The following is a transcript of questions and answers with Alan Rusbridger, editor of the Guardian, about British government pressure on the newspaper. The Guardian and The Washington Post were the first publications to report on government surveillance programs revealed in classified files obtained by Edward Snowden, the former National Security Agency contractor. (The exchange was conducted Wednesday by e-mail; some questions have been edited for clarity.)
Q: You’ll be called before a parliamentary commission next week, after months in which government officials and lawmakers in Britain have targeted the Guardian for its Snowden revelations. How concerned are you about these efforts against the paper, and what are their implications for press freedoms in Britain?
Rusbridger: In the past five months a number of disturbing things have happened — including the threat of prior restraint; the state telling a newspaper that there’s been “enough” debate; the forced destruction of journalistic material; the use of terror laws to detain someone who was plainly not a terrorist; MPs calling for the prosecution of an editor and accusing a paper of treason; and the prime minister backing calls for an editor to be called before Parliament.
All this has happened against a background of new press regulation in which [British Prime Minister] David [Cameron] is claiming the press has nothing to worry about from increased regulation involving his royal charter.
Some of this behavior is clearly designed to be intimidatory and/or chilling. Most of it would be unimaginable in America or parts of Europe. So, yes, I think there are disturbing implications for press freedom in the U.K.
Q: Why do you believe the Guardian is being treated differently in Britain than those media companies in the United States and Germany that are also reporting the Snowden leaks and where governments have tended to err on the side of freedom of the press?
Rusbridger: America has a constitution which fiercely protects the press. The 40-year-old Pentagon Papers judgment means no U.S. government could succeed in prior restraint on an issue of this kind. Germans, for obvious reasons, are much more sensitive to the malevolent potential of intrusive forms of state power. In Britain we’re stranded without a first amendment and with some complacency about the nature of the surveillance powers that have been created without any kind of proper public debate.
Q: Is this a concerted pressure campaign underway by elements within the British government to target the Guardian, and how concerned are you that this pressure might result in some form of legal prosecution against the Guardian or yourself?
Rusbridger: It is not the role of politicians or civil servants to determine the limits of public discussion. Nor should the debate be circumscribed by attempting to criminalize the act of journalism — without which, in this instance, there could be no debate. As we’ve said all along, the state has a duty to protect free speech as well as security.
Q: Conservative Member of Parliament Julian Smith, a vocal critic of the Guardian reports, asserts that his core legal concerns are basically twofold. First, that the Guardian may have broken British law by allowing the names of British agents to be transferred overseas. Secondly, though the Guardian has said it consulted with the British government on all but one of its related stories prior to publication (and which one was that, btw?), he insists the number is higher, at least two or three. How do you respond?
Rusbridger: First point: It’s been apparent to any casual reader since early June that the Snowden documents contain names of some employees of the NSA and GCHQ [Government Communications Headquarters, an arm of British intelligence]. We have had no approaches from government or agencies in relation to any names. We have published no names, nor lost control of any material.
Second point: The Guardian has consulted regularly with the DA Notice secretariat, Downing Street, the White House and the intelligence agencies, giving them time to raise concerns and flag up anxieties. We’ve listened carefully to the arguments, agreed not to publish certain things, and redacted all names and sensitive operational details.
The DA Notice secretary has said he had not seen anything the Guardian has published that puts anybody’s life at risk, while a member of the Senate Intelligence Committee and other senior administration officials have told us they consider the Guardian has reported the issue carefully and responsibly. We have also been thanked by some well-placed British officials for our approach. The Guardian did not consult over the story published on June 16 revealing that GCHQ had bugged the computers and phones of G-20 politicians and officials, because it was feared that the government might try to injunct us — a month later the government did, indeed, make that explicit threat.
Q: You allowed British authorities to destroy the physical evidence w/Snowden data held inside the Guardian’s London offices because of concerns that the government would take action to prevent further articles. So is it fair to say the Guardian is now largely fielding Snowden-related stories out of New York (through your bureau, and cooperation with the New York Times), in part to sidestep the threat of possible intervention here? And how would you say the pressure campaign has impacted the Guardian’s ability to publish Snowden-related pieces to date?
Rusbridger: As with WikiLeaks and phone hacking, we moved reporting to the U.S. and worked carefully with the New York Times. The alternative was another Spycatcher farce, where the story could published everywhere — including online — but not in Britain. We also wanted to partner with American journalists who had expertise in U.S. national security affairs.
Q: Lastly, I think you were reading Daniel Ellsberg’s book on the Pentagon Papers when last met, no? Any quick comparisons/reflections on the Guardian’s current fix in the context of the Pentagon Papers case?
Rusbridger: The Supreme Court judgment was hugely significant for American journalism in that it made it virtually impossible for the executive to censor the press on matters like this. That’s important because prior restraint is not generally a good thing. But also because — if there’s no threat to injunct or criminalize journalism — editors and writers can have a more mature and open dialogue with government and agencies.
The case also has echoes in that the Nixon administration made dire warnings about how national security would be damaged by publication. The then editors of the Washington Post and NYT decided differently. The judges went with the editors, as so does history. That doesn’t mean journalists are always right, or spies always wrong. But it does show that the “national security” card should not always be trumps.