Glenn Greenwald Took on the Authoritarian Right in Brazil — and Won

The full story of how Glenn Greenwald revealed the antidemocratic corruption behind Brazil’s supposed anti-corruption investigation Lava Jato — which jailed former president Lula da Silva and gave rise to Jair Bolsonaro’s far-right presidency — is one of bravery against a violent, reactionary right.

Journalist Glenn Greenwald's investigation into the Lava Jato anti-corruption probe led to the freeing of former Brazilian president Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva from prison. (EVARISTO SA/AFP via Getty Images)

Imagine this counterfactual: In 2016, a judge presiding over the corruption trial of Hillary Clinton secretly corresponds with the prosecutorial team, strategizing to assure she is found guilty and that the judgment will hold on appeal. He then subjects her to “preventative detention” ahead of the trial verdict, nullifying her ability to run for the presidency. Or, as long as we are telling stories, imagine the same fate for 2020 nominee Bernie Sanders.

This, in rough analogue, is what happened to Workers’ Party (PT) candidate Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva in 2018 in Brazil. Leading the polls in the run-up to the national elections, Lula was disqualified following the acceptance of a money laundering indictment by Judge Sergio Moro. The far-right candidate Jair Bolsonaro, an admirer of the Brazilian dictatorship era, prevailed. One of Bolsonaro’s early acts as president was to appoint Lula’s jailer, Moro, to one of the most powerful positions in the country: minister of justice. Glenn Greenwald’s new book, Securing Democracy: My Fight for Press Freedom and Justice in Bolsonaro’s Brazil, tells the story of Operation Car Wash (Lava Jato in Portuguese), the anti-corruption inquiry led by Moro.

That a reporter should break even one story of real consequence, one that shakes up business as usual in a country or region or across the planet, is extremely rare. Excellent journalists go their entire careers without such a story to their names. But in 2013, Greenwald, along with Laura Poitras and Ewen MacAskill, broke whistleblower Edward Snowden’s National Security Administration (NSA) story. Among many other things, Snowden’s top-secret archive revealed that the NSA was collecting metadata on every single phone call made through Verizon. Every call, all day, every day.

The 2019 Lava Jato reports are similarly earth shattering, having already had the effect of freeing Lula from prison and, in late March, leading the Brazilian Supreme Court to declare Justice Moro to have been biased in Lula’s case. Though other roadblocks may still appear, Lula appears free to challenge Bolsonaro in 2022. Without Greenwald’s source, Walter Delgatti Neto, none of this could’ve happened.

Though largely chronological and straightforwardly told, long, compelling stretches of Securing Democracy read like a thriller. The narrative tension derives from an actual horror that forms part of the backdrop of the book: the assassination of Rio de Janeiro city councilor Marielle Franco in March 2018. Franco was, before her execution, an important voice against the militias that rule many favelas, the desperately poor neighborhoods that dot Rio and other large cities of Brazil. Those militias are comprised largely of former police. Indeed, Franco’s killers, arrested a year after her death, were former officers.

“Who ordered the murder of Marielle?” reads a poster at a rally one year after the murder of prominent city councillor Marielle Franco and her driver Anderson Gomes. The politician was shot dead in her car on March 14, 2018. (Ian Cheibub/Picture Alliance via Getty Images)

Franco was elected to the Rio City Council in the same year as Greenwald’s husband, David Miranda. Like Miranda, Franco was gay, black, and raised in a favela. Greenwald describes the phone call where David hears of the killing:

Within seconds of David answering his phone, I heard sounds coming out of his body that I had never heard in all our years together. He began howling, screaming, sobbing. It was impossible for me to make out any words. It was obvious that something unbearable had happened. After hanging up the telephone, David sobbed for five minutes straight. My attempts to calm him down enough to tell me what happened were futile.

After those moments of all-consuming fear and pain, watching my husband sob and convulse with emotional torment, he finally gathered himself enough to speak a sentence — one that, to this day, horrifies me as much as the first time that I heard it. “They killed Marielle.”

After the public funeral (Miranda was a pallbearer), in the days following the murder, Miranda rented an armored car, and insisted that no family member — neither Glenn, David, nor their children — leave the house without an armed security detail.

In April, one month after Franco’s murder, Lula was jailed. In October, Jair Bolsonaro, who once said he would rather any of his sons turn up dead than gay, was elected. In January 2019, gay member of Congress Jean Wyllys, citing credible threats on his life from elements within the Bolsonaro movement, fled the country.

Greenwald describes the situation: “[Wyllys] received threatening e-mails with photos of the license plate on his car, and of the front door of his mother’s house, accompanied by vows to murder him and his family members.” David had finished one spot behind Jean Wyllys in the national election, and “that meant that David, as the alternate, would automatically take the congressional seat.”

This, then, is the context in which Greenwald was contacted on May 12, 2019, by a source who had managed to hack the Telegram accounts of, among many others, Judge Sergio Moro and the lead prosecutor in the Car Wash inquiries, Deltan Dallagnol. A friend and comrade murdered, a presidential candidate imprisoned, one gay man fleeing the country that had elected him to the legislature, only to then be replaced by one’s spouse.

