Civil Liberties

British Snoops to The Guardian: Nice Little Newspaper You Got. It'd Be a Shame if Something Happened to It


Alan Rusbridger
The Guardian

This morning, with regard to the detention of David Miranda, NSA-busting journalist Glenn Greenwald's partner, by British authorities at London's Heathrow airport, and the theft of his property by the same goons, I suggested that the whole infuriating incident was a crude effort to deter journalists from further scrutinizing the surveillance state. The unusual questioning of Miranda about Greenwald's journalistic endeavors for the full nine hours allowed under a British law targeted at potential terrorists was a strong indicator that intimidation was the ultimate goal, but not proof positive. Now, though, we have more evidence that British authorities are leaning heavily on The Guardian as well as Greenwald in an effort to shut off the flow of revelations that are almost as embarrassing to the U.K.'s GCHQ as to America's NSA. In fact, British spooks have actually been over to that newspaper's office to smash things. I kid you not.

According to Alan Rusbridger (pictured at right), editor of The Guardian:

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."

During one of these meetings I asked directly whether the government would move to close down the Guardian's reporting through a legal route – by going to court to force the surrender of the material on which we were working. The official confirmed that, in the absence of handover or destruction, this was indeed the government's intention. Prior restraint, near impossible in the US, was now explicitly and imminently on the table in the UK. But my experience over WikiLeaks – the thumb drive and the first amendment – had already prepared me for this moment. I explained to the man from Whitehall about the nature of international collaborations and the way in which, these days, media organisations could take advantage of the most permissive legal environments. Bluntly, we did not have to do our reporting from London. Already most of the NSA stories were being reported and edited out of New York. And had it occurred to him that Greenwald lived in Brazil?

The man was unmoved. 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. "We can call off the black helicopters," joked one as we swept up the remains of a MacBook Pro.

That passage comes from a longer piece in which Rusbridger addresses the Miranda detention as an act of intimidation. He writes, "The state that is building such a formidable apparatus of surveillance will do its best to prevent journalists from reporting on it."

And, in fact, Reuters separately reports:

One U.S. security official told Reuters that one of the main purposes of the British government's detention and questioning of Miranda was to send a message to recipients of Snowden's materials, including the Guardian, that the British government was serious about trying to shut down the leaks.

That the act was intended as a public message certainly makes more sense than the suggestion that U.K. intelligence authorities are unaware that, in the Internet age, a story reported by an American reporter living in Brazil working with a colleague (Laura Poitras) in Germany, based on information delivered by a whistleblower who has taken refuge in Russia, can be cut off by threatening a single British newspaper. That's especially apparent when you consider that the British newsaper in question, The Guardian, is perhaps the most internationally diversified in the world, partially with the deliberate intention of evading the legal controls of any one jurisdiction. This wasn't a serious attempt to stop The Guardian from publishing stories about the intelligence community; it was a baseball bat across the knees as a lesson to all journalists.

Baseball bat

What's remarkable about this is that the NSA story is being heavily reported by a British newspaper subject to much tighter legal restrictions than those endured by American journalists. When the U.S. government snoops on reporters, it does so secretly and has to pretend at remorse when caught. British authorities smash your computers and threaten a regime of press regulation.

In fact, though, Rusbridger reports once taking former New York Times executive editor Bill Keller to task for not picking up on Wikileaks revelations, yelling, "we have the thumb drive, you have the first amendment." That may be self-congratulation, but it squares with the bizarre phenomenon of the Washington Post editorial page calling for an end to NSA revelations, many of which were appearing in the same newspaper's own pages.

If you're not going to use the First Amendment, what good is the damned thing?

But the Post continues to report the story, despite its editorial page. Just last week, it told us of privacy violations by the NSA and the relatively toothless nature of the secretive court intended to oversee all of this creepiness.

Intimidation often works. But really crude and public efforts to intimidate people who already expect the worst of you are a very likely bet to backfire.

Update: U.S. officials concede that they were given a "heads-up" about the detention of David Miranda by the British government, essentially eliminating the possibility that this was low-level overreaching.