On Friday, The Associated Press reported that the Obama administration had advance knowledge last year that the British government would force The Guardian to destroy hard drives containing documents leaked by Edward Snowden. Indeed, as declassified emails obtained through a Freedom of Information request show, National Security Agency officials even applauded the move. And Guardian editors, under government supervision, used power tools to destroy the hardware in the belly of their London offices on July 20, 2013.
“Good news, at least on this front,” current NSA Deputy Director Richard Ledgett wrote in an email, upon learning of the plan. James Clapper, the director of National Intelligence, subsequently confirmed the destruction of the hard drives. A month later, reporters asked then-White House Deputy Press Secretary Josh Earnest whether the administration knew of London’s move. Earnest said he couldn’t answer that question, adding, “It’s hard for me to evaluate the propriety of what they did based on incomplete knowledge of what happened.”
Of course, the highly redacted emails acquired by the AP contradict that claim, as The Guardian pointed out on Friday. But it should come as no surprise that the White House knowingly misled reporters. Obama administration officials have repeatedly relied on dishonesty and deception to shield the NSA’s surveillance programs from media scrutiny.
In March 2013, for instance, just weeks before revelations surfaced that the NSA was sweeping up user data from Verizon, Clapper told the Senate Intelligence Committee that the United States did not collect intelligence on Americans. After the story broke in June of that year, Obama himself argued that NSA programs had helped avert 50 terrorist attacks worldwide, an assertion with little evidence behind it. US officials claimed Snowden couldn’t access thousands of emails collected under the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act—those messages have since been described in a Washington Post expose. And Obama told Jay Leno on The Tonight Show in August 2013, “We don’t have a domestic spying program.” No matter how conservatively one defines “spying,” continued reporting has repeatedly shown that’s not the case.
The White House on Thursday told the AP that the British government had acted alone in destroying The Guardian’s hard drives. Glenn Greenwald, who broke the NSA story for The Guardian and continues to cover surveillance programs for The Intercept, argued Friday that such a lack of collaboration is “virtually inconceivable.”
Unlike their British counterparts, American officials must at least pay lip service to the First Amendment. While critics like Greenwald claim that American media have been complicit in NSA secrecy by accepting official statements as fact, stateside publications have continued reporting on Snowden’s documents, which comprise the largest national security leak in at least 40 years.
That’s not to say that the White House has made it easy to report on national security. The Obama administration has pursued twice as many criminal leak investigations as any of its predecessors. Federal agencies, meanwhile, have tightened restrictions on officials speaking to the media.
At a press briefing following the destruction of The Guardian’s hard drives last year, Earnest was asked whether such a move was possible in the United States. “It’s very difficult to imagine a scenario in which that would be appropriate,” he said.
Let’s hope that answer – not to mention answers to any future questions on the NSA – was the whole truth and nothing but. As recent history has shown, however, reporters shouldn’t take the White House’s word for it.