The day the bloggers won

With no traditional-media allies or lobbying money, the netroots was able to alter the debate about wiretapping in the 2008 campaign. Leading the charge: Salon's Glenn Greenwald.

Topics: 2008 Elections, Glenn Greenwald, Books,

The day the bloggers won

Five thousand, two hundred ninety miles. That’s how far it was from Barack Obama’s campaign headquarters in Chicago to downtown Rio de Janeiro.

It takes commercial airliners 10 hours to make the trip; email circles the globe in just seconds. On June 20, 2008, a news release from the Obama campaign landed in the email in‑box of Glenn Greenwald, who blogged from his widely read netroots home base, Unclaimed Territory. Although he’s an A‑list blogger who helps the netroots formulate its agenda each day for the ongoing combat of U.S. politics, Greenwald actually works out of his first-floor home office in Rio de Janeiro. When he clicked on the Obama release after it traveled more than 5,000 miles that June day, the blogger was appalled.

Obama’s statement addressing pending legislation regarding government-sponsored wiretapping did not create much interest among the Beltway press corps, but it lit a fuse within the blogosphere. In June 2008 a congressional agreement was being crafted to rewrite the nation’s electronic surveillance laws at the request of the Bush White House, which demanded extraordinary executive powers in its pursuit of terrorist suspects, including the right to wiretap some U.S. citizens without the need of a warrant.

Contrary to existing law, the Bush administration had been engaging in wiretapping for years; now it wanted to get the permission in writing. The White House–friendly legislation being crafted by Congress would also grant retroactive immunity to telecommunications corporations such as AT&T and Verizon, which reportedly helped the Bush White House conduct illegal, warrantless wiretaps by handing over information about their customers to the government. The telecoms wanted to make sure they would not have to answer to private citizens who filed invasion-of-privacy lawsuits in the wake of the wiretapping revelations. The new legislation would grant that blanket immunity, immunity that could not be repealed.

For years, the liberal blogosphere had made warrantless eavesdropping and retroactive immunity two of its primary battle sites. The laws of the land were quite plain: it was a felony to eavesdrop on Americans without a warrant. Bush essentially got caught, admitted he did it, and then said he needed to keep doing it anyway. The bloggers’ message to Democrats was equally plain: If you don’t stand up to Bush’s naked lawbreaking, you’re never going to stand up to anything.

No doubt the wiretap issue was wonky, but the netroots was built around an adult appreciation of serious issues. Politics and governance wasn’t a game or a sport, though the Beltway media often treated them that way. Elections had consequences, and bloggers were distressed that America had become a country whose government disregarded civil liberties and was allowed to break existing laws to wiretap its citizens, and do it with the help of billion dollar telecommunication giants.

Since August 2007, when Greenwald began to urgently push the issue online, the netroots had been completely committed to thwarting any congressional effort to further water down electronic surveillance laws; these were already lenient laws that had been spelled out for decades in the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act, or FISA. Bloggers formed a potent alliance with presidential campaigns, congressional staffs, and outside advocacy groups and raised hundreds of thousands of dollars among readers to try to block the effort under way to codify Bush’s wiretapping, while also pardoning the communication companies that facilitated the lawbreaking. For months, through 2007 and into early 2008, the scrappy, ad hoc, netroots-led coalition posted win after upset win on Capitol Hill in its wiretapping fight against Republican leaders, large portions of the Democratic Party, a compliant press, the White House, and the telecom giants. It wasn’t David versus Goliath. It was more like David’s little brother versus Goliath. Yet bloggers kept tallying wins in the FISA fight.

Then, in the spring of 2008, another decisive vote approached, and for the first time that year Barack Obama, the Democratic Party’s presumptive nominee, had to take a definitive stand on the wiretapping issues as well as the immunity ploy. During the Democratic primaries Obama had repeatedly, and with his signature rhetorical flair, assured progressives that he supported their fight to roll back Bush’s lawless wiretapping efforts. Pressuring his rival Hillary Clinton from the left, Obama even announced he would support the filibuster of any bill that tried to hand the telecoms a get-out-of-jail pass in the form of retroactive immunity.

