Brazil-based lawyer turned journalist Glenn Greenwald made his name in 2013 with exposures of US spying on the world, including the then government of Dilma Rousseff. Despite regular critiques of US imperialism elsewhere in the world, since 2015 he has published little or nothing on his government’s involvement in Brazil, and his latest book puzzlingly omits documented, openly admitted US participation in Operation Lava Jato, the disgraced bilateral lawfare operation which jailed Lula and brought Bolsonaro to power.
With Bolsonaro now running against Lula for re-election, the United States government has moved to distance itself from any anti-democratic actions which threaten the October vote, making scrutiny of its involvement over the past decade all the more important. – Editors
Review: Securing Democracy: My Fight for Press Freedom and Justice in Bolsonaro’s Brazil, by Glenn Greenwald. 2021. Chicago: Haymarket Books.
By Sean T. Mitchell. Originally published at FAIR.
Glenn Greenwald’s book, Securing Democracy: My Fight for Press Freedom and Justice in Bolsonaro’s Brazil, opens with his recollection of a conversation in which Carl Bernstein, the US journalist of Watergate fame, told him that he’d never get another scoop as “big or impactful” as the Snowden archive (p. viii), for which Greenwald was the principal journalistic source.
Not so. On Mother’s Day 2019, just a few months into the administration of Brazil’s far-right President Jair Bolsonaro, Greenwald, the US-born, Rio de Janeiro–based journalist (and endless source of Twitter controversy), would receive his second “once-in-a-lifetime scoop” (p. vii). The scoop arrived from a source who had hacked a massive archive of leaks that would go on to transform Brazilian politics. The archive contained years of conversation on the Telegram app by the key prosecutors and judge of the Brazilian “anti-corruption” task force known as Lava Jato (Portuguese for “Car Wash”). Securing Democracy tells the story of the reporting on those leaks by Greenwald and his colleagues at the Intercept.
It’s hard to overstate the importance of all this for Brazil. While the massive, multi-year Lava Jato investigation was receiving rapturous praise in Brazilian and foreign media (FAIR.org, 3/8/21), it was releasing illegally obtained and misleading wiretaps to the media that created the conditions for the soft coup that unseated President Dilma Rousseff of the PT (Workers’ Party) in 2016. And then Lava Jato put the PT’s 2018 presidential frontrunner, former President Luiz Inácio “Lula” da Silva, behind bars, securing Bolsonaro’s election. The work done by Greenwald and his colleagues (and, later, by Lula’s defense team, once they got the archive) showed all this to be deliberate and farcical: Lava Jato was operating illegally with a key goal of destroying the electorally successful left.
Working in secrecy, Greenwald and his colleagues simultaneously released three articles at the Intercept in June 2019, all based on those Telegram conversations. Cleverly named “Vaza Jato” (vaza means “leak” in Portuguese), the series in its first installments showed that Sergio Moro, the key judge involved in Lava Jato (who by then was Bolsonaro’s security minister), had been acting unlawfully as “clandestine chief of the prosecution” (p. xiv).
Those early releases also showed that, despite their denials, the “task-force members openly plotted how to use their prosecutorial powers to prevent Lula’s Workers’ Party from winning the 2018 election” (p. xv). And they showed that the task force brought criminal charges against Lula despite “an absence of evidence…secure in the knowledge that Moro would be the one adjudicating the charges” (p. xv).
Over the coming months, the explosive revelations kept on coming, released by the Intercept Brasil and a variety of Brazilian journalistic partners. To name just a few sordid examples discussed in Securing Democracy: Moro instructed the task force to protect Fernando Henrique Cardoso, the former center-right president, because he was “an important political ally”; the task force mocked the death of Lula’s seven-year-old grandson; and they “conspired to conceal information from the Supreme Court” (pp. 158-159).
The work that Greenwald recounts in Securing Democracy leaves no reasonable doubt about the corrupt and politicized character of the “anti-corruption” operation that took down the left and brought the far-right to power in Brazil through extra-democratic means. The book also offers harrowing accounts of the dangers and threats (both legalistic and violent) that Greenwald and his collaborators faced from Bolsonaro’s government and followers for their journalistic work.
