Early one morning last December, Glenn Greenwald opened his laptop, scanned through his e-mail, and made a decision that almost cost him the story of his life. A columnist and blogger with a large and devoted following, Greenwald receives hundreds of e-mails every day, many from readers who claim to have "great stuff." Occasionally these claims turn out to be credible; most of the time they're cranks. There are some that seem promising but also require serious vetting. This takes time, and Greenwald, who starts each morning deluged with messages, has almost none. "My inbox is the enemy," he told me recently.
And so it was that on December 1st, 2012, Greenwald received a note from a person asking for his public encryption, or PGP, key so he could send him an e-mail securely. Greenwald didn't have one, which he now acknowledges was fairly inexcusable given that he wrote almost daily about national-security issues, and had likely been on the government's radar for some time over his vocal support of Bradley Manning and WikiLeaks. "I didn't really know what PGP was," he admits. "I had no idea how to install it or how to use it." It seemed time-consuming and complicated, and Greenwald, who was working on a book about how the media control political discourse, while also writing his column for The Guardian, had more pressing things to do.
"It felt Anonymous-ish to me," Greenwald says. "It was this cryptic 'I and others have things you would be interested in. . . .' He never sent me neon lights – it was much more ambiguous than that."
So he ignored the note.