'Guardian' Destroyed Hard Drives With Snowden Documents
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You've had your fun. Now we want the stuff back. So goes Alan Rusbridger's account of a phone call he received roughly a month ago from a top official in the British government. Rusbridger is editor-in-chief of The Guardian newspaper, and it's one of his columnists, Glenn Greenwald, who has published a string of leaked documents from former NSA contractor Edward Snowden.
Greenwald's stories have put Rusbridger and his paper at the center of a raging debate about intelligence-gathering, privacy and what it means to publish highly sensitive government documents. In an opinion piece yesterday, Rusbridger weighed in himself, defending his decision to publish the Snowden documents and revealing that British security officials supervised the destruction of several hard drives in the basement of The Guardian's London offices. Alan Rusbridger joins me now. Welcome.
ALAN RUSBRIDGER: Hello.
CORNISH: Now, Alan Rusbridger, I want to start with those hard drives. Explain to me how they fit into the Snowden storyline and why the government wanted them destroyed.
RUSBRIDGER: Well, about a month ago, the government indicated that they were preparing to use legal means against The Guardian either to get the Snowden material back or to have it destroyed. And this may be - sound strange to American listeners, but there is no First Amendment in the U.K. and there is no bar on prior restraint, the idea that the state could prevent a news organization from publishing by taking back its source material.
And I told the government that we already had copies in America and Brazil where Glenn Greenwald lives, but they were intent on pursuing legal actions so we came to an arrangement whereby we didn't hand it back to them but we did destroy it.
CORNISH: Now you said you came to an arrangement. Why? Why not go to court? Why not try to prevent it somehow?
RUSBRIDGER: Well, again, to American ears, you have to understand what going to court in the U.K. would mean. And essentially, that would mean giving control of all the Snowden material to a judge who could decide whether it should be handed back or destroyed or whether we'd be allowed to use it. But that felt to me a needless risk to take because we could report as simply out of New York and Brazil without risking having all the materials seized by the police or by the intelligence services.
CORNISH: And in the end, describe what happened. They actually came to your basement and you watched as they smashed this material.
RUSBRIDGER: Well, it was explicit that we wouldn't hand them the material. They wanted to take it away and destroy it themselves, but I wouldn't do that. You know, the security people we met weren't James Bond villains out of a Bond movie. They were technicians, you know? But it was certainly one of the most bizarre experiences in my journalistic career to have editorial people in a basement with power drills, being looked on by men from spying agencies involved in smashing up computers. That's not something I thought I would encounter in my journalistic career.
CORNISH: Did you debate or consider publishing a story at that time about this incident?
RUSBRIDGER: Well, there were one or two operational reasons, which I would rather not go into, about why we didn't write about it at the time. But when David Miranda was picked up in Heathrow and detained under a section of the U.K. law to deal with terror, I thought this was an appropriate moment to let Guardian readers into some of the background of what the government had been up to.
CORNISH: And we need to remind people that David Miranda is actually the partner of Glenn Greenwald. He was traveling in Heathrow Airport when he was detained.
RUSBRIDGER: That's right. Under an obscure section of the 2000 Terrorism Act, which effectively designates bits of the U.K. as beyond the normal protections of journalistic material would have.
CORNISH: And to be clear, Miranda himself is not a journalist. He does help Greenwald in a professional capacity.
RUSBRIDGER: He's not a journalist, but he helped Greenwald.
CORNISH: But did this make him fair game?
RUSBRIDGER: Well, I don't think anyone is fair game if they're involved in journalistic activities in the sense of using legislation that was plainly not designed against journalists but was designed against terrorists. And what it does means the authorities can detain somebody and question them for nine hours without legal representation and can confiscate anything they want in a way they simply wouldn't be able to do if it happened in the Heathrow Airport car park, for instance.
CORNISH: In the end, how have these incidents changed the way that you conduct your journalism? I mean, do you find that you're basically not doing this work on U.K. soil?
RUSBRIDGER: Well, I think two different things. One, we've taken an awful lot more flights and it's probably strictly sensible, you know, for budgetary reasons or the environment, i.e., you have a lot of face-to-face meetings because you're very conscious that it's probably not very wise to be using open phone lines and email to be discussing some of the more sensitive operational matters involved in this story. So that's one way in which we've changed our behavior.
And the second is, as you imply, in circumstances in which you can't rely on the permissive legal framework, then I think it's natural in the digital age that you find the most permissive legal framework. And I think that it's a rather wonderful thing that the best of American law offers a high degree of protection. And I like the idea of people in other countries being able to harness their reporting to American standards of free speech.
CORNISH: Alan Rusbridger is editor-in-chief of The Guardian newspaper. Thank you so much for speaking with us.
RUSBRIDGER: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.