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.