Guardian destroys Snowden files under pressure from “very senior” UK official

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Guardian offices

On Monday, Guardian editor Alan Rusbridger made a shocking disclosure:  Under threats from high levels of the British government, the newspaper had destroyed all of its material provided by NSA whistleblower Edward Snowden.  In his commentary, Rusbridger described meetings with “shadowy Whitehall figures.”

A little over two months ago I was contacted by a very senior government official claiming to represent the views of the prime minister. There followed two meetings in which he demanded the return or destruction of all the material we were working on. The tone was steely, if cordial, but there was an implicit threat that others within government and Whitehall favoured a far more draconian approach.

The mood toughened just over a month ago, when I received a phone call from the centre of government telling me: “You’ve had your fun. Now we want the stuff back.” There followed further meetings with shadowy Whitehall figures. The demand was the same: hand the Snowden material back or destroy it. I explained that we could not research and report on this subject if we complied with this request. The man from Whitehall looked mystified. “You’ve had your debate. There’s no need to write any more.”

Rusbridger paints a shadowy picture of “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.” On Twitter, he published a gruesome photo of a dismembered MacBook Pro; gruesome because it symbolizes the threat to journalism from governments armed with authorities intended for counter-terrorism and inclined to interpret them loosely.


But, while the age of electronic communications makes it easier for spy agencies to track what journalists do, it also makes it easier for whistleblowers to replicate evidentiary documents and leave them with caretakers in different parts of the world.  That’s what Edward Snowden did and that’s why Rusbridger decided it was better to give in to the demand than to fight a long legal battle. “We will continue to do patient, painstaking reporting on the Snowden documents, we just won’t do it in London,” he says.

A commenter posed to Rusbridger the possibility that authorities might have a solid, national security reason for wanting to destroy the information, to which Rusbridger responded, “As the article says, there’s a balancing act to be done between security, freedom of speech, privacy etc. But it’s impossible to have that debate without informed knowledge.”

A New York Magazine article suggests that the Guardian’s visit from government agents and the interrogation of David Miranda were conducted with the intent to  scare reporters.

In his first interview following the incident, David Miranda said interrogators “were threatening me all the time and saying I would be put in jail if I didn’t co-operate.” And while the White House insists it only got a “heads up” about Miranda being detained, one U.S. security official was familiar enough with the operation to confirm to Reuters that the point was to send a message to those working with Snowden’s materials that the British government is serious about stopping the leaks. (NYMag)

It’s not uncommon for government agencies to intimidate whistleblowers and those who assist them. But, new surveillance capabilities and lax oversight of broad counter-terrorism authorities appear to have emboldened officials to go to greater extremes.

Related articles:

David Miranda, schedule 7 and the danger that all reporters now face by Alan Rusbridger (The Guardian), 19 August 2013

Britain defends detention of journalist’s partner by Estelle Shirbon and Michael Holden
(Reuters), 8/20/2013

U.K. Officials Smashed Guardian Hard Drives in Attempt to Stop Snowden Leakes by Margaret Hartmann (NYMag), 8/20/2013

‘Guardian’ editor: Britain had Snowden drives destroyed by Kim Hjelmgaard (USA TODAY), 8/20/2013

David Miranda detention – latest developments and reaction by  and   (The Guardian), 8/20/2013

Reaction to the detention of David Miranda at Heathrow airport – as it happened by Andrew Sparrow, Adam Gabbatt and Ben Quinn (The Guardian), 8/19/2013

U.S. tipped on detention of leak reporter’s partner Aamer Madhani and Doug Stanglin, USA TODAY9:45 p.m. EDT August 19, 2013

Photo: “Guardian Offices” by Jessica Spengler at Flickr (Creative Commons license)