Guardian editors yesterday revealed why and how the newspaper destroyed computer hard drives containing copies of some of the NSA and GCHQ secret files leaked by Edward Snowden.
The decision was taken after a threat of legal action by the British government that could have stopped reporting on the extent of American and British government surveillance revealed by the documents.
It resulted in one of the stranger episodes in the history of digital-age journalism. On Saturday July 20th, in a basement of the Guardian's King's Cross offices, a senior editor and a computer expert used angle grinders and other tools to pulverise the hard drives and memory chips on which the encrypted files had been stored.
As they worked, they were watched by technicians from the Government Communications Headquarters (GCHQ) who took notes and photographs, but left empty-handed.
The editor of the Guardian, Alan Rusbridger, had told government officials that other copies of the files existed outside the country and that the paper was neither the sole recipient nor steward of the files leaked by Snowden, a former NSA contractor. But the government insisted that the material be destroyed or surrendered.
Twelve days after the destruction of the files, the Guardian reported on US funding of GCHQ eavesdropping operations and published a portrait of working life in the British agency.
Guardian US, based in New York, has also continued to report on evidence of NSA co-operation with American telecommunications corporations to maximise the collection of data on internet and telephone users around the world.
The government stepped up pressure on journalists, with the detention in Heathrow airport on Sunday of David Miranda, the partner of Glenn Greenwald, who has led the Guardian's US reporting on the files.
Mr Miranda was detained for nine hours under a section of a 2000 legislation aimed at terrorists. The use of this measure meant the normal protection for suspects in the UK, including journalists, did not apply.
The initial UK attempts to stop reporting on the files came two weeks after the publication of the first story based on Snowden’s leaks, about a secret US court order obliging the communications corporation, Verizon, to hand over data on its customers’ phone usage.
This was followed by a story detailing how GCHQ was making use of data collected by the NSA’s internet monitoring programme, Prism.
Days later, the paper published a story revealing how UK intelligence spied on British allies at two London summits.
Shortly afterwards, two senior British officials arrived at the Guardian's offices to see Mr Rusbridger and his deputy, Paul Johnson. They made it clear they came on high authority to demand the immediate surrender of all the Snowden files in the newpaper's possession.
They argued that the material was stolen. The Official Secrets Act was mentioned but not threatened. Officials emphasised that they preferred a low-key, non-legal route.
The editors argued there was a public interest in the hitherto unknown scale of government surveillance and the collaboration with technology and telecoms companies, given the apparent weakness of parliamentary and judicial oversight.
After three more weeks which saw several more articles about GCHQ and NSA surveillance, officials took a sterner approach. “You’ve had your fun. Now we want the stuff back,” one of them said.
The two officials returned with the message that patience was wearing out.
They expressed fears that foreign governments, in particular Russia or China, could hack into the Guardian's IT network. Between July 16th and 19th, government pressure intensified and in a series of phone calls and meetings, the threat of legal action or even a police raid became explicit.
The Guardian's lawyers believed the government might seek an injunction under the Law of Confidence, which covers any unauthorised possession of confidential material, or start criminal proceedings under the Official Secrets Act.
Either brought with it the risk that the paper’s reporting would be frozen everywhere and that it would be forced to hand over material.
This would have represented a betrayal of the source, Edward Snowden, as the files could have been used in the whisteblower’s prosecution.
Rusbridger decided the best option was destroy the London copy and to edit and report from America and Brazil. Journalists in America are protected by the first amendment, guaranteeing free speech.
– (Guardian service)