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Guardian-New York Times Partnership on NSA Files from Snowden a Symptom of Crackdown on Press Freedom

A partnership between The Guardian and The New York Times on documents provided by National Security Agency whistleblower Edward Snowden has been arranged so that reporting on British government intelligence agency, GCHQ, can continue to be produced.

The Guardian put out in a statement, “In a climate of intense pressure from the UK government, the Guardian decided to bring in a US partner to work on the GCHQ documents provided by Edward Snowden. We are working in partnership with the NYT and others to continue reporting these stories.”

Partnering with the Times is a measure being taken in response to the UK government’s detention of Guardian journalist Glenn Greenwald’s partner, David Miranda, being detained at Heathrow Airport for nearly nine hours under a terrorism law. It also is a response to the UK government forcing the news organization to symbolically destroy hard drives in the basement of the Guardian office. The drives were destroyed, even though they had no files on them, as a compliant gesture to the UK government, which could have threatened legal action and shut down reporting on files related to GCHQ and the NSA entirely.

Legally, the United States government could not bring reporting on Snowden’s documents to a halt in the same way that the UK government is capable of halting reporting. The Pentagon Papers case is a precedent the government would have to convince a judge to completely overlook and ignore in order to justify halting the publication of information on surveillance that is in the public interest because it fosters a necessary debate on privacy and security.

The partnership evokes memories of the partnership The Guardian and the Times (and Der Spiegel) had on the publication of the Iraq and Afghanistan War Logs, which WikiLeaks gave to the media organizations, and also the US diplomatic cables (although WikiLeaks did not want the Times to have copies of the cables).

In this moment, The Guardian is like WikiLeaks. The media organization has information that should be shared with the public, but it faces retaliation from the UK government if it continues to publish the material. It needs extra support.

This goes to show why it is important to defend new media organizations like WikiLeaks that rise to prominence in the networked fourth estate. If governments are able to shut down their reporting or limit access to their coverage of stories they do not want covered, it makes it easier to advance the next step and begin to crack down on much more well-established news outlets.

The partnership should not just be a moment where the Times revels in the fact that it is being handed scoops because the Times is in a precarious situation. It should realize that the success that the UK government has in controlling what The Guardian publishes or deters it from publishing may one day occur in the United States, especially if politicians and officials inside the Executive Branch begin to find it permissible for the UK government to engage in such curtailing of press freedom. And so, the Times should be using the publication of stories containing Snowden documents to recommit the organization to condemning violations of press freedom not just in the UK but also in the US as well.

Furthermore, The Guardian should be wary of the Times and how it has handled sensitive documents in the past. When the Times reported on the cables, disclosed by the soldier who now goes by the name Chelsea Manning, they warned the White House on what they would be publishing:

Because of the range of the material and the very nature of diplomacy, the embassy cables were bound to be more explosive than the War Logs. Dean Baquet, our Washington bureau chief, gave the White House an early warning on Nov. 19. The following Tuesday, two days before Thanksgiving, Baquet and two colleagues were invited to a windowless room at the State Department, where they encountered an unsmiling crowd. Representatives from the White House, the State Department, the Office of the Director of National Intelligence, the C.I.A., the Defense Intelligence Agency, the FBI and the Pentagon gathered around a conference table. Others, who never identified themselves, lined the walls. A solitary note-taker tapped away on a computer.

If the Times intends to warn the White House on what documents it plans to cover on the relationship between GCHQ and the NSA, that might be of concern to The Guardian, especially since it could diminish the impact and give the UK government the chance to get a heads-up from the US government on what they will have to be prepared to address or deflect.

The nature of publishing on revelations from Snowden is an act of watchdog journalism. Any decision to communicate with officials in government on the material and share any information on what is being published would be highly questionable if not unethical—as it has been in previous instances where the Times has been willing to self-censor its coverage of national security or defense stories on behalf of the US government.


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Kevin Gosztola

Kevin Gosztola

Kevin Gosztola is managing editor of Shadowproof Press. He also produces and co-hosts the weekly podcast, "Unauthorized Disclosure."