The editor of The Guardian Alan Rusbridger revealed that on July 20, an extraordinary event took place in his newspaper’s London offices. After a series of increasingly threatening demands from the British government to hand over the materials that Edward Snowden had given them, they arrived at an agreement that in return for the government not taking legal action to stop further publication of the materials, which under the UK’s legal system could have held up the process, the editors would agree to physically destroy the computers and other hardware that contained the information, although they pointed out that in this electronic age, such an action was purely symbolic since copies existed in other countries.
So we had the bizarre spectacle of them all trooping to the basement of the building where Guardian staffers physically destroyed the equipment using sledgehammers and other tools under the watchful eyes and instructions of the government’s GCHQ spy officials until what remained were just ‘mangled bits of metal’.
What possible purpose would this serve, other than making the British government look like idiots? One reason is undoubtedly intimidation. The government was showing that it could force its opponents to bend to its will, even if there was no concrete change in the outcome as far as the news was concerned.
Could the Obama administration also start destroying the computers of reporters? When this question was posed to the White House spokesperson, he responded coyly, “It’s very difficult to imagine a scenario in which that would be appropriate here”. Note that he didn’t say it was illegal or unlawful to do so or that the government had ruled it out, but that it was not ‘appropriate’, as if it were a point of etiquette like whether it was acceptable to use your entrée fork to eat your salad. It reminded me of how Attorney General Eric Holder said at a senate hearing that it would not be ‘appropriate’ to murder using drones a US citizen simply sitting at a café in the US.
The British action is all of a purpose with the nine-hour detention and interrogation of David Miranda at Heathrow airport, after which he was released without charge, although all his equipment was taken away from him and he was forced to reveal all his passwords, although again copies exist elsewhere and the NSA and GCHQ would likely have been able to crack his passwords. They could have taken his equipment in a much shorter time but they probably kept him for as long as they did just to intimidate him and others by showing that they could.
Miranda did achieve a court victory of sorts.
Lord Justice Beatson and Judge Kenneth Parker issued an injunction blocking the government from using or sharing material seized from David Miranda at Heathrow on Sunday in a criminal investigation – half an hour after a Metropolitan police lawyer announced the force had launched such an investigation.
The Home Office and Met won the right to continue examining the data in the protection of national security or for investigating whether Miranda himself was involved in terrorism. The Met said it was pleased by the ruling.
Miranda’s lawyer, Gwendolen Morgan, described it only as a partial victory and said while the Home Office and police were now facing “significant prohibitions” on use of the data, “if this decision remains unchallenged it will have serious chilling effects for journalists worldwide”.
But this is a symbolic victory for Miranda. Is there anyone who doubts that the NSA and British spy agencies are working together on this, especially since the revelations that the NSA actually pays the GCHQ to act as its surrogate, something else we learned from Snowden?
I think the reason that Miranda’s material was seized is that the NSA does not yet know all the information that Snowden took with him and what is coming down the pike. Rather than reacting after each revelation, they would likely prefer to have their damage control lies prepared well in advance rather than having to do it on the fly with all the mistakes that inevitably ensue. Hence the seizure of Miranda’s computers. It could well be that the mysterious leak to The Independent came from the British government using documents obtained from Miranda’s computer, since Snowden flatly denies have ever had any dealings with that newspaper.