By June, though, the netroots’ wiretapping winning streak in Congress looked in doubt. Thanks to Democratic leaders in the House and Senate who finally capitulated to Bush’s demands, bloggers turned to Obama as their last hope and urged him to use his high-profile platform as the most powerful Democrat in the country to change the dynamics of the wiretapping debate in Washington. Even if the battle were already lost and the new FISA legislation would pass, if Obama stepped up and used his newly minted Party leadership status and talked forcefully and openly about why warrantless wiretapping was not needed to win the war on terror and why retroactive immunity represented a repugnant notion for any democracy — if he invoked the same FISA rhetoric he used during the primary season — then maybe he could change the larger debate.

When Greenwald, who had blogged 300 to 400 items about the larger issue of Bush wiretapping during a 30-month span, opened his email on June 20 to read Obama’s much anticipated statement regarding wiretapping and retroactive immunity, his expectations were low. Yes, Obama had been a forceful FISA ally during the primaries. But just looking at the politics in play, Greenwald thought it unlikely that as the Party’s nominee Obama would now break on FISA with Democrats in the House and Senate. Greenwald suspected there had been some sort of behind-the-scenes signal that Obama would be okay if Democrats gave Bush what he wanted in terms of wiretapping and retroactive immunity, and that Obama would not bitterly oppose it. In fact, he might even quietly support the policy initiative.

Still, Greenwald, who remained agnostic during the Clinton-Obama primary battle, was startled when he clicked on the email and read Obama’s statement. In it, the candidate not only walked away from his previous statements denouncing wiretapping as well as from his commitment to thwart retroactive immunity, but he actually embraced specific Republican talking points when discussing the national security issue of electronic surveillance. “Given the grave threats that we face, our national security agencies must have the capability to gather intelligence and track down terrorists before they strike, while respecting the rule of law and the privacy and civil liberties of the American people,” Obama announced.

Furious, Greenwald tore off the gloves and excoriated Obama in a way no neutral, big-name blogger had done during the entire campaign:

What Barack Obama did here was wrong and destructive. He’s supporting a bill that is a full-scale assault on our Constitution. What’s more, as a Constitutional Law Professor, he knows full well what a radical perversion of our Constitution this bill is, and yet he’s supporting it anyway. Anyone who sugarcoats or justifies that is doing a real disservice to their claimed political values and to the truth.

Greenwald wasn’t looking to proclaim Obama unfit to be the Party’s nominee. But as he searched around the blogosphere looking for some early signs of life from a community that had just been dissed by the most famous Democrat in America, he found mostly silence. Rather than straight talk in response to Obama’s FISA proclamation, Greenwald saw creeping timidity, with portions of the blogosphere expressing concern that openly criticizing Obama’s FISA stance might damage the Democrat’s chance for a White House win.

For Greenwald, that was too much. Partisan cheerleading was not why the liberal blogosphere was created. There were already plenty of Beltway institutions that would applaud Democratic politicians no matter what they did. The netroots, he thought, ought to oppose Democratic complicity and capitulation just as forcefully as the netroots battled GOP corruption and media malfeasance. All three were of equal importance; none of them should be discarded for the sake of a campaign.

Whether because of Greenwald’s scolding or the fact that bloggers just needed time to process Obama’s flip-flop, soon the blogosphere condemnations began to pour in as Obama’s turn away from FISA and retroactive immunity was presented as a paramount pivot for the netroots. It represented an awkward moment for the burgeoning online movement as it was forced to ask some uncomfortable questions about its heralded candidate.

But the FISA episode was about more than the Democratic candidate. This important chapter in netroots history was about how bloggers, with virtually no allies in the traditional media and without spending a dime on lobbying, harnessed enough grassroots passion to alter the national debate, at times dramatically, about national security during the campaign season. 

Leading the online FISA fight from his Rio home in the tropics, 1,000 miles south of the equator, was Greenwald, who nearly single-handedly elevated the wiretapping issue to national importance and forced candidates to take notice. The FISA pushback perfectly captured how the netroots revolution could change U.S. politics. It also spoke to the power and transcontinental credibility Greenwald had built up in less than three years within the netroots movement. “If it weren’t for Glenn,” said the blogger Jane Hamsher, “nobody would have cared about FISA.” That he led the revolt from Brazil simply highlighted the limitless potential of the Internet to connect people.

