America’s most fearless political pundit is a gay blogger who used to work in a Wall Street law firm and now lives in another country. It’s hard to decide whether Glenn Greenwald’s emergence as the leading defender of political justice – MSNBC, Forbes, the Atlantic, New York magazine and his 65,000 Twitter followers consider him one of the country’s most influential liberal media figures – is cause for celebration or consternation. Once upon a time it was the role of mainstream media and figures such as Edward R Murrow and Dan Rather to serve as the nation’s conscience, but as corporate and political influences have increasingly compromised the independence of reporting, it has been left to bloggers like Greenwald to take up the mantle. At least, that’s how he tells the story.
A quick history lesson. In December 2005, the New York Times revealed the Bush Administration, in cahoots with the nation’s major telcos, had illegally tapped the phones and emails of millions of citizens. No one was held accountable. Just weeks before, Vice President Dick Cheney’s right-hand man lied to a court in an attempt to cover up his boss’s complicity in the outing of an American spy. President George W Bush later commuted Lewis “Scooter” Libby’s 30-month jail sentence so he didn’t have to spend a minute behind bars.
More recently, some of the country’s biggest banks came under fire for foreclosing on thousands of homes in dubious circumstances. How did the Obama Administration react? It brokered a settlement with the banks and pressured opponents, including New York’s Attorney General, to back off. To Greenwald, who late last year released his book With Liberty and Justice For Some: How the Law Is Used to Destroy Equality and Protect the Powerful, these events prove that a culture of impunity now pervades America’s political and business elite at the expense of those who can’t afford to properly defend themselves.
Although Libby escaped jail time, the US imprisons its citizens at a higher rate – 715 per 100,000 people – than any other country. (New Zealand imprisons only 160 per 100,000 people; 55th in the world.) Meanwhile, Greenwald says, those at the bottom of society – African-Americans and Hispanics, mostly – are sacrificed to feed the private-prison industry’s appetite for profits, which increase as more people are jailed, and punished by an unforgiving “three strikes” policy, which has now become law in New Zealand.
“A couple of years ago, I started realising one of the themes that tied together so much of what I was writing about is this concept of this two-tiered justice system, and the way the whole concept of equality before the law has been not just violated but actually repudiated,” says Greenwald. He is on a Skype call from his home in the mountains above Rio de Janeiro, where he lives with his husband and 10 dogs, which they keep rescuing from the streets. These dogs’ barks, snarls, whines and whimpers are set off by the slightest provocation – a passing car usually does the trick – providing a backdrop to our conversation.
Greenwald, an animated talker with a tendency to overstuff his sentences, has to shout down one yappy pup before finishing his statement. “That was just like a living, breathing tribute to entrenched explicit inequality before the law,” he eventually continues. “And that seems a pretty fundamental change, and a pretty significant change in how our country functions.”
The 44-year-old, who grew up poor in South Florida, graduated from the New York University law school, then worked for 18 months in prestigious Wall Street law firm Wachtell, Lipton. At 27, he set up his own firm, focusing on constitutional rights. Feeding an interest in political debate, he started a blog in 2005 just as the Scooter Libby scandal was breaking. Within weeks came news of the warrantless wire-taps, and with the help of links from other liberal bloggers, he quickly had tens of thousands of readers. He wrote the best-selling How Would a Patriot Act?, moved his blog to online magazine Salon and is now an outspoken supporter of WikiLeaks and the Occupy Wall Street movement. In his writing, he has been rhetorically merciless on crooked politicians, lobbyists and Establishment media, and at any sign of insidious corporate influence in the political process (there’s plenty).
He has also been a strong, but isolated, critic of creeping authoritarianism. In two posts in December, he exposed the threat posed by spy drones to domestic civil liberties, an issue barely touched by other media. Drone manufacturers, using millions of dollars of lobbying cash and well-placed political advocates, are increasingly marketing their goods for non-military use, including police operations. The drones – which can survey everything in an area the size of a small town without the knowledge of those in their sights – could soon be used against citizens the Government considers a threat, he warned. In December, the Los Angeles Times reported North Dakota police have used Predator drones in “at least two dozen surveillance flights since June” – all without Congressional approval.
You could call Greenwald the new Noam Chomsky, liberal Agitator-in-Chief. Well, not quite. A frequent guest on political TV shows, the suit-wearing Greenwald doesn’t want to be seen as a dissident who goes around speaking only to hospitable audiences. “[Chomsky’s] impact is enormous, and he’s amazingly influential and popular around the world, but he’s let himself be pushed out of Establishment media venues,” says Greenwald. “It’s important not to let that happen, because you have the obligation to try to figure out how not to be marginalised.”
New Zealand’s media scene is short on Greenwald-type figures, and this comes at a cost. We face many of the issues he confronts in With Liberty and Justice For Some, including the debate about privatised prisons and the “three strikes” policy. “The essence of ‘three strikes and you’re out’ is the same as a whole variety of legal measures that had been in introduced in the US in the name of the ‘tough on crime’ approach,” he says, “and that is to remove the discretion from the judges who preside over the cases and are in the best position to know what a fair and just punishment is.”
The New Zealand Government’s apparent desire to move towards a more punitive justice system, including National’s campaign policy of indefinite detention for the worst offenders, is also cause for concern. “The law is not intended to be a machine that operates without exceptions,” he says. “To remove that human judgment and to in advance impose these automatic punishments as if you’re dealing with some kind of mathematical formula is incredibly inhumane on its face and produces some of the most heinous travesties you could possibly imagine.”
Greenwald makes no apology for his adversarial approach to those in power. Ensconced in his Brazilian hinterland home, he embraces the role of the outsider who can operate without fear of retribution. As he sees it, “the whole system of government that we have only works if everybody who wields power is subjected to all kinds of checks and oversight and critical scrutiny”. That so much of that work has been left to a blogger says a lot about US politics.
WITH LIBERTY AND JUSTICE FOR SOME: HOW THE LAW IS USED TO DESTROY EQUALITY AND PROTECT THE POWERFUL, by Glenn Greenwald (Henry Holt & Company, $36.95)