On Sunday evening, The Intercept published a series of incendiary articles and documents purporting to expose massive problems of unethical behavior and political motives in Brazil’s Operation Car Wash—a five-year investigation into corruption at state oil company Petrobras, which resulted in the conviction of former president Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva. Based on “a massive archive of previously undisclosed materials,” The Intercept is reporting that judge Sérgio Moro, hailed in Brazil, on the Time 100 list, and in a fawning 60 Minutes segment as a paragon of courageous civic virtue, secretly aided the prosecution in Lula’s case, an egregious ethical violation in a justice system that depends upon the impartiality of the presiding magistrate. Moro has since been appointed Justice Minister in the administration of Jair Bolsonaro, a radical right-winger who won the presidential election in 2018 after Lula was barred from running.
Internal communications involving Operation Car Wash’s chief prosecutor Deltan Dallagnol also reveal that decisions about Lula’s case last year were made with explicitly partisan motives in mind: Lula was barred from being interviewed by Brazil’s leading newspaper out of fears that it might help Fernando Haddad, Bolsonaro’s main opponent, whom Lula picked to run in his stead when he was jailed early last year and barred from standing in the election. These findings offer fresh evidence for a charge progressives in Brazil and around the world have been making for several years: Namely, that the prosecution against Lula, the most popular president in the country’s history, was motivated by political animus and sustained by flimsy evidence.
In addition to the political dimension of these revelations, it is worth reflecting on the broader significance of The Intercept’s findings. After all, it’s not every day that a reading of the facts dismissed as conspiracy theory by so many sensible establishment voices is ratified by extensive documentation. In publishing this series of articles, The Intercept is injecting itself directly into ongoing debates around fake news, the role of the press, and the use of hacked or anonymously leaked information in investigative journalism. “The sheer volume of materials in this archive, as well as the fact that many documents include private conversations among public officials, requires us to make journalistic decisions about which documents should be reported on and published, and which documents should be withheld,” the Intercept authors wrote by way of preface. “When making these judgments, we employ the standard used by journalists in democracies around the world: namely, that material revealing wrongdoing or deceit by powerful actors should be reported, but information that is purely private in nature and whose disclosure may infringe upon legitimate privacy interests or other social values should be withheld.” It remains to be seen whether these revelations will sway the millions who embraced Moro as a national hero in recent years. Even those who reluctantly accept that Moro, Dallagnol, and others may have acted improperly will almost certainly reject the notion that Lula is innocent, despite the serious problems in the way his case was investigated and prosecuted. As the world grapples with a crisis of confidence in journalistic and political institutions alike, Brazil may very well offer one of the clearest, most heavily substantiated cases of one side bending the rules to defeat its opponents. Whether it will matter is unclear.
The Intercept was launched in 2014 by journalists Glenn Greenwald and Jeremy Scahill, who in 2016 added a dedicated edition for Brazil, where Greenwald lives with his husband and two children. In the United States, as a vociferous skeptic of charges that Donald Trump’s presidential campaign colluded with the Russian government during the 2016 election, Greenwald has earned the ire of many American leftists—exacerbated by his frequent appearances on Fox News and his willingness to publish pilfered documents deeply damaging to the Obama administration. “His instinct,” Ian Parker wrote of Greenwald in a 2018 New Yorker profile, “is to identify, in any conflict, the side that is claiming authority or incumbency, and then to throw his weight against that claim, in favor of the unauthorized or the unlicensed—the intruder.” In Brazil, however, Greenwald is much more discernibly identified with the political left. His husband, David Miranda, serves in Congress as a member of the Socialism and Liberty Party (PSOL) and he has been an outspoken critic of the current president’s rank homophobia and authoritarian inclinations.
As a result, many of those who defend Moro and Bolsonaro, or who simply abhor Lula and progressive politics, are already trying to discount The Intercept’s reporting as the work of unscrupulous ideologues. Such arguments should not convince a global audience, however, given Greenwald’s history as an equal opportunity anti-establishment gadfly. And whatever one thinks of his idiosyncratic personal politics, Greenwald’s numerous investigative victories should keep readers from dismissing his findings out of hand—particularly given that several of the Operation Car Wash prosecutors cited in the documents have effectively confirmed their authenticity.
Some in Brazil have suggested the political force of these revelations may be less than expected. Oliver Stuenkel, a professor of international relations at Fundação Getulio Vargas (FGV) in São Paulo, suggested the The Intercept’s findings might generate greater furor on social media than in real life—three of his friends who voted for Bolsonaro, he tweeted, did not find the news particularly notable. But there are already some surprising things happening in Brazil’s political landscape as a result of yesterday’s bombshell exposés. A columnist in a leading news magazine Exame has called for the once-irreproachable Moro to step down. The newspaper Folha de São Paulo also reported this morning that members of the highest court say the once-high-chances of Moro being named to the Supreme Court are now “close to zero.” If The Intercept can continue to deliver earth-shaking, behind-the-scenes looks into the machinations of Operation Car Wash, which is promises it can, Moro may be in for a truly epochal fall from grace.
It would be difficult to overstate the cultural, political, and economic impact of Operation Car Wash, which Vox referred to as “The biggest corruption scandal in Latin America’s history—And possibly the whole world” in a slick explanatory 2018 video. The anti-corruption crusade and its team of zealous young prosecutors, dramatized in José Padilha’s controversial Netflix series The Mechanism, overtook Brazilian politics in the wake of massive street demonstrations in 2013, bringing to light the massive graft at Petrobras and the incestuous relationship between the government and private corporations. As anti-corruption investigations crossed national borders, sweeping Latin America, critics alleged that the discourse of clean government was being weaponized to neutralize a progressive political agenda. President Dilma Rousseff, Lula’s chosen successor, was impeached in 2016 on shaky grounds amid a broadly anti-establishment—and deeply conservative—fervor fueled in large part by an increasingly politicized judiciary.
Moro became the avatar of reaction against 13 years of Workers’ Party dominance at the federal level, an attractive protagonist in a national melodrama that pitted brash, young reformers against a bloated, self-interested state. The Intercept’s new findings bring the internationally feted heroes of that story crashing down to earth. It is not too soon to speculate that Operation Car Wash’s most enduring legacy will be the ascension of a dangerous bigot like Bolsonaro, who benefited from an establishment-consuming, anti-corruption drive that turned out to be far less pure and disinterested than originally thought.
In this age of rampant conspiracy theorization—Benghazi, Pizzagate, Russiagate—recognizing real intrigue when it arises is more urgent than ever. The material obtained by The Intercept has already begun to delineate the contours of what may be one of the most consequential legal plots of the twenty-first century. How Brazil will handle these revelations, implicating key figures in the current administration and throwing doubt on some of the key political events of the past five years, remains uncertain. And, as Greenwald has portentously declared, there are thousands more documents yet to be revealed.