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British government forced Guardian to smash hard drives with Snowden files

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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 Julian Borger explained the reasoning behind the newspaper’s actions:

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.

Alex Kane
About Alex Kane

Alex Kane is a freelance journalist who focuses on Israel/Palestine and civil liberties. Follow him on Twitter @alexbkane.

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15 Responses

  1. seafoid
    August 21, 2013, 1:32 pm

    The UK Foreign Minister says “the innocent have nothing to fear” . Unless they are Muslim, of course.
    Very comforting.

    • Hostage
      August 22, 2013, 2:08 am

      The UK Foreign Minister says “the innocent have nothing to fear” .

      In this particular case they apparently did. Snowden gave the Washington Post an internal NSA audit report which revealed that the Agency had broken privacy rules or overstepped its legal authority thousands of times each year since 2008. The infractions involved unauthorized surveillance of both American and foreign targets.

      If the British law enforcement authorities actually thought the hard drives contained evidence of a crime, then why didn’t they preserve it, instead of destroying it sight unseen?

      I’ll take a wild guess. It seems probable to me that the hard drives contained evidence that the NSA had violated the catch-all statute that covers any unauthorised possession of confidential material too, and of course the EU directives on data protection and privacy. The authorities were interested in obstructing that story getting published, not in enforcing the law in question.

    • Sumud
      August 22, 2013, 2:09 am

      The UK Foreign Minister says “the innocent have nothing to fear” .

      It’s a two way street – if our government(s) aren’t doing anything wrong they have nothing to fear from leaks.

      Western governments have forgotten they exist to serve the people, and not the reverse. The internet is the great equaliser and the balance of power is shifting back to the people, bit by bit (no pun intended).

    • Tuyzentfloot
      August 22, 2013, 2:45 am

      “the innocent have nothing to fear”

      We’ll define “innocent” later.

    • mijj
      August 22, 2013, 3:43 am

      ah! .. the “innocent have nothing to fear” myth 8-) .. so then, if they believe that, how come all the lying and deception by our masters about the NSA and the determination to keep its (and associated) activities secret?

    • Woody Tanaka
      Woody Tanaka
      August 22, 2013, 10:49 am

      The problem, of course, is that they get to decide who is “innocent.”

    • mcohen
      August 22, 2013, 5:51 pm

      seafood says

      “The UK Foreign Minister says “the innocent have nothing to fear”

      what a lie ! read this today-whats sacred hey ,nothing I tell you,all is going mufti,what with a bombing at the airport and now this

      England: Queen’s Swan Is Barbecued and Eaten

      The charred carcass of one of Queen Elizabeth’s own swans was found on a riverbank near Windsor Castle after having been barbecued and eaten, according to the police and a charity called Swan Lifeline.

  2. seafoid
    August 21, 2013, 4:40 pm

    I am still trying to figure out the point of the war on terror. Acceptable deficit spending in the US is one theory but another might be that it’s a preparation for the resource wars of the future. The west vs the third world. The only snag is the completely inept way it is actually run.

  3. kalithea
    August 21, 2013, 6:28 pm

    Greenwald’s journalistic integrity should be what the thugs fear most. They can’t smash that.

    Let it all go viral. Thugs and bullies deserve to be exposed for what they are; because they’re definitely not defenders of the realm.

  4. American
    August 21, 2013, 6:54 pm

    How long till citizens have to do the boot snap and Seig Heil! the Führer(s)?
    Time for people to revisit:
    They Thought They Were Free
    The Germans, 1933-45
    Milton Mayer

    “To live in this process is absolutely not to be able to notice it—please
    try to believe me—unless one has a much greater degree of political
    awareness, acuity, than most of us had ever had occasion to develop. Each
    step was so small, so inconsequential, so well explained or, on occasion,
    ‘regretted,’ that, unless one were detached from the whole process from the
    beginning, unless one understood what the whole thing was in principle, what
    all these ‘little measures’ that no ‘patriotic German’ could resent must
    some day lead to, one no more saw it developing from day to day than a
    farmer in his field sees the corn growing. One day it is over his head.

