U.K. gov't thought, naively and stupidly, destroying hard drives would prevent NSA leaks

U.K. gov't thought, naively and stupidly, destroying hard drives would prevent NSA leaks

Summary: The U.K. government shows exceptional stupidity by destroying hard drives in The Guardian's basement. Thankfully, the newspaper knew better than that.

TOPICS: Security, Government
(Image via CNET)

Intelligence may have won the British (yes, that's me) the war, but the U.K. government isn't winning any awards for being ahead of the curve this time around.

Sit down, if you're not already, because this one is a corker.

In a blog post on Monday night in London, Guardian editor Alan Rusbridger described in detail how officials from the U.K. government raided its offices in the capital and destroyed computer equipment and hard drives, which at the time were thought to contain information leaked by former U.S. National Security Agency contractor Edward Snowden.

Rusbridger published the post just hours after the news broke that the partner of Guardian columnist Glenn Greenwald, the journalist who reported the leaks, was detained at London's Heathrow under Section 7 of the U.K.'s Terrorism Act for nine hours.

The reason Greenwald's partner, David Miranda, was allegedly stopped was because, according to the Guardian editor, while he "is not a journalist, but he still plays a valuable role in helping his partner do his journalistic work."

Fair enough. 

But the crux of his post focused on the time, about two months ago in June — shortly after the time the paper began to publish the leaks — that a "very senior [U.K.] government official" claiming to acting on behalf of the British Prime Minister, demanded the return of all the information that Snowden had leaked to the London-based newspaper.

The paper had two options: "Hand the Snowden material back or destroy it," Rusbridger said, citing the shadowy Whitehall figure: "You've had your debate. There's no need to write any more."

While the editor did not directly mention the words "cloud," he hinted that most of the reporting had been conducted out of New York in collaboration with London, and Greenwald and his partner lived in Brazil, far away from the hands of the U.K. government.

But the government man was "unmoved." He ordered in two government security experts from the third intelligence agency, GCHQ, who were tasked with, "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."

The newspaper's editor described it as "one of the more bizarre moments in the Guardian's long history."

But you would think in this day and age, after centuries of democracy, that the U.K. would be a safe haven for journalists and free speech activists. Quoting the Guardian editor:

I strongly suspected that our ability to research and publish anything to do with this trove of secret material would be severely constrained in the U.K. America, for all its own problems with media laws and whistleblowers, at least has press freedom enshrined in a written constitution.

This is little surprise, really. I penned a piece for our sister site CBS News in October last year, following a case where a U.K. man was jailed over the contents of a Facebook status. The case itself aside for a moment, there were serious implications for free speech of citizens and journalists alike in the country. 

I noted that the British press, which as a British resident at the time I was also covered under U.K. law, was unable to report on certain facts relating to similar cases for fear that I could face contempt of court charges. 

While the British press was legally unable to publish, broadcast, tweet or mention the names or facts, despite the argument that it was in the public interest to do so, foreign media agencies were able to report on-the-street common knowledge while Britain could do nothing.

The U.K. does not have freedom of speech, unlike the U.S., with its First Amendment constitutional rights. It has official secrecy laws, unlike the U.S., and newspapers and bloggers alike can be prevented from publishing certain facts.

Rusbridger posted the frank account of what happened in a bid to display how the "threat to journalism is real and growing."

The paper will continue to report on the Snowden leaks, he wrote. "We just won't do it in London."

Topics: Security, Government

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  • All this time, they never bothered to make any free speech laws?

    "In a blog post on Monday night in London, Guardian editor Alan Rusbridger described in detail how officials from the U.K. government raided its offices in the capital and destroyed computer equipment and hard drives"

    Frankly, that should be illegal.

    "The U.K. does not have freedom of speech, unlike the U.S."

    Really? All this time, they never bothered to make any free speech laws?

    Revolutionary war was a long, long time ago - and I'd say most democracies should have free speech laws by now. I'd go as far as to say it's a human right - something everybody should have regardless.
  • Why isn't this headlining?

    This is a strange story in so much that it's not headlining on the BBC.
    • I just heard it

      ..on BBC Newshour (radio program) while reading the article.
      Timing is off, as I was interrupted before posting.
  • This just gets worse by the day

    I think there is far more to come out that's going to make Watergate look like a children's story.
    Alan Smithie
  • WTF?

    Has it really come to this?

    "We just won't do it in London."
    Tim Acheson
  • Effective, not naive

    I doubt that the British government and intelligence services are quite so naive. I certainly hope not, and rather suspect that the purpose of this exercise was more harassment and flack than genuine damage limitation. This strategy would also explain the extraordinary detention of Mr X.

    This appears to have been effective, too, as a methodology for suppressing the media -- domestically at the very
    least. E.g. As recently suggested by The Insider:

    It's disturbing that this sensational story has been widely ignored by the mainstream media in the UK, most notably the state owned broadcaster, the BBC.
    Tim Acheson
  • "But We Have To Do SOMETHING!"

    "This is something."

    "Let's do it!"
  • What has this got to do with free speech?

