Every publication makes mistakes. Every major publication has, at some point, botched a story. But the way things are going with The Guardian as it publishes this series of Edward Snowden "bombshells," we're well beyond isolated glitches. The publication has botched nearly every story on this beat -- arguably one of the biggest stories of the Summer. The ongoing trend of highly suspect coverage of various trespasses orchestrated by the U.S. or U.K. governments continues unabated, and even a cursory degree of scrutiny has revealed vague reporting or self-debunking details, then, after reader outrage has been sufficiently peaked, a slow drip of mitigating information emerges.
Were it not for the melodramatic personal struggles of the reporters and their source, along with the link-bait and bad reporting that constantly demands careful inspection, we might be talking about ways to improve and reform America's surveillance operations. There'd be heated disagreements to be sure, but no matter where the debaters would sit on the political spectrum, we'd be considerably closer to sharing a mutual understanding of what the government, specifically NSA, is up to. And, gratefully, with the shrieking at a much lower decibel level.
Instead, it's nearly impossible to settle on the terms of the debate, chiefly due to an ongoing trend of deliberately incomplete bombshell articles combined with short-attention-span readings of hyper-complicated operations. Together, these elements serve to reinforce both confirmation bias and hair-trigger sanctimony. This is what The Guardian is primarily (though not solely) responsible for, and it's this lens of deception through which we have no choice but to view the latest episode in the saga: The Goon Squad Computer Smash-up Caper.
In keeping with the 24 Hour Rule, Tuesday brought to light a series of new details and raised more questions about how a British intelligence goon squad forced staffers from The Guardian to destroy one or more computers containing Snowden-related documents. First and foremost, and contrary to what was implied in editor Alan Rusbridger's think-piece, it turns out that the British GCHQ officials didn't force The Guardian staffers to destroy the computers.
On July 20, 2013, without any photographs or video to document any of it (inside a newsroom no less) three employees under the direction of Rusbridger voluntarily destroyed the computer(s).
Rusbridger took the decision that if the government was determined to stop UK-based reporting on the Snowden files, the best option was destroy the London copy and to continue to edit and report from America and Brazil.
The destruction was overseen by two agents allegedly from the GCHQ, the U.K.'s counterpart to NSA. Three staffers destroyed the computers using "angle grinders and drills." No, the GCHQ guys didn't raid The Guardian's office. They didn't force anyone to destroy anything.
Viewed from either side, this was a purely symbolic move since the files could've been stashed on any one of dozens of Apple computers seen in a photograph of The Guardian's newsroom, not to mention the use of offsite storage. By the way, I'll overlook the fact that The Guardian article said there was just one copy in England. Clearly, they had multiple copies on various computers.
And that's where this gets really wacky. The Guardian included the following photograph with the caption: "The remains of a computer that held files leaked by Edward Snowden to the Guardian and destroyed at the behest of the UK government. Photograph: Roger Tooth." That's "a computer," singular.
Meanwhile, Rusbridger tweeted the photograph and described it as the remains of a MacBook Pro.
He also claimed in his initial story that it was a MacBook Pro that was destroyed.
The first thing I noticed was that none of the pieces shown in the photo are hard drives. Computerexpertsonlinenoticed that two of the pieces weren't from a Mac at all, but instead from a PC -- and not a recent model PC but a PC that looked to be quite old. And, of course, there's a very obvious shell of a MacBook on the right. Needless to say, this didn't appear to be what The Guardian or its editor-in-chief had described.
Later via Twitter, Rusbridger again wrote that there was just one computer that was destroyed.
Finally, after more and more people began to question why there were PC parts in a photograph of a destroyed MacBook Pro, Rusbridger tweeted the following:
Interesting. Now there's more than one "hapless machine?" Further down in the thread, Rusbridger tweeted, "We were using macs *and* pcs!"
Sorry, no. Given the precedent of serially misleading claims, combined with what appears to be a slowly emerging tall tale, it doesn't take a sleuth to notice that Rusbridger was caught in a deception and was hastily covering his ass.
So what really happened? It's difficult to know, but obviously Rusbridger's version of the episode isn't holding water. Not only was The Guardian not forced to destroy its computers (there are many articles in need of a headline edit), but there was just one computer, a MacBook Pro, and then, mysteriously, there was suddenly a PC, too -- a crappy, obsolete PC evidently left over from the days of dial-up and Windows 95, possibly the most rickety storage choice imaginable for stashing sensitive national security files.
It could be that The Guardian fabricated the whole thing, based on some shred of truth. Or it could be they pulled a fast one on the British government by sacrificing a MacBook Pro and, ostensibly, an antique PC they horked from a staffer's grandmum. Perhaps they did so under the symbolic ruse that these random, mismatched computers contained the stolen documents. But then, if that's the case, why all of the mentions of one computer: a MacBook Pro? And where are the hard drives? If the GCHQ didn't seize the destroyed drives, then they must be somewhere. The Guardian hasn't addressed this one yet.
Combine all of this with the fact that Rusbridger said he decided to not publish this story until it could ride on the coattails of another Snowden revelation about the GCHQ. And then what? Bury it deep within a think-piece about something else? So we're supposed to believe this harrowing episode happened exactly as described, and instead of immediately writing it up and publishing it, they decided to wait until... whenever? (Note to journalism students: this isn't how it works.)
All of this came to light against the backdrop of David Miranda, Glenn Greenwald's partner who was detained at Heathrow on Sunday, who was confusingly described by Greenwald and The Guardian as an innocent spouse, then as a journalist, then as a non-journalist helper, then as a courier financed by The Guardian. It's almost as if the publication thinks we're idiots, thoughtlessly gawking at contrived headlines like tabloids at a grocery store checkout counter. Are we seriously supposed to just accept these fish stories at face value and proceed with an anti-government freakout based on innuendo, prevarication and utter hogwash?
As the hours tick away, this whole computer caper is appearing more and more like that time when Morton Downey Jr., with his ratings in decline, staged an assault in which he shaved his own head and drew several badly rendered swastikas on his body with a Sharpie. It's getting to be just that silly. And it would be equally entertaining to observe if it wasn't orbiting such a deadly serious topic.
UPDATE: The BBC attained confirmation that the government was in contact with Rusbridger.
David Cameron ordered Britain's most senior civil servant to contact the Guardian over classified information leaked by the whistleblower Edward Snowden, it has emerged.
Whitehall sources confirmed Sir Jeremy Heywood approached the newspaper.
This still doesn't resolve the issue about the computer(s) and what exactly was destroyed, or whether it was witnessed by GCHQ operatives.