The British government forced the Guardian to destroy files or face a court battle over its publication of US security secrets leaked by Edward Snowden, the paper’s editor claimed on Tuesday.
Alan Rusbridger said he was contacted by “a very senior government official claiming to represent the views of the prime minister” which led to two meetings in which “he demanded the return or destruction of all the material we were working on.”
The paper was in the middle of publishing candid revelations about mass surveillance programmes conducted by the US National Security Agency (NSA) and its British counterpart, the GCHQ, after former US intelligence operative Snowden handed them thousands of documents.
Writing in Tuesday’s Guardian, Rusbridger claimed authorities told him: “You’ve had your fun. Now we want the stuff back.”
“There followed further meetings with shadowy Whitehall figures,” he continued. “The demand was the same: ‘hand the Snowden material back or destroy it...You’ve had your debate. There’s no need to write any more’.”
The editor said the government threatened to use the courts to try and obtain the leaked documents if the paper did not destroy them themselves.
“And so one of the more bizarre moments in the Guardian’s long history occurred,” he added.
“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.”
His article came as British authorities faced a furore after they held the partner of a Guardian journalist who worked with Snowden to expose the surveillance programmes for almost nine hours under anti-terror laws.
Rusbridger slammed the detention, and warned “it may not be long before it will be impossible for journalists to have confidential sources.”
The latest development in the Snowden saga emerged as British authorities came under pressure on Monday to explain why anti-terrorism powers were used to detain the partner of a reporter who wrote articles about US and British surveillance programmes based on leaks from Edward Snowden.
Brazilian David Miranda, the partner of American journalist Glenn Greenwald, was held for nine hours on Sunday at London’s Heathrow Airport where he was in transit from Berlin to Rio de Janeiro. He was released without charge.