It’s likely very few of Greenwald’s readers knew he lived in and wrote from Rio, simply because he didn’t mention it on his blog very often. Unlike some bloggers, Greenwald revealed very little personal information in his writing. For instance, he didn’t write much about being gay, but that’s why he moved to Brazil. His partner is Brazilian, and that government recognized their relationship for immigration purposes, whereas the U.S. government explicitly refused to.

Greenwald started making extended visits to Rio in 2005, and with each passing year he spent more months there. Now he lives in a rented four-story house in the South Zone of the sprawling Brazilian city, in the tranquil neighborhood of Gávea. The house is perched on the side of a mountain, has a pool out back, and is protected by a large wall in front. The city barriers are ubiquitous, due to Rio’s high crime rate. Greenwald works out of his first-floor office; from the fourth floor he can see the ocean and the famed Ipanema beaches, which are just a 10-minute walk from home.

He doesn’t consider himself an ex‑pat (he hates that term) because he still maintains U.S. citizenship and always will. Plus, he owns an apartment in New York City and visits frequently. He spends most of his waking hours engaged in U.S. politics, either reading U.S.-based publications and blogs online or monitoring cable news channels. Most of the people he talks to on the phone are American. To eliminate monster phone bills, Greenwald downloaded the computer program Skype, which allows him to use his computer to place international calls for free. It also allows him to make free video calls via his webcam.

Thanks to new technology, and the ability to connect instantly, it feels very much as if he were in the United States. As far as having a competitive advantage, Greenwald’s clock in Rio, depending on the time of year, runs between one and three hours ahead of the U.S. East Coast, which gives him an upper hand when posting items each morning. An early riser by nature, Greenwald often keys his beefy, 2,000-to-3,000-word essays off that morning’s news. They are sometimes ready to read by 8 a.m. in New York and Washington, much to the amazement of his fellow bloggers, many of whom are not aware of the head start Greenwald gets each morning from his office in South America.

Of course, being in Brazil means the blogger has to turn down offers to appear on television; producers who make such offers, via email, have no idea the blogger is 5,000 miles away. But popping up on MSNBC for three minutes to bicker about politics never interested Greenwald much to begin with. Not that he doesn’t like instigating a good row.

As a kid, Greenwald was destined to become an attorney. Precocious and boasting a healthy argumentative streak, he enjoyed being in the spotlight during his high school debate team matches. Growing up in the south Florida town of Lauderdale Lakes, the grandson of a political junkie, Greenwald ran for city council when he turned 18. He campaigned against the local condominium power structure but couldn’t knock off any of the incumbents.

A curious contradiction, Greenwald sports a boyish look and appears ten years younger than his actual age of 41. But in terms of his personality, he is very much all business, and he carries himself like a man 10 years his senior. Whereas lots of bloggers embrace a Peter Pan outlook on life, Greenwald is the opposite. He’s the one providing constant adult supervision over the blogosphere. His posts are deadly serious and often much more earnest than those of his colleagues. The illustration of Greenwald that appears on his site, which has been affiliated with Salon since 2007, shows him sitting ramrod straight with his arms crossed and wearing a dress shirt and tie. Very unbloggy.

After graduating from George Washington University, Greenwald studied law at New York University and became a constitutional attorney in 1994. His work was at times political in the sense that he took on unpopular clients in free speech cases that spotlighted the practical tensions between the rights of individuals and the collective urges of the community. In 2002 he defended a strident anti-immigration group, National Alliance, in a New York civil rights lawsuit after two Mexican day workers were beaten and stabbed on Long Island by two men posing as contractors in search of laborers. The victims claimed that the anti-immigration rhetoric of National Alliance, which urged racist violence against Latino immigrants and other racial minorities, was partly to blame for the beatings. Greenwald argued that the case represented a misguided attempt to impose liability and punishment on groups because of their political and religious views. A federal judge threw out the case.

