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That ‘Surreal Moment’ When Snowden’s ‘Accomplices’ at The Guardian Destroyed Hard Drives

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The act of demolition was not going to stop The Guardian from reporting on any more of the files from former National Security Agency contractor Edward Snowden, but it did not matter to Downing Street. Cabinet secretary Jeremy Heywood, sent by Prime Minister David Cameron, informed the media organization in late June and July of last year that there had been enough debate. “We can do this nicely or we can go to the law,” he said at one point, according to a new book by Guardian reporter Luke Harding.

Footage of the demolition has, for the first time, been posted by The Guardian so the world can see when British intelligence agents—GCHQ technicians—came to the media organization’s offices to watch as hard drives that had contained encrypted files from Snowden were destroyed.

Three Guardian staff members – [deputy editor Paul] Johnson, executive director Sheila Fitzsimons and computer expert David Blishen – carried out the demolition of the Guardian’s hard drives. It was hot, sweaty work. On the instructions of GCHQ, the trio bought angle-grinders, dremels – a drill with a revolving bit – and masks. The spy agency provided one piece of hi-tech equipment, a “degausser”, which destroys magnetic fields, and erases data. It took three hours to smash up the computers. The journalists then fed the pieces into the degausser.

Johnson understood at the time this was “purely a symbolic act.” The Guardian “knew that. GCHQ knew that. And the government knew that.” And, for Johnson, it was the “most surreal event” he had witnessed in British journalism.

The goal was probably to show control, that the government would not hesitate to act in order to protect its interests even if it meant engaging in an act that was a repugnant encroachment on press freedom.

Not only has the British government sought to shut down The Guardian for its reporting on files from Snowden, especially because it revealed details on the partnership between the NSA and GCHQ, but it later detained journalist Glenn Greenwald’s partner, David Miranda, at Heathrow International Airport for nearly nine hours under a terrorism law in order to question him and seize electronics equipment he was carrying that authorities believed contained copies of Snowden documents.

Downing Street and British security agencies have displayed a willingness to police journalism because investigative journalism is not compatible with the surveillance state the government believes it must maintain in partnership with the US government. That is why it chose to chill, deter, intimidate and isolate reporters.

The controlling actions of the state in the United Kingdom have had a noticeable impact. As Cameron recently said the British public has shrugged off the leaks and basically decided the files showed intelligence agents do their jobs. That’s a good thing.

The Guardian’s editorial board wrote after Obama gave a speech announcing what he considered to be intelligence reforms, “There have been minimal debates, little scrutiny, no proper review of any kind, and David Cameron has barely addressed the issues. America’s political system is doing its job. Britain’s is failing.” Of course, this political inaction has been made possible by discouraging and threatening to suppress journalism.

In the United States, there have been no similar instances of suppression of journalism by the government (though Greenwald, Laura Poitras and Jacob Appelbaum—each journalists reporting on Snowden documents—have been given legal advice not to return to the US at this time).

There have, however, been loud condemnations of the continued journalism around the files. Director of National Intelligence James Clapper, who lied to Congress about surveillance in March 2013, recently reiterated at a Senate Select Committee on Intelligence hearing on worldwide “threats” that “profound damage” had been caused by Snowden’s disclosures.

What Snowden has stolen and exposed has gone way, way beyond his professed concerns with so-called domestic surveillance programs. As a result, we’ve lost critical foreign intelligence collection sources, including some shared with us by valued partners. Terrorists and other adversaries of this country are going to school on U.S. intelligence sources, methods and tradecraft, and the insights that they are gaining are making our job much, much harder. And this includes putting the lives of members or assets of the intelligence community at risk, as well as our armed forces, diplomats and our citizens. We’re beginning to see changes in the communications behavior of adversaries, which you alluded to, particularly terrorists — a disturbing trend which I anticipate will continue.

Snowden claims that he’s won and that his mission is accomplished. If that is so, I call on him and his accomplices to facilitate the return of the remaining stolen documents that have not yet been exposed, to prevent even more damage to U.S. security.

As a third and related point, I want to comment on the ensuing fallout. It pains me greatly that the National Security Agency and its magnificent workforce have been pilloried in public commentary. I started in the intelligence profession 50 years ago, in SIGINT, and members of my family and I have worked at NSA, so this is deeply personal to me. The real facts are, as the president noted in his speech on the 17th, that the men and women who work at NSA, both military and civilian, have done their utmost to protect this country and do so in a lawful manner…[emphasis added]

“Accomplices” is, according to spokesman for Clapper, “anyone who is assisting Edward Snowden to further threaten our national security through the unauthorized disclosure of stolen documents related to lawful foreign intelligence collection programs.” In other words, they are journalists like Greenwald, Poitras, Appelbaum and Barton Gellman of The Washington Post and entire media organizations like the Post, New York Times, Guardian, ProPublica, which intend to continue to engage in news reporting on files from Snowden.

Months ago, NSA director Gen. Keith Alexander declared in an interview posted by the Pentagon:

I think it’s wrong that that newspaper reporters have all these documents, the 50,000—whatever they have and are selling them and giving them out as if these—you know it just doesn’t make sense. We ought to come up with a way of stopping it. I don’t know how to do that. That’s more of the courts and the policymakers but, from my perspective, it’s wrong to allow this to go on.

The intelligence community is collectively eager to have the same experience of hovering over media organization employees as they destroy hardware used to store files, but, currently, it does not seem like the political climate would support such an act which would leave them with great satisfaction.

Nonetheless, US government officials will persist in anonymously and openly feeding reporters statements that cannot be confirmed on the extent of the damage in order to convince the public that what media reporting on files are doing is bad for this country. They will continue, as President Barack Obama did, to hype this idea that media have sensationalized leaks without providing any specific examples that prove this has happened. And they will imply that media are promoting commentary to attack the patriotism of NSA employees when there has been no such commentary; all of the reporting and commentary has primarily been focused on leadership at the top.


Let’s be clear here: Snowden has no more documents. He has no files in his possession. The people with files are reporters who intend to continue to engage in journalism. And, when news reporters publish statements from anonymous officials that attack Snowden for doing damage, at this point they should be asking this routine follow-up: Should journalists or media organizations stop publishing reporting on documents they obtained from Snowden?

It may be hard for people like The Daily Beast’s Eli Lake, who engage in the dark journalism art of publishing anonymous officials’ statements without much skepticism at all because it gives them a great sensational headline everyone will want to read:

However, when an anonymous official accuses the Times of “publishing some documents that did not redact the names of active intelligence officers,” that is not Snowden’s fault. It is an alleged mistake made by the media organization and a responsible reporter should contact the media organization responsible to see if it is true that the lives of officers have been put at risk.

Lake, of course, like most journalists, did not bother to investigate the claim made and cannot prove that any spies’ names were exposed in coverage of how the NSA and GCHQ exploits data from leaky Angry Birds apps. He also did not bother to contact The Washington Post and ask them to defend publishing a strong piece of journalism on the “black budget.”

At this point, the US government is not going to shut down reporting on documents by encouraging media organizations to use power tools to destroy hardware. It will continue to promote propaganda around Snowden (and hide the true nature of this propaganda from the public too).

The more talking points against Snowden that are really criticisms of journalism are unquestionably amplified and reported as “news,” the easier it becomes for government to contemplate the kind of acts which the British government has been perfectly comfortable with undertaking.

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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."