Civil Liberties

Watch the Brits Stupidly Force a Newspaper to Destroy Computers Because of Snowden

We should trust the judgment of spy agencies when they make these stupid gestures?


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The Guardian

There have been a number of low points in the tone-deaf responses from government officials in the wake of Edward Snowden's whistleblowing. It's hard to pick the worst – though the failure to fire Director of National Intelligence James Clapper for lying to the Senate and anonymous intelligence officials expressing their desire to murder Snowden would certainly be up there (down there?).

Over in Britain, probably one of the stupidest responses to this mass surveillance scandal so far happened last summer, when the country's spy agency went over to the offices of The Guardian, the newspaper where journalist Glenn Greenwald first broke the story, and ordered them to physically destroy computers that were tainted – so to speak – with the documents Snowden leaked.

That Greenwald was not in England and the destruction of the computers would not stop the flow of Snowden's data didn't seem to matter. Today The Guardian released video showing the destruction of the computers, along with more details about the newspapers' interactions with the government, which was threating to shut them down:

The government's response to the leak was initially slow – then increasingly strident. [Guardian Editor Alan] Rusbridger told government officials that destruction of the Snowden files would not stop the flow of intelligence-related stories since the documents existed in several jurisdictions. He explained that Glenn Greenwald, the Guardian US columnist who met Snowden in Hong Kong, had leaked material in Rio de Janeiro. There were further copies in America, he said.

Days later Oliver Robbins, the prime minister's deputy national security adviser, renewed the threat of legal action. "If you won't return it [the Snowden material] we will have to talk to 'other people' this evening." Asked if Downing Street really intended to close down the Guardian if it did not comply, Robbins confirmed: "I'm saying this." He told the deputy editor, Paul Johnson, the government wanted the material in order to conduct "forensics". This would establish how Snowden had carried out his leak, strengthening the legal case against the Guardian's source. It would also reveal which reporters had examined which files.

With the threat of punitive legal action ever present, the only way of protecting the Guardian's team – and of carrying on reporting from another jurisdiction – was for the paper to destroy its own computers. GCHQ officials wanted to inspect the material before destruction, carry out the operation themselves and take the remnants away. The Guardian refused.

You can watch the video here. As is obvious by now (and was obvious to everybody at the time) the destruction did not stop the flow of information from Snowden to the public.