    How is this to be avoided, among ordinary men, even highly educated ordinary
    men? Frankly, I do not know. I do not see, even now. Many, many times since
    it all happened I have pondered that pair of great maxims, Principiis obsta
    and Finem respice—‘Resist the beginnings’ and ‘Consider the end.’ But one
    must foresee the end in order to resist, or even see, the beginnings. One
    must foresee the end clearly and certainly and how is this to be done, by
    ordinary men or even by extraordinary men? Things might have. And everyone
    counts on that might”

  5. just
    August 21, 2013, 7:32 pm

    Thanks to Greenwald, Miranda, Borger, Rusbridger, and the Guardian. At least there are some fearless and truthful journalists……and citizens of the world.

    And thank you Edward Snowden. Shame on our governments.

  6. PilgrimSoul
    August 22, 2013, 11:27 am

    Rusbridger would have to be crazy not to have made multiple copies of the flash drives and stored them in various places in Britain, as well as encrypted much of the information and storied it electronically in various modalities, and in various places. GCHQ would be crazy not to know that. So why the charade of smashing a single set of flash drives?

    Clearly the Brits are under pressure from the Americans, who at this point are absolutely barking. So the Brits are forced to do something, and make some gesture that seems decisive, for the sake of the cowboy Americans who are demanding action. So again, why the smashing of flash drives? I think it is because of the violence involved, the actual act of smashing, which sends a threatening message. “Defy us, and we’ll smash you”–that’s the message. You can feel the contempt with which the intelligence people regard mere dissenting journalists, in the way the GCHQ guy laid down the law to Rusbridger: “You’ve had your debate, you don’t need to write about it anymore.”

    Forcing an editor to smash a flash drive while the government representatives watch isn’t only about violence. It’s a particular kind of violence, a symbolic act of violence against the free exchange of information, by forcing a left-wing journalist to smash the medium of his dangerous information. It has some of the same feelings associated with the horror of book-burning–it’s a way of forcing people to internalize the worthlessness of free ideas and opinions, as well as their personal worthlessness, when compared to the violent powers of the total surveillance state.

    Incidentally, Glenn Greenwald is supposedly booked to speak at a convention organized by the Council on Islamic-American Relations (CAIR) in a couple of months. CAIR is a wonderful and very effective civil rights organization, but for his own sake I hope Mr. Greenwald speaks from Brazil and resists the temptation to travel to the US. If he comes to America, he will probably be arrested, and once in prison he may never get out alive.

  7. Maximus Decimus Meridius
    Maximus Decimus Meridius
    August 22, 2013, 12:00 pm

    Given that the Guardian has ”done a BBC”’ as regards Palestine over the past few years, and is even as we speak shamelessly shilling for a war on Syria, I feel little sympathy for them, and do not believe they have all that much ‘integrity’ to lose.

    • American
      August 22, 2013, 7:50 pm

      I dont know MDM, I havent notced quite as many zios in their stable as with US press but every paper has some it seems..
      They did a good job on this:

      FBI granted power to delay citizenship for Muslims, ACLU report says

      ”A covert national security programme allows the FBI and US immigration authorities the power to indefinitely delay immigration benefits to Muslims and those from Muslim countries, according to an investigation by the American Civil Liberties Union.
      The previously unknown programme, which began in 2008 under George W Bush to identify those with links to terrorism, has continued under President Obama to blacklist law-abiding applicants and profile Muslims as “national security concerns”, according to the ACLU…..continued at

      Nazism evidently is a re occuring disease…..we need a vaccine for it.

      *July 14, 1933. Hitler obtained the right to revoke German Jews citizenship considered a threat or “undesirable

      *Israeli Knesset passes law to revoke citizenship of ‘unpatriotic’ Israelis
      Jan 10, 2007 – A new law passed Wednesday will allow the Israeli government to revoke the citizenship of citizens considered unpatriotic to the Jewish state of …

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