Free Press? Editor Laments 'Retrogressive' Government Action
The Guardian has played a key role in exposing the intelligence agency excesses revealed in documents from whistleblower Edward Snowden. Editor Alan Rusbridger discusses his work and the mounting pressure by the British government to silence the leaks.
SPIEGEL: Mr. Rusbridger, are you a danger to the United Kingdom?
Rusbridger: Am I a danger? No. I think the United Kingdom ought to be rather relieved to have the Guardian because this is obviously a very worrying loss for spy agencies in Great Britain and the United States. I think they are worried that they seem to keep these large bits and pieces secure. So they've lost control of a large amount of material. Luckily for them, for the last four and a half months, the Guardian has been filtering these documents in an incredibly responsible way. This is what they ought to be thankful for.
SPIEGEL: The British government said last week that the Guardian damages national security.
Rusbridger: Yes, it's an easy punch to throw at a newspaper because they don't know how to say what the damage is. So many members of parliament say we behaved unwisely or irresponsibly, but none of these members of parliament has ever come here to find out what we have done. And they never say which stories they are worried about or which they would rather parliament or the public didn't know about. So it would be an easier discussion to have if they said it's this story or this paragraph here. I think if members of parliament want to say you shouldn't have published this story or that paragraph in that story, then you can have a proper debate. But I think it's not very grown-up just to say 'You're irresponsible.'
SPIEGEL: Last week, Prime Minister David Cameron even threatened "tougher measures." What could these measures be?
Rusbridger: The DA-notice (Defense Advisory Notice) system (in Great Britain) is a voluntary system in which the press and the government have a kind of safe zone in which they can talk about stories. But it's not a system the prime minister can use to stop a story. I think he maybe doesn't understand what the system is. Other measures could be the police, a range of criminal laws or civil injunctions. It is kind of an 18th-century idea of how you deal with the press.
SPIEGEL: What is the worst-case scenario that you are preparing for?
Rusbridger: Any form of court action which tries to prevent us from running stories would be the worst. But there are other copies (of the Snowden material). We have been working with the New York Times, and if they want to come and march in here or stop us, or arrest me, it won't stop anything.
SPIEGEL: At the end of July, some of your colleagues destroyed hard drives in the presence of the intelligence service. Did you feel uncomfortable sending journalists downstairs with angle grinders and drills?
Rusbridger: I felt very uncomfortable, but the alternative was to let them have it. I felt that a line had been crossed in which the state first of all was the arbiter of how much discussion was allowable. I don't think it's for the state to physically and under threat of law smash up your source material in order to stop you writing. I thought it was a very retrogressive thing for the government to be doing. It didn't make much difference to our reporting, which made it all the more pointless.
SPIEGEL: There was no other possibility than to destroy computers?
Rusbridger: They had anxieties about the security of this building. I mean, we did have 24-hours security outside the room and no electronics inside it. But they said it wasn't good enough. I'm slightly mystified by that argument. I would have thought, if that was their concern they would say, "Well, can we come and have a look in New York, can we go to Rio to Glenn Greenwald, can we go to Berlin to filmmaker Laura Poitras?"
SPIEGEL: Why did David Miranda, Greenwald's partner, fly from Berlin to Rio via London and not directly from Frankfurt? He could have spared himself all the trouble he had at the airport in London.
Rusbridger: I don't know. I wouldn't have advised that, but I didn't know his travel plans.
SPIEGEL: How do you decide in general what to print and what not to?
Rusbridger: We were not going to go on a big fishing expedition. We decided on the stories we were not going to look at. We were not going to look at anything that is about operational details. I am sure there were lots of lovely stories about Afghanistan and Iraq; we just didn't look at them because this wouldn't have been why Snowden gave us these documents. In the end, there were stories which leaped out because of the public interest, and because these were new systems of mass surveillance that were previously unknown.
SPIEGEL: How would you describe the Guardian's working relationship with the intelligence agencies?
Rusbridger: The Americans tend to be more approachable, more open; they would say more on the record. They are more used to having these kinds of conversations and negotiations over material. You can ring the individual agencies (in the US). Sometimes they don't want to say anything, but sometimes they do say, "We'd rather you didn't use this particular story; we'd like to give you some extra context." With Britain's Government Communications Headquarters (GCHQ), it's more difficult. All British journalists find them the most secretive and the least willing to help. So it's much easier to have a helpful conversation in America than it is here. There is a story that we put to GCHQ last night where they just said, "Don't use it." And we said, "Thank you, do you want to say anything else?"
