The dogs can smell Glenn Greenwald long before they see him. As we drive up the hill to his house, a cacophony of barking greets us. The chorus is so overwhelming it makes me think of the National Security Agency (NSA) chiefs who Greenwald has tormented over the past year.”They don’t bite,” Greenwald says as we are engulfed by the pack of strays that he and his partner, David Miranda, have rescued. After a beat, he adds: “… as long as you don’t show any fear.” I’m not certain he’s joking, which is awkward, given that there are 12 of them, ranging from an 80lb Bernese mountain dog to a rat-sized miniature pinscher.
The image of Greenwald and his dogs has been beamed around the world by news organisations since his first NSA revelations were published by the Guardian last year. A writer with a devoted following even before the revelations, he now enjoys more widespread exposure, particularly in the US where his brand of aggressive campaigning journalism has attracted both paeans and condemnation.
But the sight of him surrounded by the animals still comes as a shock. It underlines how dramatically the internet has revolutionised journalism and the nature of the newsroom.
Think of that legendary 1973 photograph of Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein at the height of Watergate. They are sitting at manual typewriters under neon lights in the Washington Post newsroom. The photo speaks to the power of institutions – that of their newspaper just as much as the White House they were investigating.
Now think of where I’m standing in Glenn Greenwald’s retreat, shrouded in jackfruit, banana and lemon trees, where monkeys call in daily and only yesterday a lethal spider the size of a fist was discovered in the bathroom. This is the newsroom of 2014, almost 5,000 miles from Washington DC, the jungle office of the journalist that the former NSAcontractor Edward Snowden handpicked to be his conduit to the outside world.
As the anniversary approaches of Greenwald’s first Guardian scoop on 5 June 2013, revealing that the NSA was collecting the telephone records of millions of Americans, his life appears to have calmed a bit. He’s taking the time to get his fitness back after a stressful period, doing yoga by a stream in the garden and eating calorie-controlled ready meals in an attempt to shed the 12lbs he put on.
It would be rash, though, to describe his working day as ordinary. While I’m at the house he conducts interviews with news organisations in Hungary and Poland; records a video accepting a free-speech award from, incongruously, Hugh Hefner; and tapes a 45-minute address to the University of East London. Soon he will be embarking on a book tour that will take him to the US, then France, the Netherlands, Germany, Italy and Spain.
There’s only one country that has been consciously excluded from the tour – in fact, only one country in the world that Greenwald says he absolutely will not visit. It is the UK. The wounds left by the detention under the Terrorism Act of his partner, Miranda, at Heathrow airport last August, are still open and deep.
Miranda was detained on his way back to Rio on a ticket paid by the Guardian from Berlin, where he had met the filmmaker Laura Poitras, who worked with Greenwald on the NSA files. Officials claimed he was carrying 58,000 classified UK documents on a hard drive.
“I don’t trust them not to detain me, interrogate me and even arrest me. Their behaviour has been so extreme and offensive, and the political and media class was so supportive of it, that I feel uncomfortable with the entire atmosphere,” says Greenwald.
He insists he has never had animosity towards Britain. “But the more I’ve learned, the more troubling it has become.”
His new book, No Place to Hide, begins with Greenwald’s account of how, together with Poitras and the Guardian, he broke what may well be the story of the decade. The funny thing, as he recalls, is how close it came to never happening. This seems a good place to start our conversation when we meet down at sea level in the bustling heart of Rio.
“You truly were crap at encryption,” I say, referring to the digital tools that allow you to scramble messages to trusted correspondents to avoid detection, thinking that an adversarial journalist such as Greenwald will appreciate playing hardball.
“I’ve got a lot better at it, honestly!” he exclaims. He is so imploring in his response that I have immediately to reappraise the man. Such a dichotomy has often been observed about Greenwald: on his Twitter feed and blog, he is a bloody fighter, but in person he is charm itself. When I mention that later, he readily concurs: “People think I’m going to be this, like, monstrous, abusive, heinous asshole to deal with.”
But it’s true. He wasn’t great at encryption. In common with most journalists working today, he had no clue about tools that would have allowed him to communicate with sources privately, without fear of NSA or any other snooping.
When Snowden first contacted Greenwald in December 2012, using the pseudonym Cincinnatus and exhorting him to employ PGP encryption channels through which they could talk securely, Greenwald read the email but failed to reply. “There was nothing in the email that I found sufficiently enticing,” he writes.
Seven weeks went by – seven! – but Snowden kept coming back, pleading with him to set up basic systems so they could chat freely. Here was Greenwald being offered one of the biggest national-security leaks in US history, and for months he did nothing about it. “There must have been some surveillance or journalism god watching over me,” he says, “because I did everything I could to blow it.”