The Guardian's newspaper editor came forward recently with a shocking story of how British intelligence agents destroyed hard drives to stop the newspaper from spilling any more UK or U.S. spy agency secrets that are spelled out in NSA documents leaked by Edward Snowden.
Editor Alan Rusbridger revealed that about two months ago the British government "demanded the return or destruction of all the material we were working on."
The mood toughened just over a month ago, when I received a phone call from the center 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."
Rusbridger learned that the UK government intended to go to court to force the surrender of the leaked material, so he pointed out that the newspaper did not have to report from London. It was an international collaboration; "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.
The UK "intelligence" security "experts" were satisfied, but Rusbridger wrote that "it felt like a peculiarly pointless piece of symbolism that understood nothing about the digital age." The Guardian will continue to do "patient, painstaking reporting" on the leaked documents, but not from London.
Due to NSA and British spying capabilities, journalists from The Guardian have been flying to have secure face-to-face meetings with their sources. Rusbridger added that Greenwald will continue to report on Snowden's documents, despite his partner David Miranda being detained for nine hours at Heathrow airport under UK terror laws. Nine hours is the maximum hold time before British agents either must charge or release a "suspect." Although Miranda was released, the government kept his laptop, phones, hard drives and camera.
Rusbridger explained that journalists may "soon be back to pen and paper" because "the state that is building such a formidable apparatus of surveillance will do its best to prevent journalists from reporting on it."
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.
Journalists in the U.S. have increasingly come under fire in the last year. After Scripps News reporters ”Googled” and found a gaping security hole, two telecoms carriers acted ridiculously by threatening the “Scripps Hackers” with violating the Computer Fraud and Abuse Act (CFAA). The leak police went nuts and targeted Wired's Danger Room for publishing a document about an imaginary weapon! Then a Slate journalist was threatened and warned not to write about the implementation of new-and-improved facial recognition at the Statue of Liberty, America's icon for liberty and freedom.
As Rusbridger suggested, it is getting dangerous out there for journalists. But if they don't report the "secrets" they learn, then the news could be like in China or North Korea where only skewed and government-approved stories are told to the public.
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