While the much publicized Sunday morning detention of Glenn Greenwald’s partner David Miranda at Heathrow on his way back to Brazil, in a stunning move that as we subsequently learned had been telegraphed apriori to the US, could potentially be explained away as a desperate attempt at personal intimidation by a truly evil empire in its last death throes, it is what happened a month earlier at the basement of the Guardian newspaper that leaves one truly speechless and fondly reminiscing of the times when fascist, dictatorial regimes did not pretend to be anything but.
For the fully story, we go to Guardian editor Alan Rusbridger who, in a long editorial focusing on the tribulations of Greenwald, his partner, modern journalism and free speech and press in a time of near-ubiquitous tyranny when the status quo is questioned, happened to let his readers know that a month ago, after the newspaper had published several stories based on Snowden’s material, a British official advised him: “You’ve had your fun. Now we want the stuff back.“
It gets better: after further talks with the British government, Rusbirdger says that two “security experts” from Government Communications Headquarters, the British NSA equivalent, visited the Guardian’s London offices and in the building’s basement, government officials watched as computers which contained material provided by Snowden were physically pulverized. One of the officials jokes: “We can call off the black helicopters.”
Reuters adds that according to a source familiar with the event said Guardian employees destroyed the computers as government security experts looked on.
What is shocking is that as Rusbridger explained to the gentlemen from Whitehall, they had no jurisdiction over the forced destruction of Guardian property as it has offices in New York, that Greenwald himself was in Brazil, and that future reporting on the NSA did not even have to take place in London. That did not stop the UK government’s punitive measures, and obviously neither did pleas, before the computers were destroyed, that the Guardian could not do its journalistic duty if it gave in to the government’s requests.
In response, he wrote, a government official told him that the newspaper had already achieved the aim of sparking a debate on government surveillance. “You’ve had your debate. There’s no need to write any more,” the unnamed official was quoted as saying.
What is most shocking is that the UK government was apparently dumb enough to think that by forcing the Guardian to destroy its own hardware it would actually destroy some of the underlying data. It is this unprecedented idiocy that is most disturbing, because when interacting in a game theoretical fashion with an opponent one assumes rationality. In this case, what one got instead, was brute force and sheer, jawdropping stupidity.
Yet that is precisely what happened, and is why the stakes have suddenly been drastically higher: because the opponent now suddenly finds himself hurt, bleeding, ready to lash out at anything and everything without regard for the retaliation, and just happens to be dumb as a bag of hammers.
The full must read excerpt from Rusbridger:
Miranda, a Brazilian citizen in transit from Berlin to Brazil, said he was released without charge after nine hours of questioning but minus his laptop, cellphone and memory sticks.
The detention of Miranda has rightly caused international dismay because it feeds into a perception that the US and UK governments – while claiming to welcome the debate around state surveillance started by Snowden – are also intent on stemming the tide of leaks and on pursuing the whistleblower with a vengeance. That perception is right. Here follows a little background on the considerable obstacles being placed in the way of informing the public about what the intelligence agencies, governments and corporations are up to.
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.
The state that is building such a formidable apparatus of surveillance will do its best to prevent journalists from reporting on it. Most journalists can see that. But I wonder how many have truly understood the absolute threat to journalism implicit in the idea of total surveillance, when or if it comes – and, increasingly, it looks like “when”.
We are not there yet, but it may not be long before it will be impossible for journalists to have confidential sources. Most reporting – indeed, most human life in 2013 – leaves too much of a digital fingerprint. Those colleagues who denigrate Snowden or say reporters should trust the state to know best (many of them in the UK, oddly, on the right) may one day have a cruel awakening. One day it will be their reporting, their cause, under attack. But at least reporters now know to stay away from Heathrow transit lounges.
Needless to say both Hitler and Stalin are spinning in their graves.