The detention of his husband turned Greenwald's fight more personal: "It showed how they can't be trusted to exercise power without transparency and accountability."
Before the Snowden revelations, the journalist Glenn Greenwald lived in Brazil with his husband, David Miranda, because American law didn't recognize their marriage. After the Defense of Marriage Act was struck down last June—the same month that Greenwald began publishing his reporting on Edward Snowden's revelations about the NSA—the couple faced a new reason not to relocate back to New York.
"The UK and US governments hate the journalism that we're doing," he told VICE at his home near Rio de Janeiro, regarding Miranda's 11-hour detention and questioning by authorities at an airport in London in July. He was held under an anti-terror law, which was "a way of saying look at what it is we can do to people who defy us if we choose."
In that injustice, however, Greenwald found a silver lining. "At the time that it happened, I was angry, I felt helpless, I was furious they would target someone peripheral to these events, instead of me or Laura or the other journalists with whom we've been working," he said. "But at the same time I found it incredibly emboldening. They showed their true face to the world, or to me, about how abusive they are when it comes to the exercise of their power. And that made me know just how compelling it was to continue to bring transparency to what it is that they're doing. And it showed how they can't be trusted to exercise power without transparency and accountability."
Greenwald's new media venture, First Look Media, backed by eBay founder Pierre Omidyar, carries with it the anti-establishment ethos that has marked his journey from lawyer to op-ed columnist to reporter for places like Salon and the Guardian. Amidst criticism of Omidyar and eBay, particularly over their record in defending privacy and press freedoms, Greenwald has insisted that First Look and its journalists, like Laura Poitras, Jeremy Scahill and Bruce Schneier, will have editorial independence to pursue stories about surveillance and other controversial topics. And it promises a new model for supporting independent journalism, with an organizational structure that combines a for-profit news technology company with a news non-profit.
"Over time I realized that you can only make an impact on any single political issue if you start understanding and confronting and ultimately subverting the patterns of how media institutions function," said Greenwald. "Once I really started engaging with media institutions, it was a gradual process by which I started understanding how journalism functions but also doing the kind of journalism that I thought was needed."
Greenwald doesn't want to call the US government a "tyranny," but he doesn't hesitate to say that with its surveillance power, it has the hallmarks of one. His concern for privacy, conversely, is rooted in his interest in human liberty.
"As psychological studies show, as all kinds of social science demonstrates, when you know you're being watched, you make choices that you believe that the judgment of society demands that you make," he said. "It's only when you can behave and choose and explore without judgmental eyes being cast upon you, that's really the realm where dissent and creativity and exploration exclusively reside."
"So there are all kinds of political dangers to having privacy eroded, but there also really significant harms on the human and individual and personal level," he continued. "And there aren't many people articulating its value or defending it from erosion, so I perceived this need of defense of this value that I consider to be most important."