There's one positive thing I can write about The Guardian's handling of the NSA/Snowden saga. They know how to control the narrative. No sooner had a variety of mitigating details come to light about the airport detention and interrogation of David Miranda, Glenn Greenwald's partner and top secret document courier for The Guardian, when another article shifted the discussion to an entirely new "bombshell" story.
Alan Rusbridger, the publication's editor-in-chief, wrote an opinion piece about Miranda's brush with U.K. authorities and the government's escalation of its so-called attack on journalists (he noted, however, that Miranda isn't a journalist). The post went on-and-on for eight paragraphs with the usual hand-wringing about the airport incident and the general atmosphere surrounding the reporting of this ongoing NSA/Snowden story.
And then, nine paragraphs deep into this article, Rusbridger described a cloak-and-dagger event that would usually command a banner headline article -- a top story in any other publication, but for some reason it was buried in this Miranda screed. Rusbridger wrote that a goon squad from the British government apparently forced Rusbridger to destroy the publication's computers in the basement of The Guardian's offices.
Here's how Rusbridger said it all went down.
Roughly two months ago (no specific date is reported), an unnamed spokesman for, maybe, the British prime minister, David Cameron, contacted Rusbridger. Two meetings occurred in which, presumably, this official "demanded the return or destruction of all the material [The Guardian's reporters] were working on."
During another meeting a month or so later, Rusbridger was told, "You've had your fun. Now we want the stuff back."
Spooky. Also, a British government official described the top secret Snowden documents as "stuff." Not "files" or "documents." "Stuff." Maybe it's a British thing.
Rusbridger wrote that he attended several "meetings" after that in which various unnamed "shadowy figures" within the British government instructed Rusbridger to "hand the Snowden material back or destroy it." When Rusbridger explained how he and his staff needed the documents in order to continue reporting on the story, one of the figures replied, "You've had your debate. There's no need to write any more."
In another meeting, an unnamed government official told Rusbridger that if The Guardian didn't cease reporting on the Snowden story, the government would pursue legal channels to engage prior restraint -- government censorship against The Guardian by forcing the "surrender of the material on which [The Guardian's reporters] were working."
So then, at some point within a time frame that's completely unclear in the article, Rusbridger wrote:
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.
Twelve paragraphs down, described without any real context or detail, Rusbridger wrote that he and who-knows-who-else from The Guardian smashed a bunch of hard drives in the basement, while GCHQ agents observed. (Did they throw them on the floor or use hammers? Maybe cricket bats? Did they use eye-protection? Did they take turns like the printer-smashing scene from Office Space? UPDATE:This link details how the computers were destroyed.)
That's a pretty big deal, especially when observed through the prism of American constitutional protections against such things.
On second thought, it's a pretty big deal -- if and only if it holds up to scrutiny. Predictably, it's yet another vague, coy article that utterly fails to be entirely forthright about critical details. And it was written by the editor-in-chief, no less. Not surprisingly, there's a laundry list of questions that remain unanswered even though Rusbridger fielded questions from readers in the comments below his post.
1) Which British leaders, or which British agency or agencies, did these officials represent?
2) How many different officials did Rusbridger meet with? Or was it just one guy?
3) Why did Rusbridger wait until now to reveal this information?
4) Why didn't this story get its own headline and article? Why did it get buried, almost as an afterthought, deep inside an opinion article about a separate incident?
5) How many employees from The Guardian were present during these meetings? Who were they? Were there lawyers present? Who were the lawyers?
6) How many employees were present during the destruction of the computers in the basement? Who were they? Were there lawyers present?
7) In an age when everyone has a camera-phone, is there a photograph or a video of the computer smash-up?
8) Why on earth did GCHQ, the U.K.'s version of the NSA tasked with signals intelligence, handle the computer destruction and not another internal law enforcement agency like, say, MI-5?
9) Is there any indication that this was merely a face-saving measure for the British government, whose officials can't possibly be dumb enough to be unaware of internet technology and offsite file storage? In other words, was this a token gesture by the government so it could be seen as cracking down on the leak?
10) Were all of The Guardian's office computers smashed?
I'll ask again because it's kind of important: why wait until now to report these clearly newsworthy events?
Given the roster of other misleading articles from The Guardian as obvious precedent for the speciousness of this piece, the content (or lack of content) along with the timing of this computer-smashing story smells fishy.
But that didn't stop the news from spreading like the Ebola virus on Monday, prompting more freakouts and sanctimonious hysteria. The same thing happened with the Miranda story before contravening details emerged later, details that were drowned out by the in-progress tantrum incited by the first pair of misleading posts. If The Guardian didn't deliberately plan to cover this Snowden story by exploiting first-reactions and short attention spans in order to generate big traffic, it's an amazing coincidence because it happens nearly every time. And it could absolutely happen again with this GCHQ goon squad story.
Speaking of goon squads, shortly after the Rusbridger news broke, Tom Nichols, a professor of national security affairs at the Naval War College tweeted: "Maybe someone at the Guardian googled pressure cookers. *bites knuckle*"
Yeah, I thought I heard this tale before. At the end of the previous government goon squad story, I wrote, "Sadly, this will probably keep happening." And so it has.
UPDATE: Per the 24 Hour Rule, new details have emerged, including the fact that The Guardian voluntarily destroyed the computers instead of being legally forced to do it.