An Imperfect but Heroic Source

A hacker named Walter Delgatti Neto was the source of the massive archive of Telegram chats that formed the basis of the stories released by Greenwald and other journalists at major news outlets from across the political spectrum. Delgatti had discovered a flaw in Telegram that allowed him to spoof the phone of his victims, request a security code to add Telegram to a new device, and then download the contents of years’ worth of chats from the cloud.

Unlike Greenwald’s earlier book on the NSA revelations, which features Edward Snowden as a central character, Securing Democracy does not place Delgatti at the center of the narrative. This is, in part, because Greenwald never actually met Delgatti, even as he and his journalistic partners released over a hundred stories over the course of 2018. But it may also be because it is difficult to imagine any source matching Snowden’s technical competence and political clarity.

Snowden organized the NSA files with astonishing thoroughness, creating folders, glossaries, and prefatory documents. The Telegram chats hacked by Delgatti were far less organized, and even Delgatti himself didn’t have a full idea of everything they contained. Snowden wanted to be publicly identified as the source of the leak, and made plans to be in a country, Hong Kong, that would make extradition to the United States difficult. Delgatti not only stayed in Brazil but continued hacking even after he had given his full archive to Greenwald.

Snowden accepted that he might end up in jail and was willing to face that possibility to provoke public discourse about whether or not we want our lives to be completely surveilled by our rulers. Delgatti seemed surprised by his arrest. Snowden was careful as careful could be (he was, after all, a CIA/NSA intelligence operative), using encryption for all communications and placing cell phones in the refrigerator when discussing anything in person. Delgatti used Telegram (which he himself had shown to be insecure) and the telephone (decidedly not secure).

Finally, just as Greenwald and the Intercept Brasil were about to publish, Delgatti made a monumental error in judgment, one impossible to imagine coming from Snowden. Greenwald explains:

From the start of my discussions with our source a month before, he had been extremely consistent in his motives and message. He had presented himself as a whistleblower, pure and simple. . . . He had repeatedly emphasized that he sought no personal attention or financial gain. . . . On that Friday, however, the source made what seemed to be a joke that suggested an alternative motive. As we chatted, I advised him that we were nearing the date of publication, and he said, completely out of nowhere, “Please let me know in advance exactly what you intend to publish and when, so that we can profit off the stock market.”

Greenwald and his colleagues at the Intercept Brasil held an emergency meeting and moved the publication date from Tuesday to Sunday, without telling Delgatti. That was not only the ethical thing to do but the pragmatic one, as every chat between Delgatti and Greenwald eventually came into the possession of the Brazilian government, and even though Greenwald had done nothing illegal, smears that Greenwald had paid for the stories or that they had come from the Russians — combined with a sophisticated social media campaign of memes labelling him an “Enemy of Brazil” who should be deported — eventually did lead to charges filed by the Brazilian government as a coconspirator.

Delgatti repeatedly refused to implicate Greenwald when arrested in July, insisting he had acted only to expose corruption. But that didn’t stop the Brazilian government from filing charges. Delgatti came under intense pressure to finger Greenwald in the hack itself and never did. Indeed, prosecutors used some of the same techniques that were employed in Lava Jato itself — preventative detention in Brazil’s notoriously harsh prisons, with promises of release and more lenient treatment in exchange for testimony, in this case against Greenwald and the Intercept.

Delgatti’s refusal to buckle, in the context of his expressed intent to clean up his country by whistleblowing, seems to have convinced Greenwald — and I agree — that Delgatti deserves the label “hero” every bit as much as Snowden.

Similarly stirring is the story about a solidarity rally for Greenwald and the Intercept Brasil in Rio in late July 2018 after a wave of death threats. (Greenwald received and still receives Bolsonarist death threats daily.) Greenwald says:

One person after the next vowed to fight Moro and the Bolsonaro movement. I devoted most of my speech to this theme, brandishing my US passport that I had in my jacket pocket to explain that I could — but never would — leave Brazil in order to publish the Telegram archive documents from the safety of the United States or other foreign soil. “I will never leave this country,” I said. “I will never allow the country of my children to revert to dictatorship.”

Before reading Securing Democracy, I had never thought of different shades of death threats. After 9/11, when someone got my phone number off of a flyer for an event called “Don’t turn Tragedy into War,” I received a call threatening me and my wife and my children, the caller saying he hoped we died in flames. I didn’t have a wife or children at the time, but it scared the living hell out of me. Two years ago, my wife received a threat that was similarly frightening, hand delivered — without stamp or signature — to her university mailbox in response to an editorial she had written on immigration and sanctuary cities for the LA Times.

But I didn’t have a mental box to put those threats in that was distinct from other more ominous and credible threats, until I read this passage:

David and I were well accustomed to the sort of standard nonserious threats everyone with a non-public platform has to endure of the “I hope you die” or “You will pay” variety. But these threats of violence were markedly different . . . with a great deal of private information about our family — where we lived, where our kids went to school, personal data about both of us — along with gruesome and demented threats of what they would do to our children.”

A longer article could be written about Greenwald’s political evolution and use of Twitter over the past decade or so. But, although I believe it should be possible to have empathy for those who receive less serious threats online, after reading Securing Democracy, I understand why Greenwald has little patience for those who wilt under what he sees as the feeble sun of mean tweets.