Why did the Guardian destroy its Snowden files?

I’ve been struck by an aspect of the Snowden affair that hasn’t been covered so far — the Guardian’s troubling decision to destroy its UK trove of Snowden documents rather than let the UK government see them.  Court filings in the UK tell the government’s side of that story, and they don’t make the Guardian look good.

Guardian logoThe filings make clear that the UK government wanted the documents back, and that it persuaded the newspaper that  it could not keep the files in the UK.  Why then did the Guardian choose to destroy them instead of returning them?

Ordinarily, that would be an easy question; journalists don’t disclose their sources.

But that answer won’t wash here. Snowden had already outed himself. Nor would turning over the files have affected the Guardian’s access to the data.  By destroying the files, the Guardian was making them unavailable to its UK reporters, but its reporters in other countries still had copies.  The same would be true if the Guardian gave its files to the UK government.

From the Guardian’s point of view, either choice had the same effect on its reporting.  But from the UK government’s point of view, the choice was momentous.  Turning over the documents, rather than destroying them, would have helped the UK government evaluate and mitigate the harm likely to be caused when foreign governments get access to the Snowden files.

So it appears that the Guardian deliberately chose a route that harmed UK national security, even though it helped journalism not at all. Why?

The decision began to take shape earlier this summer, when the UK government approached the Guardian’s editors and gave them briefings to show that the paper could not hope to protect Snowden’s files from foreign intelligence services:

 We made clear to The Guardian from the outset that we were extremely concerned by their possession of’ our sensitive information and that they should not be holding it. We in informed them that we had no confidence in their ability to keep the material safe. Nor could they understand the damage that might flow from its further compromise. We made clear that the information would be targeted by any number of hostile actors and could cause further damage to UK counter terrorism operations….

The Guardian appeared to accept our assessment that their continued possession of the information was untenable. The Guardian continued to refuse to hand over the material and would not move on this point.

The UK government may not have been quite as convincing as it thinks; the Guardian seems to have held on to the (forlorn) hope that an “air gap” would keep foreign spies at bay. But eventually the Guardian was persuaded that it could not keep the Snowden files in the UK.

That left only two choices:  Give them back to the UK government or destroy them.  As we know, it chose to destroy them. Since it could have given them back without compromising its reporting, my question is, “Why?”

Alan Rusbridger, the Guardian’s editor, slid past the question when he first described the incident in print.  In a video interview, though, he elaborated a bit:

“I would rather destroy the copy than hand it back to them …. I don’t think that we had Snowden’s consent to hand the material back, and I didn’t want to help the UK authorities know what he had given us, so to me I was not going to hand it back to the government, and I was happy to destroy it because it was not going to inhibit our reporting.  We would simply do it from America and not from London.”

The line about Snowden’s consent is surely a throwaway.  Journalists may have an obligation to protect their sources, but they certainly don’t let their sources tell them how to use the source’s information, a distinction the Guardian surely has no difficulty grasping when it gets quasi-official leaks from government sources.  I suspect that the “consent” rationale only sounds plausible to Rusbridger because it fits his preferences, which he candidly states:  “I didn’t want to help the UK authorities know what he had given us.”

Now that we’ve heard the government’s side of that conversation, Rusbridger’s comfortable assertion betrays a breathtaking willingness to sacrifice UK intelligence sources and methods for what sound like ideological preferences.

Thomas Rid, a thoughtful commentator known mainly for his skepticism about claims that cyberwar is imminent, recently called on the Guardian and other journalists to destroy the remainder of the Snowden files because the national security damage of further disclosures does not justify the likely contribution to informed debate about intelligence oversight.

I expect hell to freeze over before the Guardan takes Rid’s advice. But perhaps we can at least get the Guardian’s answer to a different question;  “When it would have cost you nothing to protect British security, why did you kick it to the curb instead?”

UPDATE: Inserted critical missing word — “don’t” — with many thanks to Eugene.

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