Take Jason Bourne, add a dollop of intellect, a gallon of self-righteousness, and a generous sprinkling of abrasiveness, and what do you get?
Glenn Greenwald — at least in his own mind.
Even then, where Bourne’s enemy was a rogue element in the CIA, Greenwald is at war with two distinct enemies — the U.S. government and those he regards as its delusional defenders. And where Bourne sought to bring transparency to a situation of wanton injustice, Greenwald’s mission is much broader.
For Greenwald — the former columnist for the Guardian who first leaked the material Edward Snowden had stolen — is not just a journalist directing scrutiny toward government. This is a man who wants to alter the fabric of the international order. Greenwald might argue that his actions are pursuant to the demands of pure investigative journalism — leaking information and by that means facilitating a public debate — but in reality, he is desperate to shape the outcome of that debate.
Take a recently published interview that Greenwald gave to Vice magazine. At the start, Greenwald offered his regular refrains: the need for public scrutiny in a democracy, why he entered journalism, and why Edward Snowden reached out to him. It was all pretty standard. But then, when the specific issue of counter-terrorism and intelligence arose, Greenwald became animated. In their surveillance efforts, he explained, American intelligence officers aren’t focused on preventing terrorism. Instead, Prism & Co. are about the “indiscriminate” embrace of a “spy machine” that uses “fear mongering” to “engender submission.” The narrative was clear: This is about the abuse of human freedom by a group of powerful elites. And it’s Greenwald’s mission to stop them.
In this vein, Greenwald’s most telling commentary came during a May 2013 appearance on Bill Maher’s show. Discussing U.S. policy in the Middle East, Greenwald began by criticizing the apparent hypocrisy of supporting both Hosni Mubarak and the ideal of democracy. But then he went further. There was no question, he asserted, that American “militarism” is a primary driver of regional extremism. Greenwald continued by contrasting Iran’s foreign policy with that of the United States — to the detriment of the latter.
Then, in a more recent interview with Maher, Greenwald flipped Maher’s words back at him, stating that it was ‘‘nuts’’ for the host to assert that the NSA was focused on terrorism.
Nevertheless, taken alone, Greenwald’s sentiments could be considered as simple expressions of individual opposition to the U.S. government — personal understandings, yes, but not ones that affect his stated objective of engaging a “public debate.”
But then there are Greenwald’s other comments — those that he makes when he is asked tough questions. Remember these moments?
When MSNBC’s Mika Brzezinski asked Greenwald whether he was exaggerating the reach of the NSA’s metadata program, fury followed. Such questions were illegitimate, he insisted. Indeed, they reflected Brzezinski’s embrace of White House “talking points.”
In an interview with CNN back in June 2013, Greenwald stated that it was “absurd” to assert that Snowden’s leaks might have encouraged terrorists to adapt their tradecraft.
When asked by the BBC whether his depository of secrets was risking the lives of intelligence officers, Greenwald responded: “There is this thing called the Iraq War . . . ” The implication: Western intelligence agencies are consistently and systemically untruthful.
In reviewing Zero Dark Thirty, Greenwald labeled the movie “disgusting,” because, in his eyes, it lied about how the CIA was able to find Osama bin Laden.
And of course, we mustn’t forget Greenwald’s Meet the Press showdown. Outraged by David Gregory’s question as to whether he had crossed a legal boundary, Greenwald poured derision on the entire field of American journalism.
These examples are elucidating. They illustrate that for Greenwald, the debate over U.S. government activities is prima facie absurd.
For Greenwald, the division between government power and public empowerment isn’t a blurry one, but crystal clear. That’s why Greenwald cannot stand it when he is challenged — from his perspective, such challenges represent only delusion.
And that’s the whole problem.
For someone who claims to be the agent of liberalized debate, Greenwald’s “truth” is highly subjective. Like Jason Bourne, Greenwald is on a mission both to illuminate and to deconstruct the scaffolding of U.S. government power. Yet, when it comes to issues like control of the Snowden intelligence (most notably, Greenwald’s absurd use of his partner, David Miranda, as a courier), adapted terrorist tradecraft, and, for example, Iranian foreign policy, Greenwald’s supreme enlightenment isn’t exactly Bourne-esque. Similarly, by the scale, detail, and method (a trickle approach) of his leaks, it’s obvious that Greenwald is far more agenda driven than he would care to admit.
Still, now that Greenwald is unbound from the Guardian’s editors, when it comes to the Snowden archive . . . his authority is supreme.