LONDON — Britain’s deputy prime minister on Wednesday defended his government’s decision to order a top civil servant to ask the Guardian newspaper to return or destroy files leaked by former National Security Agency contractor Edward Snowden.
In an article published by the Guardian late Monday, Alan Rusbridger, the editor, described how intelligence agents oversaw the physical destruction of hard drives containing information disclosed by Snowden about the NSA’s mass surveillance programs. Rusbridger called it “one of the more bizarre moments in the Guardian’s long history.”
The White House has distanced itself from the British government’s handling of the matter, saying it would be “difficult to imagine” a scenario in which it would be appropriate to descend on a U.S. media outlet in a similar fashion.
British Deputy Prime Minister Nick Clegg defended the action, saying the classified files represented a potential national security threat.
A spokesman for Clegg, speaking on the customary condition of anonymity, said that “a few weeks ago,” Cabinet Secretary Jeremy Heywood was directed by Clegg, Prime Minister David Cameron and Foreign Secretary William Hague to approach the Guardian about the files.
The spokesman said the newspaper was asked to return or destroy the files to “guarantee that very sensitive information that posed a risk to national security didn’t get into the wrong hands.”
He added that it was “agreed to on the understanding that the purpose of the destruction of the material would not impinge on the Guardian’s ability to publish articles about the issue but would help as a precautionary measure to protect lives and security.”
A spokeswoman for 10 Downing Street said, “We won’t go into specific cases, but if highly sensitive information was being held insecurely, government would have a responsibility to secure it.”
The Guardian, which released a photo of a smashed motherboard and hard drives, said that other copies of the files exist and that it agreed to the data destruction after being threatened with legal action that could prevent it from reporting additional stories.
“I explained to the U.K. officials we were dealing with that there were other copies already in America and Brazil, so they wouldn’t be achieving anything,” Rusbridger said in a video posted on the newspaper’s Web site Tuesday.
He added that he would rather destroy the material than hand it back to authorities or “allow the courts to freeze our reporting.”
Rusbridger made the revelations about the hard drives after the detention of the partner of Glenn Greenwald, the Guardian journalist who has worked with Snowden on the NSA articles. David Miranda, 28, was held and questioned at London’s Heathrow Airport for nine hours Sunday under anti-terrorism laws.
Keith Vaz, chairman of Parliament’s Home Affairs Select Committee, said Heywood’s actions were “unprecedented” and called on Cameron to make a statement to Parliament when it returns from its summer recess Sept. 2.
“We need to know the full facts,” he said. “Nothing less will do.”