Alan Rusbridger keeps a memento of the most bizarre thing that’s happened to him during his journalism career.
The Guardian editor carries a piece of the smashed MacBook circuit board destroyed at the order of British intelligence agents during their investigation into the newspaper’s reporting on the U.S government’s massive worldwide spying operations.
“I think it’s a rather sinister reminder of the intersection of states and journalism,” Rusbridger told Democracy Now on Monday.
The newspaper began reporting in June on documents leaked by Edward Snowden, a contractor for the National Security Agency, that detailed how the U.S. collected millions of telephone records and closely tracked the actions of Internet users.
Rusbridger, The Guardian’s editor since 1995, said the Internet presented a particular irony in this saga.
“This is really two sides of the same coin,” Rusbridger said. “What we are talking about is the collaboration of intelligence agencies around the world to snoop on a global intelligence network, so that is what they are doing. But that same global network, the Internet, is used by all of us to spread information. So the thing that makes the snooping possible is the thing, also, that makes it so hard for them to get a piece of information and snuff it out.”
The editor said Snowden approached Glenn Greenwald, a blogger on civil liberties and privacy issues who had been writing for The Guardian, with his concerns about the programs he’d encountered through his work as analyst for the NSA.
Snowden met in Hong Kong with Greenwald, the filmmaker Laura Poitras and veteran Guardain reporter Ewen MacAskill, setting up two weeks Rusbridger described as straight out of a movie thriller.
“It was a rather unreal period for anyone who has watched a Hollywood movie about these kinds of things; agents on the run, stashes of secrets,” Rusbridger said.
MacAskill, who Rusbridger described as a “very experienced, not easily impressed reporter,” was dispatched to help verify that Snowden was telling the truth.
“They all spoke to him for a long time, and that is where having my Scottish Presbyterian reporter in the room was important for me,” Rusbridger said. “I wanted him to make — to form a judgment about character. I mean, we obviously did all the tests of who he was, and that all stacked up. He obviously was who he said he was.”
Rusbridger also said MacAskill came away impressed by Snowden’s motives for leaking the documents.
“He is not somebody who is in this for the personal publicity,” Rusbridger said. “He is rather shy. He’s not going to develop a big media profile. He has got these documents and he is giving them to a news organization hoping that after this first week we will use our judgment about what we consider significant.”
Greenwald and the newspaper’s editors still relied on Snowden to help them sort through the complex range of documents, which frequently made reference to acronyms and were often written in code, to help them determine what was most important to report.
“It was important for him, I think, that the world had some sense of what he was trying to say before he outed himself, and so we started doing stories about this intersection between Silicon Valley, telecom companies and the intelligence agencies,” Rusbridger said. “What is, I think, something new is putting entire populations under a form of surveillance, so that is what we did in that first week before Snowden came out and revealed himself to be the whistleblower.”
After revealing himself and leaving Hong Kong, Snowden has sought asylum in Russia, where his lawyer said he cannot leave his home without a disguise and his safety remains in significant danger.
Rusbridger said Greenwald won’t risk leaving Brazil, where he lives, particularly after his partner was detained and questioned by authorities at London’s Heathrow Airport under the British Terrorism Act.
After David Miranda’s nine-hour detention, during which British authorities seized his mobile phone, laptop computer, cell phone and USB thumb drivers, The Guardian revealed the British government had threatened legal action against the newspaper unless it destroyed digital copies of Snowden’s documents.
Rusbridger told “Democracy Now” that agents from Government Communications Headquarters, which is comparable to the NSA, supervised the destruction of computer hard drives after the paper refused to turn over the classified documents.
“I think journalists generally don’t hand material back to governments, but also there was always the threat hanging in the background of criminal action against The Guardian and I don’t know what these — or against Snowden — and I don’t know what these discs would have told them about who had been looking at this material, and I did not want to give them evidence that could be used against The Guardian,” Rusbridger said. “It is difficult in which you have this potential of criminalizing reporters who are informing the debate that everyone says they want to happen, so I wouldn’t give it back to them, and so the compromise we agreed on was that we would smash it up. And it turns out to be harder to smash up a computer in ways that would satisfy the spooks than perhaps you would imagine.”
Rusbridger said The Guardian had been in touch with the White House as the first four stories were edited, and he said the paper warned the U.S. government that the articles would be published.
“They told us why they though we shouldn’t publish some things,” Rusbridger said. “There were one or two things that were helpful, because we didn’t want to go into this behaving irresponsibly or to put agents at danger or operations, so I think it was important to have those conversations.”
Snowden also wanted to make sure no agents or ongoing sensitive operations in Afghanistan or Iraq would be revealed through the reports, Rusbridger said.
Rusbridger said the paper had two major conversations with the U.S. government at the end of June and in mid-July, and he said official’s tone had begun to change since before the articles were first published.
“I think they felt this story was out of their control,” Rusbridger said.