What could be the reasons for the UK government’s actions?

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.


  1. brian faux says

    After a recent computer crash I seem to have lost a years worth of emails. I wonder if I could apply to GCHQ for copies?

  2. Bob Dowling says

    The current UK government seems fundamentally incapable of understanding the modern computing world. Cameron demonstrated his technical incompetence with his plan for the Great Firewall and his actions with the Miranda case simply illiustrate further that he just does not understand the modern world of information.

  3. Pierce R. Butler says

    What possible purpose would this serve, other than making the British government look like idiots?

    It will make a great scene in the inevitable movie(s).

    Though not quite as funny a scene as that showing the plane leaving Moscow with dozens of reporters and an empty seat for Edward Snowden.

  4. hyphenman says

    Good morning Mano,

    I’ve marveled at the whole kabukiness of this story for days.

    Did they destroy the computers for the sake of proving they could?

    Did they download what was on the hard drives before they smashed them?

    Did they take the word of The Guardian that what was on the hard drives was the entirety of what the paper had?

    Did they not understand that smashing the hard drives was the technological equivalent of smashing a camera or tape recorder without burning the tape or the negatives along with any and all copies previously made?

    I just don’t buy the “they’re idiots” line of reasoning. There is a deeper meaning here that I have not yet discovered.

    As to what the United States might do, there are now dozens of documented cases where American citizens have been detained when returning to the United States and either had their electronics scanned and returned or simply confiscated to the point that those who suspect they might thus be detained have learned to take reasonable precautions to not bring any electronics into the United States.

    Do all you can to make today a good day,

    Jeff Hess
    Have Coffee Will Write

  5. sc_770d159609e0f8deaa72849e3731a29d says

    How did the government and its agents know the computers destroyed held the material supplied by Snowden?
    How did they know no other computers under the Guardian’s control held the material?
    The important reason the Guardian agreed to destroy the computers was not just because of possible delays in publication but because the government was threatening to impound the computers concerned.

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