Guardian: British intelligence made us destroy our hard drives

posted at 10:41 am on August 20, 2013 by Ed Morrissey

Guardian editor Alan Rusbridger made that sensational claim yesterday, but it’s difficult to assess just how seriously to take it.  The Guardian originally reported that Glenn Greenwald’s civil-union partner had been detained at Heathrow as a vendetta, with David Miranda just a family member caught up in the tug-of-war between the UK and Greenwald.  Only later did they acknowledge that the Guardian was paying for Miranda’s travel, and that he was a middle-man of sorts between the Guardian and Laura Poitras, a filmmaker and a contact for Edward Snowden.  That doesn’t justify the circumstances of Miranda’s detention, but it left out considerable context.

Similarly, yesterday’s claim raises a few questions, too:

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.”

During one of these meetings I asked directly whether the government would move to close down the Guardian’s reporting through a legal route – by going to court to force the surrender of the material on which we were working. The official confirmed that, in the absence of handover or destruction, this was indeed the government’s intention. Prior restraint, near impossible in the US, was now explicitly and imminently on the table in the UK. But my experience over WikiLeaks – the thumb drive and the first amendment – had already prepared me for this moment. I explained to the man from Whitehall about the nature of international collaborations and the way in which, these days, media organisations could take advantage of the most permissive legal environments. Bluntly, we did not have to do our reporting from London. Already most of the NSA stories were being reported and edited out of New York. And had it occurred to him that Greenwald lived in Brazil?

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.

Whitehall was satisfied, but it felt like a peculiarly pointless piece of symbolism that understood nothing about the digital age. We will continue to do patient, painstaking reporting on the Snowden documents, we just won’t do it in London. The seizure of Miranda’s laptop, phones, hard drives and camera will similarly have no effect on Greenwald’s work.

First, this happened over a month ago.  The Guardian apparently didn’t report it at the time, and only report it now as a buried lede.  This starts in the ninth paragraph of a column that meanders from a film screening in Soho, a recap of the Guardian’s role in Wikileaks, and five paragraphs recapping the Miranda detention.  Why not report it at the time it happened?  The Washington Post apparently wondered, too:

He said the hard drives were torn apart in the basement of the Guardian’s north London office with “two GCHQ security experts overseeing the destruction … just to make sure there was nothing in the mangled bits of metal which could possibly be of any interest to passing Chinese agents.”

It was not clear exactly when the incident occurred. Rusbridger gave a vague timeline, suggesting that it happened within the past month or so. Guardian spokesman Gennady Kolker declined to comment further, and messages left with GCHQ after working hours were not immediately returned. An operator at the intelligence agency’s switchboard said no one was available until Tuesday.

If there was some sort of security censorship that was put in place at the time, why did it expire now?  Further, assuming that a security prohibition on the coverage was put in place and then expired, was removed, or finally just ignored by Rusbridger, why bury that story in the middle of a rehash on Miranda and a discussion of a Soho film screening? That kind of government crackdown would be big news, and one would expect the editor of the newspaper to know that.

On top of that, the whole scenario seems like, well, a bad movie — from the incident to the dialogue.  While the cluelessness of government bureaucrats is a seemingly unending resource, it doesn’t take a genius even at the DMV to know that data can be moved anywhere in the world, and that destroying a hard drive probably won’t do anything.  Why demand that the Guardian destroy the drives themselves, too, rather than just confiscate them?  Wouldn’t that have have been more secure, and kept passing Chinese agents from accessing them?  (For that matter, intelligence services have more requirements for disabling hard drives than just smashing them on the floor, I’d bet.)  Perhaps GCHQ didn’t have the legal authority to confiscate it, but if that’s the case, they didn’t have the legal authority to force the Guardian to destroy them, either.  I assume Rusbridger knows a couple of barristers in the London area who could have advised him on this issue at the time.

Joshua Foust wondered the same thing last night:

Had the Guardian shown probity in its earlier reporting on itself, I’d guess people might be a little more credulous about these claims.  Something happened, in all likelihood, but it seems we are missing a large amount of information as to exactly what it was, and how it came about.

Nevertheless, the incident at Heathrow points out the need for vigilance about the grant of power to the government, whether in the form of the UK’s Terrorism Act or the US’ PATRIOT Act.  In my column for The Week, I advise Americans to start building real oversight and checks on that power before it gets used as a means of its own perpetuation:

This highlights the problem that naturally follows from giving government extraordinary power in a nutshell. Parliament passed the Terrorism Act for good reasons; few Western countries have as much painful experience with terrorism as the British, after all, and they needed a way to keep terrorists from infiltrating their country. But power grants that carry little oversight and no effective checks eventually expand in ways unforeseen by those who tried to solve very real problems in the first place. In effect, such grants allow governments to abuse those powers to further their own ends, and those of their allies, which very much appears to be the case with Miranda’s detention.

