GCHQ spooks reportedly rocked up at The Guardian's London headquarters and oversaw the destruction of some computer hardware - because the machines may have stored copies of documents leaked by whistleblower Edward Snowden.
The move came after the newspaper's editor-in-chief Alan Rusbridger refused to comply with demands to return material leaked to the newspaper by Snowden, who has blown the lid off the NSA's controversial global internet dragnets. Top-secret information on America's surveillance operations provided by Snowden was revealed to the world in a series of articles published by the paper.
Battle-hardened by its experience as a media ally of WikiLeaks three years ago - when the left-wing organ played a part in disseminating classified Afghanistan war logs and other sensitive American documents - The Guardian ran its reporting of the Snowden affair from its US offices, rather than the UK where press laws are tougher and pre-publication injunctions rampant.
But this failed to deter British spooks, Rusbridger explained:
The mood toughened just over a month ago, when I received a phone call from the centre of [the UK] 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.”
Yet there was more to follow, as demands from Blighty's g-men went even further, the spooks seemingly unaware that Guardian staff are capable of backing up files off-site. Rusbridger added:
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 … 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.
The bespectacled editor said the destruction of his newspaper's kit, which he describes as a "peculiarly pointless piece of symbolism", satisfied Whitehall. He related the episode for the first time on Monday in a piece defiantly stating that the destruction of the computers will have a limited effect on the Guardian's reporting of NSA and GCHQ surveillance - in fact, just as much effect as the seizure of a laptop, phones, hard drives and camera from David Miranda, the partner of Guardian journalist Glenn Greenwald, over the weekend.
Miranda was held by anti-terror cops for nine hours and his digital equipment seized at London Heathrow airport, as the Brazilian was en route to Rio de Janeiro from a meeting in Berlin with Laura Poitras, the US filmmaker who has worked with Greenwald on the Snowden files. The Guardian paid for Miranda's flight.
This sort of mission has become a regular occurrence according to Rusbridger, who said Guardian hacks and their associates are flying around the world to have face-to-face meetings about the Snowden leaks, essentially because they have lost faith in the security of any form of electronic communication.
"It would be highly unadvisable for Greenwald (or any other journalist) to regard any electronic means of communication as safe," Rusbridger explained. "The Guardian's work on the Snowden story has involved many individuals taking a huge number of flights in order to have face-to-face meetings. Not good for the environment, but increasingly the only way to operate. Soon we will be back to pen and paper."
It's unclear how many machines were involved in the smash-up operation, or how they were selected. In follow-up responses to readers, Rusbridger doesn't get into specifics but does say that no drives were actually seized for forensic examination. He's keen to portray the whole exercise as both petty and futile.
"They never touched the hard drives, so, no they got nothing from them," Rusbridger said. "We explained to the UK government on a number of occasions that there were other copies not on UK soil." ®