The Guardian’s organized computer destruction represents just one chapter of a governmental “freak-out,” in which the British government was unprepared for its secrets to come out.
In the basement of the King’s Cross, London office of the Guardian, something unusual happened on July 20, 2013. Two Government Communications Headquarters technicians oversaw the Guardian’s editors and journalists use a drill, angle grinders and a degausser to destroy four laptop computers and obliterate all data stored on them.
These computers — placed under heavy guard and quarantined from the rest of the Guardian’s computer network — contained the Guardian’s copy of the classified documents stolen and leaked by Edward Snowden.
The details of this episode are revealed in the soon-to-be-released book, “The Snowden Files: The Inside Story of the World’s Most Wanted Man,” written by the Guardian reporter Luke Harding.
Harding’s telling of the story of the ultra-conservative, gun-loving man who dropped out of high school due to poor health and family strife, excelled in computers, was discharged from the Army after only a month’s service and — by either happenstance or divine intervention — managed to work for both the CIA and the National Security Agency — both undermines and underlines the myth of the man responsible for the largest intelligence leak in modern history.
Both the U.S. and the U.K. have chafed under the “Five Eyes” intelligence that Snowden illegally downloaded and distributed while working as a system administrator for NSA contractor Booz Allen Hamilton. His conversations with the press after the “leaking” of the documents suggest he took the job with Booz Allen Hamilton with the intention of gaining access to classified information.
“My position with Booz Allen Hamilton granted me access to lists of machines all over the world [that] the NSA hacked,” Snowden told the South China Morning Post, stating that this was exactly why he’d accepted it.
Speculations and allegations
Recently, the Guardian — a mid-level British newspaper with a print subscriber base of about 200,000 — has come under attack from a different direction. Harding’s book made a controversial assessment about the Russian Federal Security Service, stating that Snowden has been a virtual prisoner of the Russian national police.
“The hacker turned whistleblower had got his asylum,” Harding wrote. “But the longer he stayed out of public view, the more it appeared that he was, in some informal way, the FSB’s prisoner.”
Harding based his assertion on the nine weeks immediately following the acceptance of Snowden’s temporary asylum application in which there were only a few questionable appearances of Snowden in the media, and the apparent structure and regime his life has taken on following his “re-emergence.”
Harding alleges that Snowden has been under FSB “minders” since arriving in Russia, with even his lawyer, Anatoly Kucherena, being a handpicked “person of the system.”
Those familiar with the Snowden case argue that Harding’s allegations are speculations not facts. WikiLeaks, who was influential in securing Snowden’s entry and asylum into Russia, tweeted on Monday, “Guardian cash in book: Neither #Snowden, nor WikiLeaks has ever spoken to Luke Harding. Book is unattributed re-writes of press reports.”
WikiLeaks would follow this tweet with many more, calling the book a “hack-job” and calling Harding an “anti-Russian plagiarist” — referring to a 2007 incident in which a Harding report for the Guardian paralleled a piece for the now-defunct English-speaking Russian newspaper the Exile, for which the Guardian apologized.
Glenn Greenwald, the former Guardian reporter who received the leaked documents from Snowden and initially broke the NSA story, joined WikiLeaks in its online criticism to Harding. “@wikileaks “The Inside Story of Edward Snowden”, by Someone Who Never Met or Spoke With Edward Snowden” was tweeted in reply to a WikiLeaks tweet by Greenwald.
While WikiLeaks does have a grudge to bear against Harding, who contributed in the WikiLeaks- and Julian Assange-critical movie “The Fifth Estate” last year, many of the Guardian’s readership have picked up on Harding’s anti-Russian rhetoric — calling the FSB a continuation of the Soviet Union’s KGB, for example — and his ignoring of the fact that Snowden was stranded in Russia because the U.S. revoked his passport, and that Russia was the only nation willing to ignore U.S. threats and grant Snowden asylum.
Harding was the Guardian’s Moscow correspondent until 2012, when he was denied re-entry into Russia based on a revocation of his visa due to his visiting restricted areas within the country. Harding has claimed that the revocation was due to his writing of several articles critical to the Russian government. In a Guardian-published book entitled “Mafia State: How One Reporter Became an Enemy of Brutal New Russia,” Harding claimed that he and his family were the subject of systematic harassment by the FSB.
Push-back from both sides of “the pond”
Since the July computer-smashing incident, the Guardian has conducted its Snowden coverage from the U.S. — which has stronger guarantees toward the free press than the U.K. does. The organized computer destruction represents just one chapter of a governmental “freak-out,” in which the British government was unprepared for its secrets to come out.
It is unclear how the reaction to continuing disclosure of “Five Eyes” secrets — which has exposed the illegal and overreaching efforts both the U.S. and the U.K. have engaged in toward maintaining its intelligence dominance — will play out in the future, but recent development indicate that the furor in Washington and London is far from being stilled.
In November, Scotland Yard indicated that the law enforcement organization is investigating the case towards ascertaining if the newspaper and its editors violated national security with the publication of the Snowden documents. On Tuesday, U.S. House Intelligence Committee Chairman Mike Rogers accused Greenwald of illegally selling access to the leaked documents to news organizations.
“For personal gain, he’s now selling his access to information, that’s how they’re terming it … A thief selling stolen material is a thief,” Rogers told reporters.
Greenwald has been accused of holding on to at least 99 percent of the Snowden documents, and a number of publications reported having been approached by Greenwald.
It is the perception that Snowden conspired to steal and leak national intelligence that those associated with the disclosure have found the most difficulty. After two high-pressure meetings with the British cabinet secretary, Jeremy Heywood — who was acting on the direct orders of Prime Minister David Cameron — the Guardian effectively moved coverage of the Snowden’s case outside of British jurisdiction with the destruction of the computers. With the U.K. increasingly becoming strident in its response to the leaks — including the detention of David Miranda under the Terrorism Act in August due to suspicions that Miranda was ferrying Snowden’s NSA and GCHQ files — it is unclear where or how far this all may go.
“It was purely a symbolic act,” the Guardian’s deputy editor Paul Johnson said about the destruction of the computers. The Guardian explained to Downing Street that its copy of the files is not the only one, with duplicates existing in the U.S., Brazil, Germany and Russia.
Despite this, the Guardian was compelled to follow-through on threat of the government shutting down the newspaper. The Guardian could not confirm that its copy is the only copy that exists in the U.K., or that the four destroyed laptops were the same laptops Snowden carried to Hong Kong.
“We knew that. GCHQ knew that. And the government knew that,” Johnson said. “It was the most surreal event I have witnessed in British journalism.”