For all this, the book is well worth reading, and provides a fundamental service to democracy and freedom of the press in Brazil and globally. But the omissions in the book about the sources that Greenwald utilized are also telling and important.
The missing US connection
As Brian Mier (Brasilwire, 2/18/21) noted, the Intercept and its partners had already published 95 articles based on the Vaza Jato archive, over the course of nine months, before releasing the first article examining the frequent appearance of US government officials in that archive. This, and the series of articles that followed, “The FBI and Lava Jato,” would go on to win Brazil’s Vladimir Herzog Prize. Greenwald’s earlier Vaza Jato reporting had also won this prize, and he refers to it in Securing Democracy as “the most prestigious and meaningful prize a journalist can receive in Brazil” (p. 222), although Securing Democracy does not mention this second Vladimir Herzog Prize.
Intercept Brasil (3/12/20): “Lava Jato did everything to help American justice—including circumventing the Brazilian government.”
This second award-winning part of the larger Vaza Jato series examines how the United States government collaborated with Lava Jato at all phases of its existence, often in secrecy, and under both Obama and Trump administrations. These facts have received criticism from major scholars and political figures, yet not from Greenwald. The first article examining US involvement was released by the Intercept Brasil (3/12/20), drawing on Greenwald’s archive, but only after Greenwald had stopped publishing articles based on that archive. Greenwald does not examine the US role in Lava Jato in Securing Democracy.
Greenwald and his colleagues had shared sections of the archive with some of Brazil’s major journalistic outlets, such as Folha de São Paulo and Veja, both because of the assistance they could offer and to help provide a shield against persecution by Bolsonaro’s government (p. 150). The Intercept reported on the involvement of the United States in Lava Jato, however, with the partnership of a smaller outlet, Agência Pública.
In July 2019, Brazil’s Federal Police apprehended Walter Delgatti Neto, the hacker who had accessed the Telegram archive and contacted Greenwald. Delgatti currently faces the possibility of a lifelong prison sentence. Brazil’s supreme court released parts of the archive to Lula’s defense team in 2021, and the entire archive in January 2022.
It’s from this later examination of Delgatti’s archive that we know that Lava Jato’s chief prosecutor, Deltan Dallagnol, referred to Lula’s arrest as a “gift from the CIA” (Progressive International, 12/2/21), a fact that was published after the release of Securing Democracy. It is worth noting that Bolsonaro and Moro, the Lava Jato judge–turned–security minister, made an unusual visit to CIA headquarters during Bolsonaro’s first presidential trip to the US.
‘Born in the Department of Justice’
I read Securing Democracy with deepening surprise at the lack of analysis of US involvement in Lava Jato. I read the book carefully, and have done searches on the e-book since, worried I had missed something. It’s not there.
Its absence is especially surprising because Greenwald has long been a critic of US foreign policy; because the first bit of the archive that Greenwald examined involved the US Department of Justice (p. 58), although Greenwald does not follow up on this; and because US involvement received passing mention at the very start of the Vaza Jato series.
The Telegram transcripts published in the first Vaza Jato release by Greenwald and his colleagues at the Intercept (6/12/19) included a 2016 comment that Lava Jato’s chief prosecutor, Deltan Dallagnol, made to Moro about something that “depends on articulation with the Americans.” It is not precisely clear from the context what the comment means, although Moro and Dallagnol were discussing the prosecution of Lula and other figures. This first appearance of the US at the start of Vaza Jato received analysis at the time in Portuguese (Revista Forum, 6/13/19) and in English (Brasilwire, 6/13/19), but Greenwald never followed up on the thread.
In Vaza Jato releases that came after Greenwald’s involvement with the series, but before the publication of Securing Democracy, his colleagues show that US investigators from the Department of Justice and FBI met frequently with Lava Jato prosecutors (Intercept, 3/12/20). This team, which at times included at least 17 agents, met with Lava Jato prosecutors in Brazil for several years (Agência Pública, 7/1/20), and worked on cases including the investigation that removed Lula from the 2018 presidential elections (Agência Pública, 2/12/21). These US investigators were working in Brazil without the authorization of the country’s minister of justice, which is required by treaty to oversee foreign law enforcement in Brazil (Intercept, 3/12/20).
