Guardian Editor 'British More Complacent' about Surveillance

The Guardian has been on the front lines of exposing vast surveillance undertaken by the US and the UK -- and has been targeted by the authorities as a result. In an interview, Editor-in-Chief Alan Rusbridger talks about his confrontation with the government and why the scandal isn't making waves in Britain.
The Guardian was recently visited by British authorities and asked to destroy hard drives containing sensitive information from Edward Snowden.

The Guardian was recently visited by British authorities and asked to destroy hard drives containing sensitive information from Edward Snowden.


SPIEGEL ONLINE: What was your first reaction after being asked by Whitehall officials to hand over or destroy the hard drives containing information from whistleblower Edward Snowden ?

Rusbridger: We had been having a perfectly cordial conversation with government officials before that. I don't know why they suddenly changed their mind and decided to take legal action. I obviously anticipated that they might do this, which is why we had already made arrangements in the US. So I tried to persuade the officials that this is a pointless thing to do. They wouldn't be persuaded, however. So I thought it was better to just move the reporting out of London I was happy to destroy the material in London.

SPIEGEL ONLINE: Both GCHQ  and the government had to anticipate that you would go public with this.

Rusbridger: Yes, it would have been naive to think that we would not tell our readers at some point.

SPIEGEL ONLINE: So why did you decide to write about it only now?

Rusbridger: There were one or two little operational reasons why I didn't write about it immediately. Secondly, we were in a slightly bizarre thing where the conversation had begun without any threats. It had begun as a discussion and we had agreed to keep this private. I thought it was useful to both ends to have a channel of communication so that you didn't have to start sending in police or go to law. There was an element of the constellations that were protected by an off the record-agreement, which is why when I wrote about it I didn't name the officials. So having not written about it on the same day, it would have looked a little bit odd to break the whole news story three days later on.

SPIEGEL ONLINE: What do you think motivated GCHQ and Whitehall to intervene?

Rusbridger: I can only speculate. My assumption is that there were different factions in Whitehall and the government. There were people who favored a very confrontational approach and sending in police. And there were others who were arguing that that would be counterproductive and that it would be better to have a conversation. At some point the hardliners won.

SPIEGEL ONLINE: There were plans to send police to the Guardian offices?

Rusbridger: I understand that there were, yes. In a different context the police have been inside News International (during the phone hacking scandal), but I think most people can see that those are different things.

SPIEGEL ONLINE: In your case, there was obviously the fear that hackers or spies could gain access to the material in your possession.

Rusbridger: They (government officials) said that they had that fear. That may or may not be genuine, I don't know. There are other things about the urgency and how they behaved that make me doubt whether that was really the reason. One minute it was very, very urgent and at other times they've moved quite slowly. I don't think they've been consistent.

SPIEGEL ONLINE: Are you satisfied with the impact of your reporting on the British public?

Rusbridger: I think the debate has been much better in the United States and in parts of Europe  than in the UK. I am not sure I can totally explain it, but for some reason, the British appear to be a little bit more complacent about these things .

SPIEGEL ONLINE: The Guardian seems to be rather alone when it comes to reporting on this issue.

Rusbridger: Just as we were with the phone-hacking scandal. Maybe another explanation is that you have to be quite digital to really understand the nature of the threat here. The pride of an Englishman is his castle, most Daily Telegraph and Daily Mail readers believe that. They can't imagine the police coming through the front door into their homes, and they don't quite see that the police may already be inside their homes. They don't even need to go through the front door. I don't think that's being explained to the people well enough and this is what it's all about.

SPIEGEL ONLINE: It's not just journalists, though. The opposition has likewise been reluctant to focus on the surveillance scandal.

Rusbridger: Thus far, there has been virtually no debate in Westminster and barely a single MP has raised their voice. The Liberal Democrats are compromised by the fact that they are in government and Labour has a patchy record of defending our civil liberties. I think the penny is dropping on the Conservatives. There was a piece in the Telegraph by Conservative MP Domimik Raab. Tory MP David Davis is gearing up on it as well. And there was an online piece with a comparison to the arrest of Tory MP Damien Green in 2008. It may be that Conservative back benchers will get going on this before Labour does.

SPIEGEL ONLINE: Do you think it helps that Glenn Greenwald appears to be starting something of a personal vendetta?

Rusbridger: I'm sure this is not what he thinks. Glenn has been effective and actually quite careful in what he has written so far. I think in the coming weeks, more will emerge about the relationship between government, intelligence agencies and tech companies.

Interview conducted by Christoph Scheuermann