He started reading the liberal blogs in 2003 and was amazed by the depth of insight and the caliber of writing posted on an almost hourly basis. The discussions unfolding online, the detailed political analysis, were fascinating and far more sophisticated than what he was seeing and reading in the mainstream press, and he wanted to be part of them. Around the same time he decided to ease out of law. He wanted a change, although he wasn’t sure what kind. He loved litigation, but he hated practicing law. He grew tired of attorneys and judges and clients (especially the clients). After 9/11 he became much more engaged in domestic politics as the country lurched to the right. The terrorist-related legal saga of Jose Padilla and the claim that the federal government had the authority to imprison a U.S. citizen on American soil without due process were especially alarming to Greenwald. As was the country’s creeping reverence for the commander in chief as a legal arbiter.

Then one day in late October 2005, Greenwald woke up and decided he’d launch his own blog, simply because he had a few things to say and thought they were worth saying to others. After christening his site Unclaimed Territory, he wrote a post about the unfolding CIA leak investigation involving a former operative, Valerie Plame, and Vice President Dick Cheney’s No. 2, Scooter Libby, who stood accused of outing Plame in retribution for her husband’s prominent war criticism. Six days after Greenwald’s maiden blog post, Libby was indicted. One of the immediate talking points embraced by Libby defenders in the conservative press was that a trial would simply pit Libby and his word against journalists who became part of the investigation; the whole case would come down to whether jurists believed Libby or journalists.

Greenwald found the Libby indictment online, read it, and thought that the conservative press was completely wrong. Prosecutors had outlined several instances in which non-journalist witnesses would be called upon to contradict Libby’s testimony regarding the leak case. Thus the trial wouldn’t feature Libby’s word versus a journalist’s word.

Greenwald blogged it and his Libby item quickly got picked up by a writer at the New Republic, who included it in an item he wrote that day. From there, Duncan Black linked to Greenwald’s post at Eschaton, and Unclaimed Territory was immediately deluged with new readers. When he posted the link that day, Black had no idea who Greenwald was. How could he? Greenwald hadn’t even been blogging for a week. Yet in the space of five days, Greenwald’s site went from 30 readers to 30,000.

His meteoric rise continued in December, when the New York Times broke its wiretapping exclusive: the National Security Agency had been ordered by Bush to sift through phone calls and emails without first obtaining a warrant, which had been the law of the land for nearly three decades. Greenwald obsessed over the story for months and blogged about it incessantly, carving out a niche for himself as an online go‑to guy for sharp legal analysis regarding the rapidly expanding field of Bush wiretapping disclosures.

“Greenwald changed blogging,” claimed the netroots pioneer Digby. For years, the blogging formula most people aspired to was posting five or six insightful items a day that gave readers enough to chew on and also kept them coming back often to check the site for fresh content. Kevin Drum and Matthew Yglesias were two early archetypes of that classic approach. But Greenwald eschewed that style and usually wrote about just one topic each day and at great length, although he often added lots of updates throughout the day. “I didn’t know that somebody could come along at that late date, do blogging in a completely different way, and become a sensation,” said Digby. “Glenn truly was an overnight blogging sensation. People loved his work immediately.”

Within six months of his debut, Greenwald had ascended to an unofficial leadership position within the blogosphere. Online he was a relentless writer who just steamrolled his foes through sheer force of facts. “He knows his stuff, hits hard and keeps on hitting,” commented one Huffington Post reader. Amassing details, tearing through primary documents, and building his case much like an attorney does, Greenwald had the ability to make complex issues easily understandable. Like a good lawyer presenting a complicated case to a jury, he constructed his narratives from the ground up, adding in doses of appropriate indignation as he proceeded, all wrapped in meticulously researched writing.

Reflecting a new online generation of progressive writers and partisans who did not aspire to go along and get along with Beltway elites, Greenwald did not suffer fools gladly, especially those in the press and especially partisans on the far right. His take-downs, which often unfolded over days via multiple posts, with Greenwald returning to rhetorically pound his foe again and again, were epic. That’s why he got dubbed “Glennzilla” online. Greenwald notched more clear knockout wins in his belt than perhaps any other blogger.

Excerpted from “Bloggers on the Bus: How the Internet Changed Politics and the Press,” by Eric Boehlert. Copyright © 2009 by Eric Boehlert. Reprinted by permission of Free Press, a division of Simon & Schuster, Inc. 

Eric Boehlert, a former senior writer for Salon, is the author of "Lapdogs: How the Press Rolled Over for Bush."

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