That lesson applies to the NSA, too. The risk of terrorist attack against the U.S. is undeniable, and the vulnerabilities many. The people who work at the NSA are not our enemies, but that doesn’t mean the lack of oversight and the breadth of power at their command to intrude on our privacy is healthy, either. Eventually that power will get used in arbitrary ways, in areas that have little to do with national security and more to do with political agendas, even if that time has not yet arrived.

Without effective checks on that power, abuses are inevitable. An internal audit exposed last week showed thousands of violations each year of privacy controls by the NSA. No one outside the agency had even been aware of the audit — not the FISA courts that supposedly oversee the surveillance programs, nor the congressional committees that oversee the NSA itself. The chair of the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence, Dianne Feinstein, first found out about it when reading the Washington Post. How long before that lack of outside scrutiny provides the kind of environment where a more-political NSA goes after critics as well as terrorists? It would be preferable to create effective oversight and accountability now, when the threat is hopefully theoretical, rather than wait until it becomes a reality. At that point, it’s too late.

Skepticism of authorities isn’t just applicable to governments, either … as the Guardian has proved this week.


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Comments

British Intelligence turned me into a newt!!!!!!!

I got better…

Mr. Bingley on August 20, 2013 at 10:44 AM

It will all come out eventually…

OmahaConservative on August 20, 2013 at 10:44 AM

Which you have on other harddrives, DVDs and thumb drives elsewhere.

rbj on August 20, 2013 at 10:48 AM

I always put a dozen rounds of .22 through my hard drive before scraping my old computers.

trs on August 20, 2013 at 10:48 AM

What act of terror was this Miranda guy planning on committing which permitted the UK to detain him for 9 hours under that law? Curious minds want to know. Well, I’m not worried, it could never happen here.

Fenris on August 20, 2013 at 10:49 AM

Well that takes care of that!

Really though, Assange probably has several copies on servers in dozens of countries. The genie is truly out of the bottle.

Greek Fire on August 20, 2013 at 10:52 AM

thumb drives, flash drives and cloud… I don’t need no stinking hard drive.

Odie1941 on August 20, 2013 at 10:53 AM

I always put a dozen rounds of .22 through my hard drive before scraping my old computers.

trs on August 20, 2013 at 10:48 AM

You might want to use a multi-pass eraser software to wipe it before hand.

Which you have on other harddrives, DVDs and thumb drives elsewhere.

rbj on August 20, 2013 at 10:48 AM

Eggzactlyright! If they don’t have secure backups somewhere then they’re not too bright.

Oldnuke on August 20, 2013 at 10:53 AM

MeanWhile,…

..back at GreenWald Ranch,the Legal Wheels beginneth to Spinneth:

Reuters Top News ‏@Reuters 2h

Snowden writer’s partner begins legal action over UK detention http://reut.rs/16GCHk8
========================

Partner of Snowden reporter Greenwald begins legal action over UK detention

LONDON | Tue Aug 20, 2013 10:04am EDT
**************************************

http://www.reuters.com/article/2013/08/20/us-usa-security-miranda-idUSBRE97J0FX20130820?feedType=RSS&feedName=topNews&utm_source=dlvr.it&utm_medium=twitter&dlvrit=992637

canopfor on August 20, 2013 at 10:55 AM

And yet the “free press” will still push for more and more government controls.

Flange on August 20, 2013 at 10:55 AM

How is it, Ed, that you went through this entire story without mentioning the fact that the White House was immediately contacted when the detention began? Doesn’t that strike you as mildly relevant?

MadisonConservative on August 20, 2013 at 11:04 AM

British intelligence

You lost me right there.

faraway on August 20, 2013 at 11:06 AM

You might want to use a multi-pass eraser software to wipe it before hand.

Oldnuke on August 20, 2013 at 10:53 AM

This. Pick up CCleaner for your PC as soon as possible. Apart from having numerous tweaks for Windows, it has a disk wiper that will allow you to do as many as 35 passes of randomized 0s and 1s(the DOD can barely crack 5).

MadisonConservative on August 20, 2013 at 11:08 AM

I hope they angered the wrong people and another
shoe of this octopus will drop .
Waiting for the headlines !

Lucano on August 20, 2013 at 11:12 AM

How is it, Ed, that you went through this entire story without mentioning the fact that the White House was immediately contacted when the detention began? Doesn’t that strike you as mildly relevant?

MadisonConservative on August 20, 2013 at 11:04 AM

Because I posted about that yesterday, perhaps, and it doesn’t have much to do with the story about the Guardian’s hard drives? Maybe you should just try to keep up.

