Secrets, Spies and Prizes: Will Snowden Leaks Earn Greenwald a Pulitzer?

Lawyer-turned-columnist arrives in U.S. for the first time since breaking the NSA leaks.

Seth Lipsky
Seth Lipsky
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Greenwald ‏(left‏) with his partner, David Miranda, who was interrogated for nine hours under Britain’s Terrorism Act.
Greenwald ‏(left‏) with his partner, David Miranda, who was interrogated for nine hours under Britain’s Terrorism Act.Credit: Reuters
Seth Lipsky
Seth Lipsky

The Pulitzer Prizes will be announced at 3 PM Monday, New York time, and the big question is whether one of them will go to Glenn Greenwald for reporting the secrets stolen by Edward Snowden, who is under indictment for espionage. The way Politico put it the other day is that Greenwald “looms” over the awards this year.

Greenwald himself arrived in New York Friday to pick up another prestigious award, the Polk. The lawyer-turned-columnist was quoted by the New York Times as saying that his attorneys would be meeting him at the airport. “The chance of being arrested is pretty low, otherwise I wouldn’t be going,” Greenwald told the Times.

What a contrast with J. Loy Maloney and Stanley Johnston. They were the Chicago Tribune men who were at the center of what had heretofore been, after the Pentagon Papers, the most famous case in American journalism involving the publication of wartime secrets — the stories that disclosed, en passant, that America had broken the Japanese code during World War II.

When Maloney and Johnston sensed they might be in trouble with the law, they spurned the advice of the Tribune lawyers, burst into the offices of the United States prosecutor, and demanded to be taken to the grand jury in person, right then and there. Newspapermen and women will talk about the episode until the end of newspaperdom (though at the rate things are going, that mightn’t be so far away).

It had started when Johnson telephoned his editors from San Francisco. He had a “great story,” he told them, and he was assigned to send it in. He insisted he would first have to go through Navy censorship. “I can’t tell you where I’ve been, nor what ship, nor how I got back,” he was quoted by historian Lloyd Wendt as saying. “I can’t put it on the open wire.”

That was because he’d just arisen from the Coral Sea. Those were the days when the future of mankind could be decided by events that took place in the middle of a vast ocean days or even weeks before the newspapers heard about them. Even as Maloney scrambled to get Johnson back to Chicago the Navy was announcing the Battle of Midway.

It all came together on one of the greatest front pages in history. “JAP FLEET SMASHED BY U.S., TWO CARRIERS SUNK AT MIDWAY, 13 TO 15 NIPPON SHIPS HIT, PACIFIC BATTLE RAGES ON, YANK FLYERS EXACT HEAVY TOLL; ENEMY LOSES MANY PLANES.” Maloney called Johnson’s account of the sinking of one of our carriers, United States Ship Lexington, the best story of the war.

Yet before the editors could put it into print, they had to stand around the newsroom waiting for it to pass censorship. Once it was cleared, the Tribune’s proprietor, Robert McCormick, ordered his editors to share it with their competitors. “It will be good for the people’s morale,” McCormick declared. And it was a smaller story that caused the sensation.

It ran under the headline, “NAVY HAD WORD OF JAP PLAN TO STRIKE AT SEA.” It inadvertently disclosed that we had broken the Japanese code. What happened next is complicated by the fact that the Secretary of the Navy, Frank Knox, was the owner of the Tribune’s arch-competitor, the Chicago Daily News. Maloney and Johnson were promptly summoned to Washington and hauled before a Navy board.

The board accepted their explanation — the story had been cleared by censors, after all — but the politicians were just getting started. One of them, Congressman Elmer Holland, accused the Tribune of “consciously or unconsciously under Hitler’s orders or their own steam are working to defeat the United States and the enslavement of the country.” McCormick ordered his employees not to reply.

That’s when Maloney spurned the advice of the lawyers, and with Johnston in tow, barged in on the assistant attorney general of the United States and demanded to be heard by the grand jury. It was an astounding request. The prosecutor consulted with Washington. Then the grand jury heard the newspapermen in secret and refused to indict them.

I’ve always liked that story, but never more than now. Our greatest prize-givers are wrestling with what to do about leaks on a scale so massive that it would have been hard to comprehend in the time when the great newspaper empires were built.

McCormick, Maloney, and Johnston were archetypes of newspapermanliness. McCormick may have been against American involvement in the war, but once it started, he was in the war to win.

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