It started with a coordinated leak. An unsigned document posted Monday to a file-sharing site rallied support for the PayPal14, a group of hacktivists whose legal troubles go back to 2011. The group’s saga had been quiet lately, but the PayPal14’s supporters saw an opportunity to raise their profile and money for their defense: Go after Glenn Greenwald as the journalist began his book tour.
“The PayPal14 were arrested nearly three years ago on the front lines of the digital information war, helping put the hacktivist movement and specifically Anonymous on the map,” the letter began. “Now the whistleblower/hacktivist culture they helped launch into the global spotlight is being co-opted by journalists and ‘tech bros’ all over to advance their careers, most notably journalist Glenn Greenwald’s.” The shots continued with: “Greenwald gets a book tour, the PayPal14 get sentencing hearings.”
The 14 members of the group originally were charged after they launched electronic attacks that shut down PayPal in retaliation for the site’s decision to block donations to WikiLeaks. Ten of the 14 pleaded guilty to one misdemeanor and one felony count in December 2013.
Though the PayPal14’s letter is unsigned, a journalist named Douglas Lucas confirmed to The Daily Beast that he was one of its authors. Lucas, who is involved with the hacktivist community and what he called the “digital information war,” said the purpose of the letter is to raise money for the PayPal14, who still owe more than $80,000 in legal fees, and to force “some harsh, frank discussions” about the work of radicals being “pushed through celebrity leaders.”
Supporters of the group were working to get people out to Greenwald’s event Tuesday evening at Cooper Union and force the journalist and his audience to address the PayPal14, Lucas said.
Stanley Cohen, a lawyer representing Mercedes Haeffer, one of the defendants in the PayPal14 case, was less diplomatic.
“I thought Greenwald was an expat living in Brazil because he feared prosecution or was disgusted by the U.S. government,” he said. “I guess there aren’t enough Barnes & Nobles in Brazil.”
Cohen, who once defended Osama bin Laden’s son-in-law and pleaded guilty last month to tax evasion, is known for taking on free-speech cases.
After winning a Pulitzer Prize for reporting on Edward Snowden’s leaked intelligence files, Greenwald recently founded a new media company, First Look. And it’s the money backing his new venture, as much as the accusations that he’s co-opted a radical message to market himself, that’s left him open for criticism. Greenwald’s boss, who funded First Look to the tune of $250 million, is Pierre Omidyar, the founder of eBay, which owns PayPal.
“Sure, Greenwald and Pierre occasionally express tepid ‘support’ for the PayPal14,” the anonymous letter said Monday. “But where’s the $80,000?” Omidyar’s support has included requesting leniency for the PayPal14 and publicly stating that they should be facing misdemeanor rather than felony charges.
Not everyone is asking Greenwald and Omidyar for money. “I don’t think the PayPal14 wants a fucking penny from Glenn Greenwald and certainly not from eBay,” Cohen said.
“If Greenwald or eBay wrote a check tomorrow,” he added, “I suspect the PayPal14 would use it to light a fire. And that’s the difference between the PayPal14s and the Greenwalds of the world.”
After the letter from the PayPal14 supporters was posted, tweets went out in short order from the major hacktivist and Anonymous-affiliated accounts. They asked for donations to the PayPal14’s legal fund, criticized Greenwald for allegedly exploiting the group’s work, and called on people to show up in force at his event on Tuesday to promote his new book, No Place to Hide.
“There are apparently a good number of people that are very concerned over the Greenwald marketing show,” Cohen said. “And there are many people that plan on making their unhappiness known” Tuesday evening.
The event promised to be a showdown between the media’s anointed dissident voice and the Internet radicals who were coming to call him out. No one was saying exactly what would happen at the event, but at the least it sounded as if there might be an adversarial audience ready to question Greenwald’s ties to eBay and challenge his bona fides as a true independent journalist.
In the minutes leading up to Greenwald’s appearance, an orderly line snaked around the block outside Cooper Union’s Great Hall. Attendees in collared shirts and blazers, pressed skirts and stylish trench coats were absorbed in their smartphones as they waited to get in.
At 7 p.m., when the event got under way, there was no sign of anyone but Greenwald devotees and press in the audience.
An hour and a half later, after a talk that touched on the cravenness of the establishment media, Greenwald’s work with Snowden, and the pernicious demands of the all-seeing surveillance state, the author took questions. Almost every question began with a profession of sincere admiration for the man and his work.
The crowds shuffled out, and still the Internet activists were nowhere to be seen.
Greenwald may be vulnerable these days to claims that he’s an establishment voice who has declared himself an outsider from inside a quarter-billion-dollar media fortress, but he had Tuesday evening’s crowd all to himself. The Internet’s social justice call went out to challenge him on his own turf and no one showed up.
Lucas, the author of the PayPal14 memo, said that failure was due in part to Greenwald’s late announcement of his tour schedule; it hadn’t given his critics much time to prepare.
“There are a lot of people who like to click, tweet, and retweet, who don’t show up. Clicktivism. It makes them feel like they’re accomplishing something,” Lucas said.
Those tweets helped raise $400 for the PayPal14 since they started going out Monday, a small fraction of the $80,000 they need.
The book tour is ongoing,” Lucas said. “We’re going to continue fighting this battle until the last stop.”