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All Glenn Greenwald’s Women

How the all-male citations in a profile of a major American journalist obscure a crucial nuance about Russia’s meddling in the 2016 election

Andrew Burton/Getty Images

A lot of people have opinions about Glenn Greenwald, who has emerged as one of the most controversial voices in the debate over Russia’s interference in the 2016 election. But according to New York magazine, none of them are women. In a 4,800-word profile—audaciously titled, “Does Glenn Greenwald know more than Robert Mueller?”—author Simon van Zuylen-Wood fails to quote even one woman to test Greenwald’s insistence that the Russia investigation is much ado about nothing, despite the fact that women journalists and lawyers have made huge contributions to the debate and nurtured Greenwald’s career. The end result is not just to turn the national security debate into a de facto boys’ club, but to prioritize the more bombastic claims of men over the sometimes quieter work of women, skewing the debate itself toward more polarized territory.

The profile cites Greenwald critics like Ben Wittes, editor-in-chief of the Brookings Institution’s Lawfare blog, and Stewart Baker, a rhetorical flamethrower who was general counsel at the National Security Agency more than two decades ago. Missing is Susan Hennessey, an executive editor at Lawfare who worked as a lawyer at the NSA while it was struggling to respond to the Edward Snowden leaks. Van Zuylen-Wood quotes Greenwald’s old editor at The Intercept, John Cook (“He’s dead, tragically wrong on this”), but declined to cite his current editor there, Betsy Reed (“He’s always brilliant and usually half-right even when he’s wrong,” is what she told me).

“The absence of women in the New York magazine piece on Glenn is sadly all too typical of how women’s contributions and voices are erased from stories in which they’ve played a central role,” said Jesselyn Radack, a lawyer who has represented Snowden and the whistleblowers Bill Binney and Thomas Drake. In response to a similar complaint I made on Twitter, Greenwald agreed: “The omission you cite is especially notable because most of the key people in my journalism career have been women,” including Reed, the stalwart blogger Heather “Digby” Parton, former Salon editor Joan Walsh, former Guardian editor Janine Gibson, FireDogLake founder Jane Hamsher, and First Look Media co-founder Laura Poitras.

Van Zuylen-Wood did not reach out to Digby, Walsh, or Gibson. He did reach out to Reed and me, but chose not to use our contributions. Poitras, who helped Greenwald learn basic operational security as the two reported out the Snowden leaks together, declined to participate in the profile and declined to comment for this article.

The consequence is a profile that is sometimes missing nuance and context. For example, when I spoke with Reed, she defended a June 2017 story in The Intercept showing Russian actors probing election infrastructure. It was based on a Top Secret NSA report allegedly leaked by former NSA translator Reality Winner (Winner’s identity became known in part because of sloppy reporting by The Intercept). In the New York profile, Greenwald made an alarming attack on the story, which has the young woman awaiting trial in custody: “I thought it was bullshit.... I think it tried to overstate the importance of what that document was.”

Van Zuylen-Wood noted that the story was one of the first to show that “Russia may have been directly targeting election technology,” but Reed provided the context that Greenwald had omitted. “Trump had just fired James Comey and was regularly denouncing the Russian interference story as ‘fake news,’” she recalled. “Whatever you think about collusion, or who deserves the blame for the debacle of the 2016 election, there’s no doubt a story like that, which directly contradicts the line being taken by a White House clearly bent on obstructing justice, is big news.”

Hennessey of Lawfare was blunter. “I can’t for the life of me think of anything interesting to say about Greenwald,” she told me. She did not attribute her low opinion of Greenwald on this issue to the Snowden affair; rather, it had to do with the seriousness of Greenwald’s contributions to the Russia story. “On all things Russia,” Hennessey said, “I find the stuff that’s text- and evidence-based interesting (both for and against the notion there’s something to it).” She contrasted that with what she described as “surface commentary,” which she called ”a waste of time.” She judged, “I haven’t seen Greenwald produce anything in the former category.”

As someone whose career writing on civil liberties and national security has paralleled Greenwald’s—though with fewer fireworks—and as someone who has covered the Russia story in excruciating detail, I was contacted for the New York story. Perhaps because I spoke of the gendered nature of the early blogosphere and the way it created celebrities of its prominent men, my comments also didn’t make the cut.

Like Reed, I don’t think Greenwald is entirely wrong on the Russian story. I’m grateful he rails against the demonization of those with views outside the mainstream consensus, especially on Syria and Ukraine. Greenwald is right that the focus on Russia has led to some embarrassing false stories, not to mention an alarmist treatment of initial cyberprobes (the likes of which the United States itself does all the time) as full-blown attacks on the United States. Like Greenwald, I think MSNBC’s lefty-focused programs have become an information bubble (though it is nowhere near as bad as Fox News). Like Greenwald, I believe the focus on Russia’s nefariousness has distracted from America’s own sins, such as the centuries of racism that allowed a figure like Donald Trump to thrive and a well-funded, right-wing propaganda machine that did far more to elect Trump than a Russian troll factory in Saint Petersburg. And I worry that the focus on Russia will distract Trump’s opponents from more tangible actions to combat him.

