Columnist who broke NSA leaks story grew up in Lauderdale Lakes


This article was first published in the Miami Herald in July 2013.

Before he was breaking stories of seismic proportions, international journalist Glenn Greenwald was a Lauderdale Lakes boy hoping to win a seat on the city council at age 17.

It has been quite the trajectory for the 46-year-old who most recently garnered national attention when he broke the story about Edward Snowden that has played out in media outlets globally.

When 29-year-old Snowden went public with proof of National Security Agency spying programs, Greenwald, a columnist for the British newspaper The Guardian, was there to tell the tale.

Political blood ran in the family and Greenwald’s own involvement in politics had early roots.

His paternal grandfather, L.L. Greenwald, was a Lauderdale Lakes city councilman from 1976 to 1980.

“I remember when hostages were being held during the Olympics,” said his mother Arlene Greenwald, 69, of Margate. “He was 5 years old at the time and he was really interested in that. I remember him being glued to the TV.”

The young Greenwald attended council meetings with his grandfather, becoming somewhat of a novelty.

Former Lauderdale Lakes Mayor Howard Craft suggested young Glenn channel his interest into a seat on the city’s recreation advisory board when he was just 8 years old to add a child’s perspective to a board geared for children. Greenwald later became the only teen member of the county Parks and Recreation Board from 1980 to 1984.

“I was strangely interested in municipal issues,” said Greenwald, now living in Rio de Janeiro. “Probably more than was normal for a child of that age.”

At 17, he took on the city council. In a town that was predominantly senior citizens and against a senior citizen-run board, a spunky Greenwald, a Nova High School senior, challenged the powers that had long been running the city.

It was his grandfather’s influence that fueled a political mindset that has carried on to this day.

“He was a crusader on behalf of the city and of the people of the city that were underrepresented, and that was really inspiring,” Glenn Greenwald said.

When the younger Greenwald decided to run, he looked to level the playing field. He joined other candidates on the ballot for city council, among them three incumbents four times his age: Morris Klein, 73, Lou Tenner, 73, and Harry Rosenkatz, 67.

“It just didn’t really go together, that this 17-year-old was so assertive about this quest for reform,” he said. “They were made really uncomfortable by the whole thing.”

Of the five candidates, he was the only one who campaigned, spending some time with a condo group, the Miami Herald reported in 1985.

Though he lost, drawing only 6.6 percent of the vote, he told the Herald in 1985 that he was not disappointed.

“I got 700 people who were convinced that I would be a good councilman.”

In a city where, at the time, the average council member was 74 and incumbents die more often than they are voted out of office, perhaps it was indeed an accomplishment.

“Just the fact that I didn’t come in last was a moral victory,” Greenwald said.

The high school Greenwald and today’s Greenwald aren’t far off from one another. He spent his years at Nova Middle School and Nova High School on the debate team, and used that skill to challenge people in power, whether they were teachers or principals.

“I somehow decided that if I thought I was right about something, then it would be worth pursuing that view no matter the consequences,” he said.

Those consequences landed him in detention and suspension a great deal of the time, behind a belief that institutions shouldn’t always be deferred to just because they hold power.

But he wasn’t done with Lauderdale Lakes just yet.

Five years later, and only one month after graduating with a philosophy degree from George Washington University in Washington, D.C., Greenwald was making headlines again in Lauderdale Lakes.

This time, Broward Sheriff’s deputies forcibly removed a 23-year-old Greenwald from the council podium as he argued for a change in meeting times, asserting that the council’s morning meetings discriminated against working people who might want to attend.

He would take on the city council again, filing to run. Again, he lost, this time to Josephus Eggelletion Jr.

His South Florida days of councils and commotions behind him, Greenwald left to study law at New York University. His political and debate background made him a powerful litigator at Wachtell Lipton Rosen & Katz, a New York firm that represented the rich and powerful in the city.

For a boy who was born in Queens and grew up poor with divorced parents, the job represented money unlike any he had ever had in his entire life. His mother worked as a McDonald’s cashier for some time to make ends meet.

His dream job at the prestigious law firm lasted 18 months.

“It was the antithesis of the powers I wanted to be representing,” he said. “My grandfather taught me that I had to arrive at my own views and have the confidence to embrace those views,” even if those views brought him against the world.

In 2000, he started his own practice to fight for the views he believed in. Within 10 years, his practice would grow to include six lawyers and defend many constitutional law cases.

It actually shrunk from three to two, then closed - Ed.

Eventually, that lost its allure as well.

In 2005, he cleared his calendar and made a life-changing journey to Rio de Janeiro with his dog. “On the second day there, I just met someone and fell in love,” he said.

Greenwald, who came out as gay while in college, settled in Brazil for good after meeting his long-time partner David Michael Miranda. Same-sex unions are legally recognized in Brazil.

Greenwald decided to leave law behind and “really spontaneously” started a blog.

Shortly after, news broke that President George W. Bush had authorized the NSA to spy on Americans following the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks. This was the kind of constitutional rights issue that Greenwald wanted to sink his teeth into.

“I wanted to be part of the broader political conversation,” he said. “I felt there were a lot of things that weren’t being said.”

Many liberal, progressive and democracy blogs started reading the work he was publishing and he soon reached the ears of Salon, a news website, which hired him in 2007 as a columnist.

When Snowden contacted him, he was prepared.

“I felt like my entire life was in preparation for this moment,” he said.

He has spent the last month under the spotlight of the world.

As the drama unfolds in the coming weeks, Greenwald watches from his home in Rio de Janeiro with his 10 stray dogs.

“It’s what keeps me sane,” he said. “When I’m not working, I’m rolling around with my dogs as part of the pack.”

From his early start in Lauderdale Lakes, Greenwald has hoped to show others not to fear power, but to challenge it.

“I’m very proud of him,” said mom Arlene Greenwald, who still works every day. “He has great principles and he’s sticking to his principles. He’s not afraid to speak out. I think that’s what changes people and the world, people who are not afraid to speak out.”