How Greenwald Met Snowden

Glenn Greenwald and Edward Snowden
Glenn Greenwald obtained a cache of documents from NSA whistleblower Edward Snowden which has revealed massive surveillance at home and abroad. (Photos courtesy: Elza Fiúza, Agência Brasil/WikiMedia Commons)

Glenn Greenwald briefly allowed his mind to drift the first time he laid his eyes on Edward Snowden inside a swanky Hong Kong hotel where the would-be-whistleblower was holed up for weeks.

How could the 29-year-old standing before him be the source of an explosive cache of top-secret NSA documents that might send shock waves across the United States, the intelligence community and the world? Greenwald had expected the source to be a veteran national security employee in a senior position possibly knocking on retirement’s door.

“I had assumed for a number of reasons that Snowden was older, probably in his fifties or sixties,” Greenwald writes in his riveting new book, “No Place to Hide: Edward Snowden, the NSA, and the U.S. Surveillance State.”

He even wondered whether the man was actually the “source’s son, or assistant, or lover, who was now going to take us to the source himself.”

As it turned out, the young American was, indeed, the source who six months earlier had sent Greenwald a cryptic email using the alias “Cincinnatus,” promising information that Greenwald would be interested in.

Greenwald was there with documentary filmmaker Laura Poitras, who played a vital role in connecting him to Snowden, and his colleague at the Guardian, Ewan MacAskill. (The trio, along with the Washington Post’s Barton Gellman, shared a George Polk award for their NSA coverage, as well as earning both outlets a Pulitzer Prize for public service, despite sharp condemnations from government officials, some going as far as to label Greenwald an accomplice, others suggesting he be arrested. )

Cincinnatus had insisted that Greenwald download PGP (Pretty Good Privacy) encryption software which would allow them to communicate in secrecy. But Greenwald, already bogged down in other work, put it off.

And truthfully, there was nothing in the initial email that he “found sufficiently enticing,” he writes.

Furthermore, he admits: “Because I had become known for covering stories the rest of the media often ignores, I frequently hear from all sorts of people offering me a ‘huge story,’ and it usually turns out to be nothing.”

But, a phone call four months later from Poitras, an award-winning documentarian, changed everything.

In the opening chapters of the book, Greenwald discusses at great length the early days of the NSA revelations, from his first interactions with Snowden, including an intense five-hour interrogation, to the back-and-forth he had with Guardian editors about immediately publishing the first of several articles that revealed massive surveillance abroad and at home. But what often gets overlooked—and under-reported—is Poitras’ crucial role in bringing Snowden and Greenwald together.

Poitras was the first person to get her hands on the massive haul of NSA documents that Snowden obtained, Greenwald notes. And if not for the phone call she placed to Greenwald in April 2013, the way in which the NSA revelations were reported may have been drastically different.

Greenwald has been extremely critical of the mainstream media, especially the way in which outlets cooperate with the U.S. government when they get their hands on sensitive documents with purported national security implications. He instead prefers a form of “adversarial” journalism that abides by no such agreement.

I knew that the Post (which itself obtained NSA documents through Poitras) would dutifully abide by the unwritten protective rules that govern how the establishment media report on official secrets. According to these rules, which allow the government to control disclosures and minimize, even neuter, their impact, editors first go to officials and advise them what they intend to publish. National security officials then tell the editors all the ways in which national security will supposedly be damaged by the disclosures. A protracted negotiation takes place over what will and will not be published. At best, substantial delay results. Often, patently newsworthy information is suppressed.

Greenwald and Poitras’ first meeting, at a New York City hotel, also set the stage for what would be become a highly secretive, cloak-and-dagger mission overseas.

Poitras, who also had experience reporting on national security, was especially cautious, and suggested Greenwald either remove the battery from his cell phone or leave it in his room, fearing the phone could be tapped and used as a listening device. She proceeded to give Greenwald a taste of some of the documents she had already secretly acquired.

“He wrote out of a belief in the dangers of government secrecy and pervasive spying; I instinctively recognized his political passion,” Greenwald says of Snowden. “I felt a kinship with our correspondent, with his worldview, and with the sense of urgency that was clearly consuming him.”

The pair later visited the Guardian’s New York City office and were given the go-ahead to pursue the story under one condition: that they team up with MacAskill, a veteran reporter.

The trio then boarded a plane to Hong Kong, uncertain what awaited them. The precarious feeling that hung over them drives the narrative early on.

Finally, after following Snowden’s critical instructions—that they head to the third floor of the hotel, ask an employee about an on-site restaurant (a signal to Snowden that they weren’t followed), and wait on a couch near an alligator, and look out for a guy holding a Rubiks Cube in his left hand—they finally met the mysterious Cincinnatus in possession of a haul of documents that would turn out to be one of the largest leaks in U.S. history.

Snowden’s first words: “So, come with me.”