But unlike Greenwald I have no doubt that Russia launched a successful attack on the United States in 2016. Indeed, I’m of the opinion that if special counsel Robert Mueller is permitted to pursue all angles of this operation, we’ll learn the damage was worse than most people imagine. I say that, in part, because I believe the Shadow Brokers persona was a part of the operation, working in tandem with Russian-backed hackers who stole emails from the Democratic National Committee. Shadow Brokers had previously released a slew of NSA hacking tools that were then integrated into global malware like WannaCry and NotPetya, which together did hundreds of millions of dollars of damage to Western companies and hurt the NSA’s ability to respond to the Russian operation.

I arrived at this conclusion through the work. Like Hennessey, I think the truth of the Russia story can be gleaned from the evidence. And for a variety of reasons, I’ve worked hard on this issue since the original hack. In the days after the hack in the fall of 2016, for example, I got pitched an alternate theory: that the emails leaked to WikiLeaks may have been obtained by reusing credentials allegedly stolen by Russian hacker Yevgeniy Nikulin and made publicly available. I spent months testing that theory against public claims that this was a standard hack by Russian intelligence. While I’m not certain precisely what happened, I suspect we’ll learn that the Russians built in several layers of plausible deniability that have made the Mueller investigation more difficult and that have served as fodder to skeptics of the Russia story.

I also arrived at this conclusion with the help of a number of pieces of evidence that, for various reasons, have not yet been made public. As one example, in the days after the hack of the DNC, I learned that Facebook had observed actions in real time it attributed to APT 28, believed to be tied to Russia’s military intelligence. In an April 2017 report, Facebook alluded obliquely to this observation when it said its own conclusions were consistent with the U.S. government’s. Then, last September, an anonymous source told The Washington Post that Facebook shared what it had seen with the FBI. In other words, almost a year before it became public, I learned that Facebook, an independent actor with global network visibility, backs the intelligence community’s conclusions about the hack.

I’ve also focused obsessively on this story because of the kind of inaccurate sensationalism that pervades New York’s profile of Greenwald, such as him dismissing a plea agreement that provides solid evidence that Russians offered “dirt” on Hillary Clinton in the form of emails. “They had all these kind of losers who weren’t even in the Trump campaign,” he told van Zuylen-Wood. “You know, these charlatans who were constantly puffing up their résumés, who come from the shittiest schools and have no significant experience.” This even though Paul Manafort, the former campaign chair, was involved. There has been so much garbage written about the DNC hack that I wanted to ride herd on some of the more outlandish claims. Greenwald has even applauded a number of these pieces of mine, such as my warning that officials should avoid forming conclusions about intelligence (as it did in the lead-up to the Iraq War) until all agencies weighed in. But skeptics of the Russia story favor wild claims, such as the notion that a download, in the Eastern Time Zone, of stolen documents that were not among the key leaked documents by itself rules out Russian involvement.

The most glaring example of unhelpful sensationalism, which virtually all sides contribute to, pertains to the Christopher Steele dossier. Neither its salacious revelations about a “pee tape” nor its more mundane reports of meetings between Trump officials and Russians to coordinate on the election have yet been publicly corroborated in their specifics. Many people point to the dossier’s report on former campaign adviser Carter Page’s trip to Russia to claim it has been verified by known facts. But the opposite is actually the case, as far as we know: Page met with different Russians.

Democrats made—and still make—the dossier the centerpiece of their grand narrative about Trump, in spite of all the more solid reporting since then that amounts to at least circumstantial evidence of coordination. That made the belated admission that Democrats funded the dossier controversial when it otherwise wouldn’t have been. In turn, Republicans are spending their days discrediting the dossier, but apparently haven’t noticed that, thus far, nothing Robert Mueller has done appears to be the investigative fruit of that intelligence.

The truth lies somewhere between Trump being a Manchurian Candidate and Greenwald’s insistence that the Russia story is a fabrication of a fevered, Russo-phobic liberal mind. And for all its nuances, it’s still a powerful, important story. We’ve discovered that social media giants may be the weak underbelly through which all kinds of adversaries, foreign and domestic, can exercise toxic influence. We can see that Vladimir Putin is having increasing success at filling a vacuum of credibility in Western countries, especially in Europe, created by recent American failures. But when we talk about the Russia story, we aren’t talking about the dangerous concentration in Silicon Valley or partisan outlets like Breitbart or the way the Iraq War undermined the United State’s legitimacy around the world. We’re talking about Glenn Greenwald and the pee tape.