Prior to Vaza Jato, there had been some knowledge of and reporting on US participation with Lava Jato (New York Times, 12/21/16), and Lula’s defense team had filed a motion arguing that this was a violation of Brazilian law (ConJur, 3/16/18).
Additionally, according to the hacker Delgatti, Greenwald only accepted a small portion of the full archive that Lula’s defense team eventually received (Brasilwire, 2/18/21). I’m not sure what to make of that claim, which I find strange. But I do want to flag that the Vaza Jato archive is not the only source of information about US participation in Lava Jato, and Greenwald may never have possessed the full archive.
However, we know of the extent and duration of US participation in Lava Jato because of the work Greenwald’s colleagues did with the archive that he did possess. And their publications are what made US participation in Lava Jato a matter of wide public significance.
For example, Lula responded on Twitter to the reporting by Greenwald’s colleagues with the allegation:
The goal was Petrobras [Brazil’s state-owned oil giant]. It was the Pre-Salt [Brazilian offshore oil]. And the Brazilian companies that were winning bids from US companies in the Middle East.
Lula’s claim, which he has elaborated elsewhere, is that the idea of Lava Jato was “born in the Department of Justice in the United States,” with the aim of destroying Brazilian competitors to US companies (in petroleum, naval construction and civil engineering, all sectors targeted by Lava Jato) (PT, 7/9/20). Perhaps Greenwald disagrees with Lula here. Then surely Lula’s claim deserves a refutation, especially because its principal evidentiary basis is Greenwald’s own archive.
Securing Democracy does note that Greenwald’s work on the Snowden archive “proved that the NSA and the Government Communications Headquarters (GCHQ) in the UK were spying on [Petrobras,] the state-owned oil company whose proceeds fund Brazil’s social programs” (p. 125). But the question of foreign intervention in Brazil appears principally in the past tense in Securing Democracy, and never in relation to Greenwald’s own Vaza Jato archive.
I should note that I have not seen enough evidence to weigh in with confidence on Lula’s assertion about the economic intentions of the Lava Jato team and its US collaborators, but he is correct about Lava Jato’s economic effects. Brazilian scholars have shown that Lava Jato did severe damage to Brazil’s major companies, and, consequently, to the economy and to employment in Brazil. In contrast, most of the US financial corporations responsible for the fraud that precipitated the 2008 global financial crisis were protected as “too big to fail.” Whatever the mix of intentions involved, Lava Jato was part of an asymmetrically structured global politics of corruption that disables companies from the Global South and frequently protects those from the Global North, contributing to global inequality.
From ‘inevitable’ to unmentionable
Despite Greenwald’s silence about US participation in what he convincingly shows to be a regime change operation in 21st century Brazil, Securing Democracy runs through the long history of US regime change operations in Latin America. Discussing US support for the 1964 coup against a center-left Brazilian government that was replaced by a 21-year military dictatorship, Greenwald notes that US “refusal to tolerate any form of leftism in Latin America’s largest country—even if it meant the imposition of despotism where democracy had been taking root—was virtually inevitable” (p. 3). Greenwald also mentions Brazil’s enduring “colonial relationship with the United States” (p. 12), and notes that he learned from Edward Snowden that Brazil has the “largest CIA presence in the hemisphere” (p. 12).
So why doesn’t Securing Democracy examine US involvement in the process that removed the elected left from power in that country in 2016 and brought an admirer of right-wing despotism to power in 2018? What changed between 1964 and 2016 that made US involvement in left-to-right regime change operations in Brazil noteworthy, even “inevitable” then, but not worth mentioning now?
As Greenwald acknowledges in the book, to the United States, the PT governments’ forging of a “foreign policy in a way that diverged from US dictates was intolerable” (p. 14). Fortunately for the US officials who found the PT’s independent foreign policy intolerable, Lava Jato resolved this problem for them. Upon inauguration, Bolsonaro assumed a posture of alignment with Trump’s government in matters of foreign policy.