Edward Snowden’s NSA leaks have changed the way the U.S. and the world thinks about national security, freedom, and privacy. While the leaks have sparked debates about the ethics of mass surveillance in our technologically driven age, Snowden’s revelations also bring up another question—one of journalistic ethics.
Glenn Greenwald, the journalist who helped Edward Snowden’s break news of the NSA’s surveillance apparatus, finds himself in the middle one of the year’s biggest news stories. In this second half of a two-part interview with The Takeaway, Greenwald shifts his focus from national security issues to the meaning of responsible journalism.
By working with Snowden to expose the NSA’s secret data collection strategies to the world, Greenwald made a bold statement about the kind of journalist he is—one who is willing to use classified government information to challenge the U.S. government.
He has no regrets or qualms about having acted as a trusted confidant to Snowden. For Greenwald, taking a critical stance towards the establishment has always been the driving force of his career.
“I think that one of the things that I’ve focused on in the eight years that I’ve been writing about politics has been to focus on what the proper role of journalism is vis-a-vis political and corporate power and that role ought to be adversarial,” he tells The Takeaway. “I’m really glad that Edward Snowden had somebody who he trusted to come forward and bring this information to, and I think the question of whether or not it’s inappropriate is answered by the impact that these stories have had in provoking real debate around the world.”
Still, Greenwald admits that having insider knowledge as a journalist can also become a dangerous tool that comes with large-scale political consequences. He cites false claims by The New York Times in 2003 about weapons of mass destruction in Iraq as an example.
“In the run up to the Iraq War The New York Times—the most trusted journalistic institution in the world—put one incredibly false and inflammatory claim after the next on their front page regarding the threat that Saddam Hussein supposedly posed and helped bring about a war. Journalism can be abused in all sorts of ways,” he says.
While he has access to much more confidential government information than he’s willing to publish, he has set his own boundaries.
“I would never publish material that would provide specifications for how surveillance systems could be built by other states,” Greenwald says. "I wouldn’t publish the information that the NSA has gathered on particular people, their identities, their emails, their telephone calls, if I have those because that would assault their privacy. There’s a whole range of information I wouldn’t publish and haven’t published even though I could."
Greenwald also believes his own work should be subject to transparency. Journalists, not just government entities and corporate bodies, make decisions that have a direct impact on the public, and they should be held accountable for them.
“The public will ultimately judge what it is that I do just like anybody else who’s acting in a way that affects public life, and I think that’s how it should be,” he says.