Edward Snowden

(updates below)

During prime minister’s questions, a half-hour period where the British prime minister takes questions from members of the House of Commons, David Cameron escalated the British government’s attacks on press freedom in the wake of former NSA contractor Edward Snowden’s disclosures.

Dr. Liam Fox, a conservative in the lower house of Parliament, asked Cameron, “Can we have a full and transparent assessment about whether The Guardian’s involvement in the Snowden affair has damaged Britain’s national security?” He also wondered aloud if it was “bizarre that from some the hacking of a celebrity’s phone demands a prosecution” but leaving the British people and security personnel “more vulnerable is opening a debate.”

Cameron commended Fox for raising the issue and replied, “I think the plain fact is that what has happened has damaged national security and in many ways The Guardian themselves admitted that when they agreed, when asked politely by my national security adviser and cabinet secretary, to destroy the files they had.”

“They went ahead and destroyed those files. So they know that what they’re dealing with is dangerous for national security,” he added. “I think it’s up to select committees in this House if they want to examine this issue and make further recommendations.”

What Cameron is describing occurred in June, weeks after the media organization began to publish stories on secret surveillance programs which the NSA and the British intelligence agency, GCHQ, was involved. Authorities forced The Guardian to symbolically destroy hard drives in the basement of the Guardian office. The drives were destroyed while agents stood by and watched, even though they had no files on them because the US division has all copies of the files. Yet, they complied because the government could have taken legal action and entirely shut down reporting on files related to GCHQ and the NSA.

To some extent, Cameron was—as Director for National Intelligence James Clapper might say—being the “least untruthful.” Files from Snowden were not destroyed. All the files The Guardian had for stories were in the custody and control of their US division. So, destroying the hard drives did not signal a recognition that what they were doing was damaging national security. It showed the media organization recognized the power the government had to suppress journalism and they wanted to do whatever possible to avert a worse case scenario while also complying with officials to some degree.

The British government detained David Miranda, the husband of Glenn Greenwald, who was the primary journalist publishing stories on documents for the media organization. He was held for nearly nine hours at Heathrow Airport under a terrorism law, the maximum period one can be held if they are not going to be charged with committing a crime. Miranda’s electronics equipment were seized. All of this was done to intimidate Greenwald, The Guardian and maybe intercept copies of documents that had not yet been published.

In recent weeks, the security apparatus of the United Kingdom has explicitly singled out The Guardian for calling attention to programs that have opened up a debate on surveillance and subjected them to scrutiny. MI5 director Andrew Fox gave a rare public speech last week where he said, “It causes enormous damage to make public the reach and limits of GCHQ techniques. Such information hands the advantage to the terrorists. It is the gift they need to evade us and strike at will. Unfashionable as it might seem, that is why we must keep secrets secret, and why not doing so causes such harm.”

He essentially argued The Guardian had helped and was helping terrorists escape GCHQ surveillance. He implied that The Guardian had eroded the “margin of advantage” intelligence agencies have over terrorists to detect plots and stop them. He planted the idea in the mind of all individuals listening that terrorists could attack at any moment because of The Guardian.

Three media outlets took cues and ran these headlines on their front pages:

Front pages of three top newspapers/tabloids in UK (via Tom Phillips or @flashboy on Twitter)

The climate for press freedom, as bad as it may be in the United States, is actually worse in the United Kingdom.

Annie Machon, an MI5 whistleblower, described at a hearing held by a European Union Parliament civil liberties committee in September, “There is a raft of legislation that can be used to threaten the media and is indeed being used at the moment to stifle media debate about the Edward Snowden case. These include injunctions [and] superinjunctions, where you can’t even discuss there is an injunction. There are public interest immunity certificates, which the government can use that are like injunctions. They use the Terrorism Act to threaten journalists. They also have a voluntary system called the D notice committee and a D notice has been issued to stifle legitimate debate within our media about Edward Snowden.”

Indeed, the Ministry of Defense handed the BBC and other media outlets a “confidential D notice” in June to halt the publication of information that might “jeopardize” national security.

Career journalist and former editor of The Independent in the UK wrote an editorial pledging his allegiance to the security services of his country. “If the security services insist something is contrary to the public interest, and might harm their operations,” he wrote, “who am I (despite my grounding from Watergate onwards) to disbelieve them?”

Greenwald was interviewed by BBC Newsnight’s Kirsty Wark earlier in October. The questions from Wark consisted primarily of criticisms government officials have levied against him and The Guardian because they made the choice to publish Snowden’s documents.

Editor of BBC Newsnight, Ian Katz, who actually used to be The Guardian’s deputy editor, defended the interview:

…I would defend all the questions Kirsty did ask him as perfectly legitimate. The central charges, as you know, against Snowden and Greenwald are that their disclosures have damaged national security and put people at risk, and that they are not able to keep secure the highly sensitive material they still hold. Those are not manifestly ludicrous claims and it is facile to dismiss them out of hand as establishment flannel. Any interview which did not thoroughly probe Greenwald on them would have been supine in my view…

That, of course, suggests that the allegations of damage to national security are legitimate and that there is more than just a theoretical or figurative basis for claims being made publicly by British officials.

As Greenwald said in the interview, journalism is “designed to serve as a check on those in power.” It is “about shining light on what those in power are doing that they try to hide from the public.”

All outlandish claims of damage to national security in response to The Guardian’s publishing of leaks, which cannot be substantiated with concrete examples (and likely will never be), are designed to disrupt and suppress journalism. They should be viewed as nothing less than an attack on press freedom.

Update 

From Richard Norton-Taylor and Ian Cobain, here are ten good reasons why claims about risks to national security should not be trusted. The list includes clear examples of security services and the government working to suppress information and stifle debate.

Update 2 

MPs will investigate the Guardian’s publication of information from Snowden.