Before Glenn Greenwald was the journalist who broke and defended the most important story of 2013, he was many other things: an underage South Florida politician, a lawyer at a high-powered corporate firm, Kips Bay’s most combative tenant, and even the legal arm of his business partner’s gay porn distribution company.
Greenwald is a man of superficial contradictions: Brazil’s best-known American blogger, and a high-profile beneficiary of Wednesday’s Supreme Court ruling that will allow binational couples to live legally in the United States. He’s one of the internet’s prickliest characters, though by all accounts a man of great personal charm and warmth.
But at this moment, Glenn Greenwald is, first of all, a major supporting player in the new century’s definitive spy thriller, a kind of unfinished John Le Carre novel. A 29-year-old government contractor finds proof of invasive NSA spying programs. He abandons a comfortable life in Hawaii to expose them, fleeing to Hong Kong and teaming up with intrepid reporters he believes he can trust, including the Guardian’s Greenwald.
If Greenwald’s role in one of this decade’s signature international dramas is any guide, perhaps the most striking thing about the 46-year-old is his consistency. Greenwald is a rare man of inflexible principle in an online conversation dominated by flexible partisans. He’s a civil libertarian for whom LGBT equality, a Nazi’s right to free speech, and freedom from government surveillance are bound by a common thread; and he’s a brutal and tireless combatant with everyone from President Obama’s Twitter legions to George W. Bush.
For Greenwald, the Guardian’s Edward Snowden-sourced series is career-defining. It also represents a rare and pure vindication for a figure long viewed even by many on the left as a difficult eccentric. There may be an emerging consensus on out-of-control government power and secrecy. Greenwald was always there. And people who have known Greenwald for years say his defining characteristic may be that he has never changed.
“If Glenn feels he’s right about something, he doesn’t care if the entire world hates him,” said David Elbaum, who worked for Greenwald’s law firm a decade ago.
Before he helped Snowden publish the Obama administration’s surveillance skeletons — before he wrote on his blog about President Bush’s surveillance skeletons — Greenwald was a determined young lawyer. His career began in 1994 at Wachtell Lipton Rosen & Katz, known as perhaps the most lucrative and hardest-charging in New York’s brutal corporate legal world. He was still enrolled then at NYU’s School of Law, where he became known for leading a successful campaign to ban Colorado firms from recruiting on campus after voters in the state approved an amendment overturning anti-discrimination laws. He had a dozen job offers, but Greenwald — who came out around 1986, while he was a philosophy major at George Washington University — decided to accept a junior associate position at the high-powered Wachtell Lipton because it offered civil union benefits.
“It wasn’t the monetary value,” Greenwald said. “It was just the symbolism for me.” And so Greenwald spent the next 18 months representing investment bankers and Goldman Sachs.