Why the British Government Forced The Guardian to Destroy Its Hard Drives

Glenn Greenwald's partner was detained, and the newspaper's employees were made to destroy hardware containing the Snowden files. That's partly because the U.K. has some of the most sweeping anti-terrorism and anti-disclosure statutes around.
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U.S. journalist Glenn Greenwald (left) walks with his partner David Miranda in Rio de Janeiro's International Airport on August 19, 2013. (Ricardo Moraes/Reuters)

One Saturday in July, British intelligence officers watched as two Guardian employees used grinders to destroy hard drives and memory chips that held documents from the U.S. and U.K. spying programs revealed by Edward Snowden. It was their only choice, the Guardian later wrote, other than to surrender the equipment to officials.

According to Guardian editor Alan Rusbridger, the incident was foreshadowed by sinister warnings from the U.K. government, including: "You've had your fun. Now we want the stuff back."

Today, Reuters reported that British Prime Minister David Cameron personally dispatched his Cabinet secretary, Jeremy Heywood, to try to stop the Guardian from publishing its Snowden stories.

Guardian editor Alan Rusbridger said on Tuesday that he had been approached by "a very senior official claiming to represent the views of the prime minister" after his paper had published a series of exposes based on the Snowden material.

The sources named the official as Heywood, who is Cameron's most senior policy adviser. "The prime minister asked the Cabinet Secretary to deal with this matter, that's true," one source told Reuters.

Civil-liberties advocates believe this explains the order to destroy (or surrender) the Snowden hard drives, as well as the arrest and detention of Guardian journalist Glenn Greenwald's partner, David Miranda, at Heathrow Airport on Sunday.

Theresa May, the British interior minister, defended the detention, saying police had the right to do so if they thought Miranda was "in possession of highly sensitive, stolen information that could help terrorists, that could risk lives".

Though much of the NSA-leak saga has been concentrated on the U.S. and its own efforts to capture Snowden, the recent revelations of pressure on the Guardian journalists who reported the disclosures also shed light on the extremely stringent media and anti-terrorism laws in the U.K.

Miranda was stopped and held by police for nine hours under Schedule 7 of Britain's Terrorism Act 2000, which gives police "broad authority to detain, search, and question persons traveling through U.K. airports in order to determine their possible involvement in terrorism."

Throughout Miranda's detention, police questioned him without a lawyer present, threatened him with jail time, and took his laptop, hard drive, phone, watch, memory cards, and DVDs.

This isn't the first time journalists have raised issues about how Schedule 7 is enforced. According to past Guardian reporting, ethnic minorities are as much as 42 times more likely than white people to be targeted under this clause, and those questioned are usually not provided a lawyer unless they ask for and pay for one. In the year 2012-13, 61,145 people were stopped under Schedule 7, but most were released after an hour or less.

In 2006, a report by a British privacy group found that the terrorism law had been used, among other things, to arrest a pedestrian for walking along a bicycle path, to stop and search an 11-year-old girl participating in a peaceful protest, and to detain an 80-year-old Royal Air Force veteran.

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Olga Khazan is a staff writer at The Atlantic, where she covers health.

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