Why I Won't Engage Glenn Greenwald

Benjamin Wittes
Sunday, January 16, 2011, 3:32 PM
A few weeks ago, I received an email from a producer inviting me to participate in a “debate+discussion with Glenn [Greenwald] about the legality of the Predator strikes.” I responded, “I would be happy to discuss the subject . . . but I'm afraid I am unwilling to appear alongside Glenn Greenwald on any subject in any forum.

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A few weeks ago, I received an email from a producer inviting me to participate in a “debate+discussion with Glenn [Greenwald] about the legality of the Predator strikes.” I responded, “I would be happy to discuss the subject . . . but I'm afraid I am unwilling to appear alongside Glenn Greenwald on any subject in any forum. I don't consider us as participating in remotely the same conversation.” This exchange took place before Greenwald's and my back-and-forth this past week—in which he attacked me for faux centrism, for being on the take from lavish funders, and for servilely worshiping power, and in which I somewhat archly refused to engage him and compared him to the Jacobins. The volume of email I have received following my non-response to Greenwald has been a genuine testament to the size of his readership. Almost all of the emails have been abusive. On Twitter, too, I am taking my lumps. The themes are remarkably consistent. I am a coward for ducking an argument. Greenwald has made a substantive case which I am avoiding with a fake insistence on civility—even as I defend torturers. My refusal to engage proves the merits of Greenwald's positions. I have tried to answer each of the emails, some of which have yielded substantive and valuable exchanges. And while none of this correspondence has convinced me that I should respond to Greenwald, it has collectively convinced me that I should explain more clearly why I do not do so—a decision that, as the email above reflects, I made long before his post of this week. Tellingly, with a single exception, no regular reader of Lawfare has urged me to respond or has written to question my refusal to do so. People who spend time reading this blog—and it's not a huge group—have wide-ranging political sensibilities, but they share a tendency to insist on civility and common politeness. A while back, a human rights activist sent in some very cutting remarks about my views and asked me to post them. As I was getting ready to do so, he emailed and asked me to change a sentence that, he worried, could be construed as a personal attack. That's the sensibility of this blog—the idea that one can criticize ideas, even quite harshly, without questioning people's motives, accusing them of corruption, or pretending they do not believe what they say. My problem with Greenwald is not his politics. I engage with people of his politics all the time. It is the pervasive suggestion in his work of the corruption and ill-motive of his opponents, whom he serially fails to credit with believing the arguments they are making. His post about me is a case in point. In his first paragraph, he purports to know my "overarching purpose." He insinuates--all but states, really--that I am a paid shill of the powerful. And throughout his piece, he casually casts aspersions on my motives and integrity ("dutifully fulfilling his function," "devote themselves to serving those in power," "That's not whose interests they're funded to defend," etc.). This is by no means unusual for him. Consider this attack on Bobby (which begins by asserting falsely that Bobby had been dispatched by the White House to make the argument Glenn was criticizing) or this attack on Bob Litt (which actually calls Litt's argument “corrupt” and goes on to imply without quite saying that Litt was making it in support of intelligence community clients). This is Greenwald's modus operandi. I don't see any reason either to engage with someone who begins with the premise that people who disagree with him are arguing in bad faith, are on the take, or are evil. My life is too short for that. When people on the right attacked Obama administration lawyers for their former representation in private life of Guantanamo detainees, I organized a group of centrist and conservative lawyers and policy folks to take a very strong position against it. My refusal to engage with Greenwald is rooted in the same sensibility: Civility is important to me in this debate--and no less so when I happen to be the object of the incivility. If that makes me look like a coward to some of Greenwald's readers, so be it. One of Greenwald's readers, after hearing me out on this, responded as follows, “I still believe that his argument is persuasive enough, and based enough on sound reason and fact, that it merits an equally considered response.” Fair enough. For Greenwald's readers who are genuinely interested in my views, I have written at great length about both interrogation and, particularly, detention. My views on these subjects are hardly a secret. Anyone who reads the interrogation chapter of Law and the Long War or the paper I wrote with Stuart Taylor Jr. in Legislating the War on Terror will not have any trouble figuring out why I think prosecution is a terrible idea. For those who want a more explicit treatment of the specific question of prosecution, this oped by Jack speaks for me pretty completely. For those interested in an introduction to my rather voluminous writings on detention, my new book, Detention and Denial, is brief and written for the general interest reader. And interested readers should use the search function on Lawfare or simply browse it; many of the substantive points Greenwald raises we have addressed often. But don't hold your breath waiting for me to reply to Greenwald. It isn't going to happen.

Benjamin Wittes is editor in chief of Lawfare and a Senior Fellow in Governance Studies at the Brookings Institution. He is the author of several books.

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