a principle that you apply it not when it's easy, not when it supports your position, not when it protects people you like, but when it defends and protects people that you hate.
Greenwald on free expression, Rolling Stone
The prolific journalist and constitutional lawyer, Glenn Greenwald, is a combative and fearless defender of civil liberties.
The self-styled 'High Priest' and founder of the World Church of the Creator, Matthew F. Hale, is an exceptionally dangerous oddball with a history of violence. Since 2005, he has been serving a 40-year prison sentence for soliciting the murder of a federal judge. Hale's 'church' (now renamed 'Creativity') is, in fact, a white supremacist organisation which calls for a racial holy war in order to rid the world of Jews and non-whites. As is frequently the case with groups like this, hatred of the LGBT community is also promoted.
Before he tried to have someone killed, Hale had failed in his attempt to become a practising lawyer. In 1998, following his passing of the bar exam, the Illinois Bar Committee on Character and Fitness rejected Hale's licence application, citing his lack of “the requisite character and fitness to practice law.” Hale filed a federal lawsuit in an attempt to overturn the decision. The attorney representing him argued that the decision to deny his client a licence had been based not on any act of “misconduct” but solely on the reprehensible views that his client had expressed; the decision, the attorney argued, was an infringement of Hale's constitutionally-guaranteed right to free expression.
The lawsuit failed, but the case provided some delightful details for fans of irony: Hale, the homophobic Hitler-devotee, was represented by a young, gay Jewish lawyer named Glenn Greenwald.
"To me,” Greenwald, 49, would say of the case many years later, “it's a heroic attribute to be so committed to a principle that you apply it not when it's easy, not when it supports your position, not when it protects people you like, but when it defends and protects people that you hate."
Greenwald is best known for his 2013 journalistic work with the whistleblower Edward Snowden, through which he exposed the US government's mass, unauthorized surveillance programs. But Greenwald was also well known prior to this as a constitutional lawyer, prolific blogger and fierce defender of human rights. His debating skills are formidable; anyone who watches Greenwald defending civil liberties will be impressed not just by his command of the facts and legal reasoning skills, but by the speed and precision with which he communicates complex points. He is relentless in an argument and he frequently, as the comedian/talk show host Bill Maher found out, has the last word.
The intellect, confidence and aggression have always been there: as a child, schoolmates saw Greenwald as “supersmart, obnoxious, eccentric” and given to challenging authority. He was precocious too: he ran for city council in Lauderdale Lakes, Florida when he was just 17 years old.
Greenwald's quick wit and combative nature led him to choose law (specifically litigation) as a career. In 1996, after only a couple of years' post-qualification experience, he set up his own litigation practice where he worked on cases related to US constitutional law and civil liberties (including the Hale case). However, in 2005, after more than a decade litigating, Greenwald decided that he needed a new challenge and wound down his law practice in order to devote himself to political writing. He began a blog called Unclaimed Territory.
Greenwald's keen sense of justice and outrage at government wrongdoing naturally led him to write about subjects such as the infamous Valerie Plame scandal (where a member of President George W. Bush's administration deliberately revealed the identity of an active, covert CIA agent) and the warrantless surveillance activities of the National Security Agency (NSA). In 2007, as his readership grew, he began to write on similar subjects for the online magazine, Salon.
Greenwald's writing style is clearly influenced by his legal training: the arguments are made forcefully and the reader is bombarded with evidence in often quite lengthy texts. He is intensely productive. While he was blogging, Greenwald also managed to write four books in five years on civil liberties and politics, including With Liberty and Justice for Some: How the Law is Used to Destroy Equality and Protect the Powerful (2011).
It was when Greenwald moved to the Guardian newspaper in 2013 that he made his biggest journalistic contribution to civil liberties. Alongside the documentary maker Laura Poitras and fellow Guardian journalist Ewan McAskill, Greenwald made the now famous visit to a Hong Kong hotel room to meet a former CIA and NSA employee with an important story to tell: Edward Snowden. Publishing Snowden's revelations - that the NSA was illegally spying on the digital lives of hundreds of millions of innocent people (in cooperation with telecommunications companies and European governments) - caused outrage around the world. Snowden was eventually charged in absentia with theft and - under the 1917 Espionage Act - with communicating classified information to an unauthorized person; some TV commentators and politicians called for Greenwald to be prosecuted.
The Snowden revelations had a real, legislative impact. Many have argued that they led to the 2015 USA Freedom Act, which placed limits on the scope of US government surveillance operations and introduced increased transparency and oversight measures.
In 2014, Glenn Greenwald received the George Polk Award for his journalism exposing the NSA's mass surveillance programs and also the Electronic Frontier Foundation's Pioneer Award. He is currently a contributing editor at the online independent journalism publication, The Intercept.
Last Updated: 15 December 2016