Alan Rusbridger appears before the Home Affairs Committee

Guardian editor-in-chief Alan Rusbridger appeared before a British parliamentary committee to answer questions on how the media organization had handled the publication of National Security Agency documents from former NSA contractor and whistleblower Edward Snowden.

The invitation to appear before the committee seemed to be part of an escalation in attacks on the Guardian since it began to publish stories on NSA documents, especially the NSA’s partnership with the UK spy agency, GCHQ.

Chairman of the Home Affairs Commitee, Keith Vaz, who is a Labour Party member, asked Rusbridger if he had been compelled to appear before the committee, since that had been suggested by various groups. Rusbridger was not aware that it was “optional.”

Vaz pushed Rusbridger to detail the location of all the files, which journalists had them and how many files each journalist possessed. Rusbridger did not find it sensible to answer this question but he did acknowledge that files were sent to the New York Times.

Pressed to address claims by the heads of security services, such as MI5′s Andrew Parker, that the files had caused a risk to national security, Rusbridger said the problem with these allegations is that they are vague and do not reference specific stories the organization has published. He noted multiple officials: Norman Baker the Home Office minister, a member of the Senate intelligence committee who asked not to be named, a senior Obama administration official and a senior Whitehall official.” They had not accused The Guardian of causing any damage to national security.

The hearing suddenly seemed like a House Un-American Activities Committee (HUAC) hearing as Vaz actually asked Rusbridger if he loved his country.

The Guardian transcribed the full exchange:

Keith Vaz: “Some of the criticism against you and the Guardian have been very very personal. You and I were both born outside this country, but I love this country. Do you love this country?”
Alan Rusbridger: “We live in a democracy and most of the people working on this story are British people who have families in this country, who love this country. I’m slightly surprised to be asked the question but yes, we are patriots and one of the things we are patriotic about is the nature of democracy, the nature of a free press and the fact that one can in this country discuss and report these things.”
Keith Vaz: “So the reason why you’ve done this has not been to damage the country, it is to help the country understand what is going on as far as surveillance is concerned?”
Alan Rusbridger: “I think there are countries, and they’re not generally democracies, where the press are not free to write about these things and where the security services do tell editors what to write, and where politicians do censor newspapers. That’s not the country that we live in, in Britain, that’s not the country that America is and one of the things I love about this country is that we have that freedom to write, and report, and to think and we have some privacy, and those are the concerns which need to be balanced against national security, which no one is underestimating. And I can speak for the entire Guardian staff who live in this country that they want to be secure too.”
Keith Vaz: “Thank you so much, that’s very clear.”

As the hearing progressed, Tory Michael Ellis accused Rusbridger of violating the UK Terrorism Act. He also caused the gallery to erupt into laughter when he suggested that The Guardian had put UK security service members who are gay at risk of being outed. Ellis mentioned he’d exposed methods for going after cyber criminals and pedophiles and Rusbridger tried to talk about Tor but was told not to publicize that information.

Rusbridger argued there’s nothing that The Guardian had published that is endangering people, but Ellis sharply disagreed saying, “It isn’t only about what you’ve published. It’s about what you’ve communicated. That is what amounts or can amount to a criminal offense. You have caused the communication of secret documents. We classify things as secret and top secret in this country for a reason. Not to hide them from the Guardian but to hide them from those who are out to harm us.”

“If you had known about the Enigma Code during World War II, would you have transmitted that information to the Nazis?” Rusbridger replied, “That is a well-worn red herring if you don’t mind me saying, Mr. Ellis.”

Rusbridger answered a question about whether he felt The Guardian had been threatened by saying, “Things have happened in this country which would be inconceivable in parts of Europe and America. They include prior restraint. They include a senior Whitehall official going to see an editor to say there’s been enough debate now. They include asking for the destruction of disks. They include MPs for the police to prosecute. So there are things that are inconceivable in America.”

He added that “some of this activity has been designed to intimidate” The Guardian.

Tory Mark Reckless focused on the communication of documents to the Times, which apparently contained the names of GCHQ staff. He also asked about a shipment of data that was highly encrypted and sent via FedEx because he believed at that period The Guardian would have no longer controlled the information and would have been putting national security at risk. And Reckless accused Rusbridger of communicating information outside the jurisdiction of the UK in violation of a section of the Terrorism Act.

Rusbridger took this moment to hold up a copy of the “Spycatcher” book. He brought it along because in the mid-1980s the Cabinet Secretary traveled to Australia to try and suppress this book, which was written by a former MI5 agent.

“We had the ridiculous sight of a Cabinet Secretary trying to stop the publication of something that had already been published in Australia,” Rusbridger said. “What was very much in my mind was the ridiculous situation we would be in if The Guardian was the only publication in the world who was not able to publish material that would be published in Rio, Germany or around the world.”

Asked during the hearing if he should be prosecuted, he said it “depends on your view of the free press.”

This issue of not redacting names in documents sent to the New York Times was given greater focus by Tory Nicola Blackwood. Reckless followed-up by asking why those names weren’t redacted. Rusbridger said they were 58,000 documents. Reckless appeared to wonder how The Guardian could claim a public interest defense if they had not censored names before sending to the Times.

Rusbridger clearly explained that, in America, The Guardian has contacted the White House, Director for National Intelligence, the FBI, the NSA, the National Security Council and the Pentagon. In the UK, the media organization has contacted Downing Street, the Cabinet Office, National Security Adviser, GCHQ and the D-Notice Committee. They have consulted in order to be aware of concerns before publishing.

The Metropolitan assistant police commissioner Cressida Dick indicated after Rusbridger’s testimony that the authorities were looking into whether The Guardian violated a section of the Terrorism Act by communicating the information containing the names of agents abroad (to the New York Times). Dick and the Metropolitan police commissioner, Sir Bernard Hogan-Howe, both indicated that their was an ongoing investigation into material seized from Glenn Greenwald’s partner, David Miranda.

As the hearing concluded, Rusbridger declared, “We have been working slowly and responsibly through this material with some of the best journalists in the world. Hundred contacts with government and agency sources so we will continue to consult them. But we’re not going to be put off by intimidation but nor are we going to behave recklessly.”

Only around 1% of the documents obtained from Snowden had been covered so far.

What was clear was the committee’s sensitivity to allegations that they were somehow responsible for attacking press freedom by holding this hearing to hear testimony from Rusbridger. It also was evident that the authorities, with the help of a select group of politicians and tabloid press, are likely to target the communication of the information abroad rather than the publication of the information when accusing The Guardian of crimes.

It may seem more acceptable to target the organization for improperly communicating it so as not to set a precedent that would influence what can and cannot be published in the UK in the future, but it is still repressive.

Rusbridger sent the material to The Guardian because of the actions of the British government and what they were doing to suppress reporting on the documents from Snowden. Had the British government behaved differently, the material never would have been sent abroad and, as a few parliamentary members suggested, put the names of GCHQ staff at risk of being exposed.

This also seems very pernicious in the sense that going after communication could make it possible to prevent media organizations from partnering with other media organizations in foreign countries. The way some parliamentary members talked it seems they would like to see any journalist prosecuted if they lose control of secrets provided by sources to a media organization.

Parliamentary members were focused on whether The Guardian had committed crimes when the British parliament has collectively shown little interest in whether the revelations point to crimes committed by the UK’s security services.