This is the world we live in now. Or maybe it’s always been the world we’ve lived in and it’s just now coming to the forefront. The media has spent the past 30 years being the mouthpiece of the government and corporations, spewing out the talking points and turning a blind eye to virtually every indiscretion. Now they’re shocked when they’re the target of the indiscretions.
No, this isn’t a chapter out of Orwell’s “1984”, this is happening. UK Intelligence officials turned up at Guardian’s headquarters and destroyed hard drives that had copies of some of the documents leaked by former NSA contractor Edward Snowden.
The smashing of the hard drives comes right on the heels of Guardian columnist Glenn Greenwald’s partner was detained for nine hours at Heathrow airport in London while he was there to catch a connecting flight to Rio de Janeiro. That’s right, he flew in from Berlin, and somehow got detained by security officials for nine hours under Schedule 7 of the Terrorism Act of 2000. Where is the connection? Well, Greenwald has been reporting on the NSA for the Guardian.
Before letting him go, they seized numerous possessions of his, including his laptop, his cellphone, various video game consoles, DVDs, USB sticks, and other materials. They did not say when they would return any of it, or if they would.
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.”“You’ve had your fun. Now we want the stuff back.”
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.