(Patrick Semansky, File/Associated Press)
(Patrick Semansky, File/Associated Press)

With the help of e-mails procured through the Freedom of Information Act, the Associated Press is reporting that U.S. intelligence officials knew about British intentions to secure the destruction of the Guardian newspaper’s hard drives containing leaked information from the National Security Agency (NSA). “Good news, at least on this front,” said a message from current NSA Deputy Director Richard Ledgett Gen. Keith Alexander, then the NSA director, and others, reports the AP. On the subject line of that e-mail: “Guardian data being destroyed.”

The documents relate to an incident that’s almost unfathomable here in the United States. On Saturday, July 20, 2013, two employees of the Guardian “used angle grinders and other tools to pulverize the hard drives and memory chips on which the encrypted files had been stored,” according to an account in the Guardian itself. The catch? That this hard-drive destruction session was monitored by officials from Government Communications Headquarters, the British counterpart to the NSA.

The move to destroy the data was hardly voluntary on the part of the Guardian, which was under “threat of legal action by the government that could have stopped reporting on the extent of American and British government surveillance revealed by the documents,” noted the Guardian story.

The Ledgett e-mail exposed by the AP was transmitted on July 19, 2013, the day before the destruction party. It’s unclear from the documents, notes the AP, whether the NSA “had any role in ordering the Guardian’s data destruction, or whether the U.S. pressured Britain to compel the newspaper to return the files.” After news of the Guardian’s hard-drive-wrecking emerged in August 2013, then-White House deputy press secretary Josh Earnest said that it would be “difficult to imagine a scenario” where pushing for the trashing of a media outlet’s hard drives “would be appropriate.” Weeks before the data was destroyed, the Guardian published journalism stemming from the leaks of former NSA contractor Edward Snowden.

The wonders of bureaucracy drove the White House’s response to the AP’s e-mail scoop. From the AP story: “The White House said Thursday the comment from Ledgett — then the head of the NSA’s Media Leaks Task Force — was confined to intelligence operations because it was “good news” that classified information was recovered and “didn’t reflect a broader administration view” on press freedoms.”

Erik Wemple writes the Erik Wemple blog, where he reports and opines on media organizations of all sorts.