Ed Morrissey on August 20, 2013 at 11:17 AM

The exercise of destroying hard drives is all show and no go.

1. They are morons mentally challenged if they don’t have backups of this data, either through remote servers, or simple USB sticks that can be dispersed geographically. I would be stunned if this hasn’t happened already.

2. It is not like there aren’t plenty of copies of these files spread around the globe. All the authorities need to do is really crack down on possession of the file(s), and then everyone will have them. With an internet, they are powerless to stop the proliferation of this information.

It is truly a Herculean task to put this genie back into the bottle. Control of such information is virtually impossible, and I wouldn’t want to be the folks that are responsible for trying. It would be terribly frustrating for them.

corbeck on August 20, 2013 at 11:18 AM

Continuing to use NSA / surveillance apologist Joshua Foust as a credible source sure lets us know where HotAir is coming from.

tetriskid on August 20, 2013 at 11:37 AM

Because I posted about that yesterday, perhaps, and it doesn’t have much to do with the story about the Guardian’s hard drives? Maybe you should just try to keep up.

Ed Morrissey on August 20, 2013 at 11:17 AM

Your pissy response notwithstanding, isn’t the information on the hard drives regarding US intelligence programs? So you have British authorities coercing their media outlets into destroying information critical to their ally, the United States, and apparently the Obama Administration is fine with this. Why is that angle not relevant to the story?

MadisonConservative on August 20, 2013 at 11:41 AM

Your pissy response notwithstanding

Projection. It’s what’s for dinner, apparently. Buh-bye.

Ed Morrissey on August 20, 2013 at 11:43 AM

The exercise of destroying hard drives is all show and no go.

corbeck on August 20, 2013 at 11:18 AM

This appears to be a really wimpy bit of bullying by clueless government officials, where they demonstrate their seriousness by smashing a laptop rather than breaking someone’s knees.

Perhaps we’ve improved as a species; our fascist thugs are now kinder and gentler. Let’s hope it gets no worse than this.

ZenDraken on August 20, 2013 at 11:54 AM

Perhaps we’ve improved as a species; our fascist thugs are now kinder and gentler. Let’s hope it gets no worse than this.

ZenDraken on August 20, 2013 at 11:54 AM

Governments by nature are bullies. If you let them get away with any infraction, no matter how trivial, then you’ve opened the door to more and worse.

Oldnuke on August 20, 2013 at 11:59 AM

So no more MadCon? Again?

TexasDan on August 20, 2013 at 12:30 PM

So no more MadCon? Again?

TexasDan on August 20, 2013 at 12:30 PM

I sure hope that is not the case.

The US is already almost the USSR in so many ways.

Schadenfreude on August 20, 2013 at 12:41 PM

Especially on topic and the entire NSA.

The land is scary of late.

Ed, please consider this earnestly.

People disagree in myriad of ways. It should not be taken personally.

Schadenfreude on August 20, 2013 at 12:42 PM

All your drive are belong to us

mdenis39 on August 20, 2013 at 1:37 PM

I advise Americans to start building real oversight and checks on that power before it gets used as a means of its own perpetuation:

You may well be too late. The IRS, the FBI and the DoJ are hopelessly corrupt. Prism is being used to control citizens not protect them. The protection claim is a bald faced LIE.

Their claims they stopped attacks is a LIE. When they had a perfect opportunity stop an attack, they chose not to do anything because the people under scrutiny were muslims. Their PC bull got four people killed, dozens maimed for life and hundreds wounded.

Yeah they are sooooo protecting us.

dogsoldier on August 20, 2013 at 1:58 PM

Wow, Ed must be having a bad day. Hope it gets better and keep up the good work.

boomer on August 20, 2013 at 7:10 PM

The people who work at the NSA are not our enemies, but that doesn’t mean the lack of oversight and the breadth of power at their command to intrude on our privacy is healthy, either.

I don’t know. Maybe not. But only if I weaken “enemy” in my mind. They aren’t my friends. To make them “friends,” I have to allow myself to be a cog, and them to be looking after my best interests and keeping me safe, despite any objections I might have. In other words, I have to think like a progressive. Even a lowly one — a member of the herd, not a cool overlord making the calls.

At what point is “good people doing their job” an insufficient excuse for the job they’re doing?

Axe on August 20, 2013 at 9:46 PM

Ah man, MadCon.

Axe on August 20, 2013 at 9:46 PM

I want SWalker back here. I’m willing to sacrifice one Twerp for an SWalker.

/just kidding. He is worth at least two Twerps. How’s that?

/now I’m really kidding.

SparkPlug on August 21, 2013 at 12:15 AM