Tuesday, August 20, 2013

Hello, the prime minister sent us to take all your hard drives.

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.


And do not miss a chance to . . . Behold the fury of Glenzilla.


Robert Martin said...

In the 90s I wondered how long it was going to take for the government to put the clamp down on this "internet" thing...

Pete said...

They were saying on "Security Now" that one thing that prompted the British government to do this was that David Miranda was carrying the data on drives encrypted with TrueCrypt, which is secure, but he had the password in his wallet. Which the government claimed was tantamount to carrying the drives around unencrypted.

Truecrypt lets you have a dummy volume with a separate password that you can give to someone blackmailing or threatening you. This might have been the password to the dummy volume. If he was only acting as a courier, it would have been unwise for him to know the password at all.

The leaks will continue. And though we won't get the satisfaction of putting the toadies and monsters who torture and wage war-for-profit on trial, posterity will see them for what they were.