Britain’s spooks don’t get the 4th estate

Oliver Robbins on the detention of David Miranda and the seizure of press communications

Last week I disembarked in Denmark to find myself already embroiled in European intrigue—an international espionage scandal, even.

Okay, not quite, but humor me. I was, however, quoted by the UK’s deputy National Security Adviser, Oliver Robbins, to bolster his case in his testimony to Her Majesty’s High Court of Justice why it was necessary to disrupt journalistic communications, via the detention of Glenn Greenwald’s partner David Miranda, in the Snowden affair (hat tip to Jay Rosen for pointing this out to me).

This came as a surprise to me, because that quote came from a column where I scorched Robbins & Co. for their attack against journalism, which included having The Guardian smash hard drives to bits in its basement. Indeed, Robbins cut off half of the sentence to obscure what I was getting at.

Here’s Robbins:

In an article published on the same day by the Columbia Journalism Review (“Guardian bombshells in an escalating battle against journalism”) Ryan Chittum wrote that the claimant “was serving as a human passenger pigeon, shuttling encrypted files on USB drives between filmmaker Laura Poitras and Greenwald”.

And here’s what I actually wrote:

Miranda was serving as a human passenger pigeon, shuttling encrypted files on USB drives between filmmaker Laura Poitras and Greenwald because, as the whole world now knows, the Internet is fully bugged by the US and UK governments.

That kind of changes the gist, no? British and American spies’ surveillance of almost all communications on the Internet and their increasing antipathy to journalists has forced reporters back to primitive communications methods—the very ones Robbins criticizes as “insecure.” (And by the way, I should have said carrier pigeon, not passenger pigeon.)

If it were just a clipped quote, there wouldn’t be much to protest here. But that kind of thing raises questions about what else in Robbins’s testimony isn’t all there. It turns out that Robbins uses selective quotes, specious reasoning, questionable numbers, and flat-out disingenuous claims to make his case that journalists merely possessing secrets was a grave danger to the United Kingdom.

For one thing, it’s a bit much that the British government says that it’s so concerned about The Guardian’s data hygiene. It is, after all, the one that managed to lose 58,000 of its secret and top secret documents.

But Robbins’s testimony regarding the supposedly lax security of Miranda, Greenwald, and Laura Poitras doesn’t seem to add up. Robbins says that Miranda was carrying a paper with a password to unlock the encrypted files, but also says the UK can only read a few dozen of the 58,000 files.

Greenwald disputes this, writing on Twitter that:

Anyone claiming that David Miranda was carrying a password that allowed access to documents is lying. UK itself says they can’t access them…

Good encryption requires multiple passwords, not just one. That pw allows no access to documents, period.

Robbins then goes on to assert that Greenwald and Snowden can’t know what might harm the UK if it is published:

Indeed it is impossible for a journalist alone to form a proper judgment about what disclosure of protectively marked intelligence does or does not damage national security…

This is misleading. It’s not as if Greenwald is doing a Wikileaks-style document dump and crowd-sourcing the reporting (that’s one major difference between Edward Snowden and Bradley Manning, by the way). The Guardian is vetting the information, and you can be sure the paper is going back and forth with the government, perhaps even with Robbins himself, before it reports anything. If the spooks have their hair on fire when asked for comment on an upcoming story, be sure the paper will be extra careful about whether it should publish.

It seems to me that Robbins’s testimony itself betrays a disconnect from what journalism is supposed to be all about. It’s a bit less surprising that his government has taken the drastic actions it has in recent weeks.

Further reading:

Guardian bombshells in an escalating battle against journalism. Greenwald partner’s detention, prior-restraint threats, and smashed hard drives.

Ryan Chittum is a former Wall Street Journal reporter, and deputy editor of The Audit, CJR's business section. If you see notable business journalism, give him a heads-up at Follow him on Twitter at @ryanchittum. Tags: , , , ,