The Guardian editor Alan Rusbridger (Photo: Francesco Alesi/Flickr)
Two officers from the British intelligence agency GCHQ oversaw the destruction of hard drives at The Guardian newspaper’s office last month in an effort to stop the paper from reporting on the documents that Edward Snowden gave them. The incident was reported Monday night by The Guardian’s editor, Alan Rusbridger.
The British government essentially forced the newspaper to destroy the hard drives that contained files that the National Security Agency whistleblower gave them.
The Guardian’s lawyers believed the government might either seek an injunction under the law of confidence, a catch-all statute that covers any unauthorised possession of confidential material, or start criminal proceedings under the Official Secrets Act.
Either brought with it the risk that the Guardian’s reporting would be frozen everywhere and that the newspaper would be forced to hand over material.
“I explained to British authorities that there were other copies in America and Brazil so they wouldn’t be achieving anything,” Rusbridger said. “But once it was obvious that they would be going to law I preferred to destroy our copy rather than hand it back to them or allow the courts to freeze our reporting.”
Any such surrender would have represented a betrayal of the source, Edward Snowden, Rusbridger believed. The files could ultimately have been used in the American whistleblower’s prosecution.
In the column that first broke the news, Guardian editor Alan Rusbridger described various attempts at intimidation that the British government made before Rusbridger agreed to finally destroy the hard drives.
Two months ago, a senior government official claiming to represent the views of the prime minister called Rusbridger and demanded that the paper return or destroy documents exposing the National Security Agency’s surveillance. A month later, Rusbridger received another phone call from the government. “ You’ve had your fun. Now we want the stuff back,” the official allegedly said.
More meetings with British government officials occurred, with an official telling Rusbridger, “you’ve had your debate. There’s no need to write any more.”
After The Guardian continued to hold steadfast, the government took an action described by Glenn Greenwald as “thuggish.”
“And so one of the more bizarre moments in the Guardian’s long history occurred – with two GCHQ security experts overseeing the destruction of hard drives in the Guardian’s basement just to make sure there was nothing in the mangled bits of metal which could possibly be of any interest to passing Chinese agents,” writes Rusbridger.
The account in The Guardian was published after Greenwald’s husband David Miranda, a Brazilian citizen, was detained in Britain for 9 hours under a UK anti-terrorism law after crossing through Heathrow airport on his way back from meeting Laura Poitras, Greenwald’s reporting companion, in Berlin. Miranda was questioned about his partner’s reporting and threatened with jail. Rusbridger vowed that the detention–and seizure of documents Miranda was carrying–would not deter The Guardian.
“We will continue to do patient, painstaking reporting on the Snowden documents, we just won’t do it in London,” wrote Rusbridger. “The seizure of Miranda’s laptop, phones, hard drives and camera will similarly have no effect on Greenwald’s work.”
Outrage has erupted in Britain over Miranda’s detention. The British Labour Party has demanded a review of the anti-terrorism law used to hold Greenwald’s partner. The law has disproportionately targeted Muslims.
And Miranda’s lawyers have said they are planning to take legal action against the British government for his detention.
While The Guardian editor vowed to press on despite the destruction of the files and Miranda’s detention, he closed out his column with a warning:
We are not there yet, but it may not be long before it will be impossible for journalists to have confidential sources. Most reporting – indeed, most human life in 2013 – leaves too much of a digital fingerprint. Those colleagues who denigrate Snowden or say reporters should trust the state to know best (many of them in the UK, oddly, on the right) may one day have a cruel awakening. One day it will be their reporting, their cause, under attack.