SPIEGEL: It's a strange world for spies, isn't it? The technology that so excites them is also virtually impossible to contain.
Rusbridger: It happened twice in the last three years that a very junior person has been able to read and escape with huge amounts of data. And I think GCHQ were shocked at the thought that a 29-year-old living in Hawaii could look straight into the GCHQ wiki. I think they should worry about their own security before worrying about the Guardian's.
SPIEGEL: Have the agencies become greedier in terms of information?
Rusbridger: I think it's just what (software) engineers do. We work with engineers here, and if they are good, they constantly come up with new ways of doing things. We can put a micro chip in this mobile phone, we can put a micro chip in that voice recorder and we can put a micro chip in this pen. Thus, law gets more and more stretched. The question is: How do you meaningfully oversee what they are going do? This is about oversight.
SPIEGEL: Your critics like to point out that spying is what spies are supposed to do.
Rusbridger: I think that debate is changing. In the US, Senator Dianne Feinstein came out saying we didn't know about this stuff. Secretary of State John Kerry says they seem to have gone too far. I think people and politicians are now thinking, "Well, that does look like an agency that is going beyond what everybody imagined it was doing."
SPIEGEL: Do you see the story getting more attention in the UK?
Rusbridger: A couple of days ago, the boss of the MI5 (Britain's domestic intelligence agency) came out and complained about the way we were reporting the story. He didn't actually name the Guardian in his speech, but he pre-briefed the name of the paper. I assume the government wanted to try and make the discussion around the Guardian, so they don't have to talk about the issue. I am not sure if it was such a wise tactic in the long run. People are now discussing the debate itself, and I think it's impossible for Britain to be insulated from the enormous wave in America and the enormous wave in Germany and France and Spain and Scandinavia.
SPIEGEL: Why did Snowden approach the Guardian in the first place?
Rusbridger: The Guardian is an outsider newspaper. It started in Manchester and didn't come to London until the 1960s. The other thing is that, five years ago, we decided to go digital first and we decided we want to be open to the multitude of people who are publishing digitally. So we hired someone like Glenn Greenwald, whom I think other papers simply wouldn't have hired. Snowden was thinking, "I want to take material to journalists who I can trust and who are well-known." So he approached Greenwald, Laura Poitras and the Guardian as an enormous news organization with international reach.
SPIEGEL: Are you selling more papers now?
Rusbridger: I've been doing this for long enough that I can be a bit cynical about these figures. With WikiLeaks, we went up and then down again. I do think it sort of gives an impression of a paper and its values, which has a long-term benefit.
SPIEGEL: Has your use of technology changed?
Rusbridger: We do still use Gmail here for most things, but not the most sensitive stuff. For anything to do with this story that is really sensitive, we use a couple of methods that Snowden has taught us.
SPIEGEL: Do you find it difficult not to get paranoid?
Rusbridger: My Facebook profile was altered. I don't know by whom. But we came across a GCHQ department in which one of the things they do is exactly these kinds of things. On my profile it suddenly said that my favorite film was "Die Hard." I normally work with the blinds down because these (GCHQ) people who came into my office jokingly said, "Our guys will be in those flats" (opposite the office). It was one of those English jokes. The guys who came in here told us enough about these techniques, and I thought, "If they are monitoring me, I probably ought to work with the curtains down." So I don't use email for sensitive stuff; I don't sit in rooms with phones if I want to say something sensitive. Life has changed a bit. But it is very difficult to lead a life that is not digital.
© SPIEGEL ONLINE 2013
All Rights Reserved
Reproduction only allowed with the permission of SPIEGELnet GmbH
Click on the links below for more information about DER SPIEGEL's history, how to subscribe or purchase the latest issue of the German-language edition in print or digital form or how to obtain rights to reprint SPIEGEL articles.
- Frequently Asked Questions: Everything You Need to Know about DER SPIEGEL
- Six Decades of Quality Journalism: The History of DER SPIEGEL
- A New Home in HafenCity: SPIEGEL's New Hamburg HQ
- Reprints: How To License SPIEGEL Articles