Glenn Greenwald wants to set the record straight: He believes Edward Snowden chose him to reveal a vast and expanding scope of government surveillance secrets not because he was a sympathetic ear, but because he was unlikely to be bullied into suppressing the story.
Mr. Snowden, the former National Security Agency contractor and whistle-blower who leaked vast troves of top-secret government documents last year, had watched major newspapers sit on stories under pressure from government authorities, according to Mr. Greenwald. And Mr. Snowden was scared his disclosures could suffer the same fate.
"Edward Snowden was petrified that he was going to unravel his life and come to an institution like the New York Times with all of this material, only for them to refuse to report virtually all of it because the government would tell them that doing so would endanger national security," Mr. Greenwald said Tuesday during a conversation with The Globe and Mail's editor-in-chief, David Walmsley.
In a 90-minute talk, sponsored by the Canadian Journalism Foundation, the strident American journalist and lawyer, formerly of Britain's Guardian newspaper and now co-editing the digital news site The Intercept, freely conceded he has taken a more maverick approach to publishing sensitive information.
When he worked for The Guardian, he insisted the paper not edit anything he wrote, and once threatened that if its editors delayed publishing one of his stories even five more minutes, he would take it elsewhere.
"I didn't want to have weeks and months of meetings with editors and lawyers," he said. "I wanted to publish immediately and aggressively."
He argued the real danger lies in the "climate of fear" governments have fostered that leaves many sources too scared to come forward, leaving the public in the dark about decisions being made in the name of protecting them.
This chill has, in some ways, "destroyed the news-gathering process," in Mr. Greenwald's view. But he believes Mr. Snowden's actions – "this extreme act of defiance to say, what I've done, I believe in to such an extent that I'm not going to hide and I'm not going to skulk in the shadows" – are bringing about a powerful change.
While Mr. Greenwald's central role in the unfolding story has made him a hero to some, in other circles he has been heavily criticized and even labelled a criminal for what some see as recklessness in his zeal to publish deep secrets – a view he says governments have perpetuated.
Mr. Walmsley agreed some in journalism have been "in slumber" but reminded Mr. Greenwald that "media institutions have to be responsible," and pressed him about how he balances the instinct to inform and the danger that in sharing some information, "there could be lives put at risk."
Mr. Greenwald said he and his colleagues have been careful not to identify those named in the Snowden leaks, and pointed out that he has revealed the contents of "probably less than 10 per cent" of the many thousands of documents in his possession.
"When I look at the last 16 months, what I see as the most important impact is not how people think about surveillance," Mr. Greenwald said. "It's how people think about government power and the dangers of secrecy and the role of journalism."