    Maybe I’m thick, but can someone explain to me how this involves freedom of speech? If someone steals something, including information, they have no ownership rights to it. If Snowden stole information from the NSA, he had no right to transfer it to the Guardian, and they in turn have no right to keep it or to publish it.

    Maybe you don’t like with the NSA are doing – I certainly don’t, although I worry more about private information gathering by Google etc. – but that is irrelevant. In a society governed by the rule of law, crimes are not excused simply because the majority sympathise more with the criminal than with the victim. If the NSA are doing anything illegal, then they should be prosecuted like any other organisation. If their activities are legal, then the US population should work to change their laws.

    Free speech is about the right to hold and publish any opinion, irrespective of whether other people agree with it or not. It has nothing to do with supposed ‘rights’ to distribute stolen information, to lie/defame or to invade privacy. It is my understanding that US ‘free speech’ law more or less allows all of these things (because of misguided rulings by the US Supreme Court), but there is no reason for the UK or other countries to follow the US example. Journalists should not be above the law.

    Suppose Snowden had stolen your bank details instead of NSA espionage information, and had transferred them to a criminal gang instead of to a newspaper. Would you hold the view that it’s fair for the criminal gang to keep your bank details, and do what they like with them? I rather doubt it.
    • It's call Public Interest

      You can publish leaked NSA documents in the UK if there's a genuine legal argument to be made that it's in the public interest.
      • Not stolen documents

        These documents were stolen off the NSA, at the very least they have copyright's on them, but they OWN them, and they are classified. You don't get to choose what is the "public interest".

        This exercise is to ensure the Guardian does not release any more documents, if they do they will have lied to the authorities and 'perverted the course of justice', or at the minimum concealed a theft, or are in possession of stolen property.

        What do you think would happen if the Guardian released more documents after telling the Government they destroyed those documents ?
        • Re: at the very least they have copyright's on them

          The US Federal Government does not claim copyright on anything.
        • its not copyright either

          The copyright laws do not allow documents written by government officials to be copyrighted, at least here in the US.
          Adam Russell
      • Do journalists decide what the public interest is?

        If journalists wish to publish stolen information on public interest grounds, they should take the legal owner of the information to court first. If the courts rule that disclosure is in the public interest, let them publish it. If the courts rule otherwise, then retaining and/or publishing the information is simply a crime, like buying, storing or selling stolen goods. Journalists should have to obey the law, just like everyone else.
        • Was it even the NSA'a info in the first place?

          If I tap your phone, webcams email etc. and record you and then someone steals my DVD highlights reel of you and your significant other doing the dirty, would you really go after the guy that stole the DVD from me in an effort to protect my rights and ignore the fact that I've been recording you this whole time violating yours? Are you really that dumb?
          • In an effort to protect your rights?

            What do these leaks do to protect anyone’s rights? Do you think that the NSA and/or GCHQ will stop spying on you because some clown stole information from them and handed it over to a newspaper? Have you considered who is most likely to benefit from publication of this the stolen information? (Hint: look at who has helped Snowden escape prosecution.)

            I don’t even see why this is news. Did you really not know the NSA and/or GCHQ (depending on your location) are spying on you? Anyone familiar with the US-UK intelligence sharing arrangements has known this for years.

            Leaks of this kind are likely to: (a) make the NSA, GCHQ, etc. even less transparent with their activities; (b) make it easier for hostile powers and/or terrorists to subvert surveillance. Both outcomes harm the protection of rights of EU and US residents. Neither does anything to protect the rights of EU or US citizens. Rights would only be protected in a fantasy world where these leaks would make the spies stop spying.

            In any case, I trust a democratically elected government (my government, the UK government, even the US government) far more than a publicity-seeking thief or a profit-seeking newspaper (or a profit-seeking corporation). Governments are at least democratically accountable.

            Finally, journalists are not above the law. They have no right to publish stolen information, and that has nothing to do with freedom of speech. If you want to claim a supposed public interest that has something to do with violation of privacy rights, fine, but that’s a different argument (and still a weak one, for the reasons I’ve outlined above).
        • Re: Do journalists decide what the public interest is?

          Maybe we should trust the spooks to decide...
    • its not theft

      To understand why unauthorized taking of information is not theft you would have to read the theft laws. There are laws against taking of information, but its not the theft laws.
      Adam Russell
  • Seems more like mopping up a leak

    While it might seem unlikely you could remove (mop up) all the instances that's the kind of operation you'd need to clean up a spill/leak. Everything taken hasn't seen the light of day... so it stands to reason the destruction of said materials is preventative and curative. A sufficiently large search and eradication project might accomplish what is assumed to be impossible. I'd beg to differ, as I have seen things disappear from the Interverse already whether eradicated or irretrievably buried.
  • Don't sweat it

    The Constitution and the Bill of Rights are an inconvenience over here in the US these days. Ask any liberal (cough Friedman) who'd prefer to be Chinese.
  • GovCom9261128

    You people need to be more careful what you type here, you drew my attention, my time is valuable!

    We are the Government, we are here to help.