A Lower Form Of Life

21 Aug

In my father’s day, NSA officials competed to be boring, nondescript, effectively invisible. My father could have been the “invisible man”. He censored his own speech in public, where he controlled who he encountered. I guess that discipline is no longer the case in today’s intelligence community. “You’ve had your fun,” is pretty ominous and adolescent, especially coming from GCHQ “technicians” smashing hard drives on the floor when they knew such heavy-handed chest-thumping is pointless – the information on all that hardware exists in the cloud and is backed up on our equipment in other places. It’s as if Tommy Lee Jones’ parody of a man in black has now become the model. “We Can Call Off The Black Helicopters” is another demented example of this arrogance.

A little over two months ago I was contacted by a very senior government official claiming to represent the views of the prime minister. There followed two meetings in which he demanded the return or destruction of all the material we were working on. The tone was steely, if cordial, but there was an implicit threat that others within government and Whitehall favoured a far more draconian approach.

The mood toughened just over a month ago, when I received a phone call from the centre of government telling me: “You’ve had your fun. Now we want the stuff back.” There followed further meetings with shadowy Whitehall figures. The demand was the same: hand the Snowden material back or destroy it. I explained that we could not research and report on this subject if we complied with this request. The man from Whitehall looked mystified. “You’ve had your debate. There’s no need to write any more.”

During one of these meetings I asked directly whether the government would move to close down the Guardian’s reporting through a legal route – by going to court to force the surrender of the material on which we were working. The official confirmed that, in the absence of handover or destruction, this was indeed the government’s intention. Prior restraint, near impossible in the US, was now explicitly and imminently on the table in the UK. But my experience over WikiLeaks – the thumb drive and the first amendment – had already prepared me for this moment. I explained to the man from Whitehall about the nature of international collaborations and the way in which, these days, media organisations could take advantage of the most permissive legal environments. Bluntly, we did not have to do our reporting from London. Already most of the NSA stories were being reported and edited out of New York. And had it occurred to him that Greenwald lived in Brazil?

The man was unmoved. 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. “We can call off the black helicopters,” joked one as we swept up the remains of a MacBook Pro.

Whitehall was satisfied, but it felt like a peculiarly pointless piece of symbolism that understood nothing about the digital age. We will continue to do patient, painstaking reporting on the Snowden documents, we just won’t do it in London. The seizure of Miranda’s laptop, phones, hard drives and camera will similarly have no effect on Greenwald’s work.

Even worse, certain outlets stirred the pot by making it seem as if Greenwald is seeking “revenge”.

But other news organizations had already followed Reuters’ lead in sticking to the narrative that Greenwald was threatening the British government over the incident. The Huffington Post’s headline blared: “Greenwald vows vengeance,” while many others hooked on to the alleged ”sorry” comment.

It’s probably not surprising that the “sorry” angle took off in the media — it’s an attention-grabber, and it’s easy to sensationalize outside the alleged full context. But even if Greenwald hadn’t directly disputed the Reuters presentation of his comments, the Huffington Post’s vengeance interpretation is a little far-fetched.

Greenwald’s point seems to have been that he was determined not to be scared off by intimidation. Greenwald and the Guardian have already been publishing documents outlining surveillance programs in Britain, and Greenwald has long declared his intention to continue publishing documents. By doing so, Greenwald isn’t taking “vengeance.” He’s just doing his job.

I never thought I’d be nostalgic for the days when men were laconic.

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