NEW YORK -– On Monday night, Guardian Editor-in-Chief Alan Rusbridger revealed how British authorities threatened the newspaper while it was reporting on documents leaked by former National Security Agency contractor Edward Snowden and even oversaw the destruction of computers that contained leaked materials.
What wasn’t clear in Rusbridger’s powerful first-person piece is why The Guardian waited nearly a month to expose government intimidation that’s since been widely condemned as an assault on the free press.
Rusbridger told The Huffington Post that he could not originally discuss the property destruction, which took place July 20 before two security experts from British spy agency GCHQ, for “operational reasons."
“Having been through this and not written about it on the day for operational reasons, I was sort of waiting for a moment when the government’s attitude to journalism –- when there was an issue that made this relevant,” Rusbridger said.
That moment came after Sunday's nine-hour airport detainment of David Miranda, partner of Glenn Greenwald, the Guardian journalist at the center of the NSA surveillance story.
“The fact that David Miranda had been detained under this slightly obscure schedule of the terrorism act seemed a useful moment to write about the background to the government’s attitude to this in general,” Rusbridger said.
Rusbridger’s column appeared online Monday night and was teased on the front page of Tuesday’s paper. The full piece appeared on page 28.
Some questioned why such blatant government interference in the newspaper's operation didn't get bigger play as a front-page news story and was only mentioned in the ninth paragraph of an editor’s column.
“When govt destroys ur paper's computers @arusbridger that's A1 article not offhand ref in blog about u being in movie,” tweeted New York Times reporter Charlie Savage.
“It was a personal take really,” Rusbridger said. “I felt this was a piece of background that readers ought to know about it, but I wanted to write about it in my voice instead of putting in a news story.”
“It wasn’t immediate news,” he said, adding that “it felt more natural to write about it in a more discursive way.” (The Guardian also covered the story Tuesday in a news piece).
Rusbridger wrote Monday that the destruction of the computers “felt like a peculiarly pointless piece of symbolism that understood nothing about the digital age.”
Indeed, The Guardian has continued reporting on surveillance since the computers were smashed, publishing a deeply reported piece 12 days later on the GCHQ that was based on files leaked by Snowden.
Rusbridger wrote that the paper will “continue to do patient, painstaking reporting on the Snowden documents, we just won't do it in London.”
That’s not as big an obstacle as it may seem. Much of The Guardian’s NSA coverage has been run through the paper’s New York office, and the paper has more freedom to publish in the U.S. without the risk of the government stopping its publication. Not to mention the fact that Greenwald lives and works in Brazil.
As for continuing to cover the story in light of the incidents, which have caused great concern among journalists and advocates of a free press, Rusbridger said, “I don’t think it will make any difference at all.”