Guardian bombshells in an escalating battle against journalism

Greenwald partner's detention, prior-restraint threats, and smashed hard drives

Guardian Editor Alan Rusbridger filed an astonishing column tonight that shows just how far the British authorities are going to suppress the paper’s NSA/Snowden reporting:

A little over two months ago I was contacted by a very senior government official claiming to represent the views of the prime minister. There followed two meetings in which he demanded the return or destruction of all the material we were working on. The tone was steely, if cordial, but there was an implicit threat that others within government and Whitehall favoured a far more draconian approach.

The mood toughened just over a month ago, when I received a phone call from the centre of government telling me: “You’ve had your fun. Now we want the stuff back.” There followed further meetings with shadowy Whitehall figures. The demand was the same: hand the Snowden material back or destroy it. I explained that we could not research and report on this subject if we complied with this request. The man from Whitehall looked mystified. “You’ve had your debate. There’s no need to write any more”…

The man was unmoved. And so one of the more bizarre moments in the Guardian’s long history occurred - with two GCHQ security experts overseeing the destruction of hard drives in the Guardian’s basement just to make sure there was nothing in the mangled bits of metal which could possibly be of any interest to passing Chinese agents. “We can call off the black helicopters,” joked one as we swept up the remains of a MacBook Pro.

Prior restraint is the nuclear option in government relations with the press and unfortunately, the British don’t have a First Amendment. But Rusbridger, having gone through the fire with Wikileaks, was prepared for that. The paper’s journalism is mostly being done in New York and the Snowden documents are dispersed in other countries.

Combine Rusbridger’s revelations with news of the detention of Greenwald’s partner David Miranda by UK authorities and you have a DEFCON 2 journalism event.

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. So the UK, using an anti-terrorism statute, arrested detained Miranda on arrival at Heathrow, interrogated him for 9 hours, threatened to arrest him, and took his stuff. The war on whistleblowers has now escalated to disrupting journalists’ communications.

In light of Rusbridger’s disclosures, it’s even clearer that the detention of Miranda is part of an attack on American journalists authorized at the highest levels of the British government, and it’s an attack that is at the very least implicitly backed by the Obama administration.

We have the spectacle of communications between two American journalists-in-exile—reduced to passing information via courier because their government is spying on everything they do online—busted up by the US’s top ally, apparently with no protest from the Obama administration, which was given a heads-up.

On top of that, Greenwald’s paper has been threatened by its own government with prior restraint and had its hard drives smashed (CLARIFYING: the paper did the smashing under the supervision of the GCHQ) in its basement to make a (stupid) point.

This is police-state stuff. We need to know the American government’s role in these events—and its stance on them—sooner rather than later.

(Updated on 8/21 to add an ellipsis in the blockquote)

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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: , , , ,