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Updated: UK newspapers clash over Snowden surveillance scoop claims

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UPDATE (5.15am PT): Glenn Greenwald has asserted several things that, if true, would cast serious doubt on The Independent‘s version of events.

The Guardian journalist claimed on Friday that (as far as he knows) the Independent story was wrong in saying The Guardian faced reporting restrictions. He also quoted Edward Snowden himself as saying he had not not passed any material on to The Independent and suggesting that the sensitive Middle East surveillance base story was leaked to that paper by the British government itself, in an attempt to discredit the disclosures of The Guardian and the Washington Post.

A fun fact that may or may not be relevant, but should be noted anyway: The Independent is owned by Alexander Lebedev and his son Evgeny. Lebedev Senior, a Russian oligarch, is a noted critic of Vladimir Putin. Putin has granted Snowden temporary asylum.

The original story follows.

The British government pressured the country’s Guardian newspaper into limiting its surveillance coverage, another UK paper, The Independent, has claimed.

Late on Thursday, The Independent published a scoop, derived from Edward Snowden’s leaks, about a secret British surveillance base somewhere in or near the Middle East. The paper has not previously published any new Snowden information, with The Guardian — which has worked closely with the former NSA contractor — being the only British newspaper to have done so.

There is no right to freedom of speech in the UK, even though European law supposedly guarantees a right to free expression. Without claiming any inside knowledge of what went on, it appears to me as an observer that the British press is now playing pass-the-parcel with the Snowden information in order to get around this fact.

“Agreed to restrict”

The Independent story maintains that, when UK intelligence services forced The Guardian to destroy a computer apparently containing Snowden data (a largely symbolic gesture as the data is replicated elsewhere), they also got Guardian editor Alan Rusbridger to agree “not to publish any material contained in the Snowden documents that could damage national security”:

“As well as destroying a computer containing one copy of the Snowden files, the paper’s editor, Alan Rusbridger, agreed to restrict the newspaper’s reporting of the documents.

“The Government also demanded that the paper not publish details of how UK telecoms firms, including BT(s bt) and Vodafone(s vod), were secretly collaborating with GCHQ to intercept the vast majority of all internet traffic entering the country. The paper had details of the highly controversial and secret programme for over a month. But it only published information on the scheme – which involved paying the companies to tap into fibre-optic cables entering Britain – after the allegations appeared in the German newspaper Süddeutsche Zeitung. A Guardian spokeswoman refused to comment on any deal with the Government.”

The destruction of the computer and the secret deal with the intelligence services took place in late July, with the destruction apparently having taken place at the request of Prime Minister David Cameron.

Miranda rights

Weeks later, David Miranda, the partner of Guardian journalist Glenn Greenwald, was detained for 9 hours at Heathrow airport while in transit from Berlin to Rio de Janeiro, and intelligence officials seized his computers and digital storage devices.

On Thursday, The Guardian won an interim injunction in the High Court to ensure that the UK authorities cannot inspect or share this data for any reason other than national security. This is of limited use, as the authorities have decided to launch a counter-terrorism investigation based on the data they found – they refuse to give any details about proposed charges, though.

Miranda’s detention and the Guardian hardware destruction have drawn the attention of the Council of Europe, the European body that exists to maintain cooperation between European states around the rule of law and human rights.

In a letter to British Home Secretary Theresa May on Wednesday, the Council’s secretary general, Thorbjørn Jagland, wrote:

“These measures, if confirmed, may have a potentially chilling effect on journalists’ freedom of expression as guaranteed by Article 10 of the European Convention on Human Rights.

“I would therefore be grateful to you if you could provide information on these reports and comment on the compatibility of the measures taken with the United Kingdom’s obligations under the Convention.”

Lord Falconer, the former British lord chancellor who helped bring in the Terrorism Act 2000 under which Miranda was detained, has also chimed in to say this was not what the law was intended for.

That Middle East station

According to The Independent, the British station in the Middle East is something of a crown jewel for the intelligence services. Part of the wider Tempora scheme, the station – which is still being set up — is apparently able to intercept communications from across the Middle East through satellite dishes and by tapping undersea telecoms cables.

The station’s activities were first authorised by David Miliband, the foreign secretary under the previous Labour government, in order to gather “information about the ‘political intentions of foreign powers’, terrorism, proliferation, mercenaries and private military companies, and serious financial fraud.” This remit gets renewed every six months, and “can be changed by ministers at will.”

The Independent seems to know the station’s location, but did not reveal it in its story.

13 Responses to “Updated: UK newspapers clash over Snowden surveillance scoop claims”

  1. Muhammad Abd Al-Hameed

    The location of the intelligence base may not be much of a secret. It may well be Masirah island, off the coast of Oman. It has been a British military base and later a relaying station of BBC radio service.

    • Agreed, but unfortunately the press has done a really poor job reporting on the infringements of our other basic (Bill of Rights) freedoms. If they lose their rights, it will be their own fault.

      Take the related right of Freedom of Speech. The press has been very critical of Citizens United, which involved whether the US Government could stop the airing of a documentary critical of Hillary Clinton. The spin of the press to make that decision seem unreasonable was incredible–they should have instead been attacking the McConnell v. FEC decision seven years earlier, but didn’t. But in 2013, when the Republicans try to deter the showing of a documentary in support of Hillary by a 24 hour news channel, that gets widely reported. Clearly the Republicans have the right to try to deter something they don’t like, where in contrast the right of the government to deter political speech should be highly questioned. It wasn’t.

      This entire Snowden affair is another example. Until the Snowden leak, the press paid very little attention to this issue.

      • Allene Swienckowski

        you forget that our corporate “press” machine in the good ole USA is owned by conservative corporatists. The uneducated conservative labors under the delusion that the media is the pawn of the liberal agenda. What we read, what is important is filtered daily and real world news as well as national and local news stories is limited and is always trumped by entertainment fluff. Many well paid and respected journalists no longer hold jobs on print newspapers and magazines, most of those jobs replaced by the internet and the millions of untrained ‘writers’ from around the world that are only interested on “being the first to report” rather than reporting on the full scope of most issues that pass as news. The current state of non news in America has passed the danger zone because we are a largely uninformed nation about most issues.

        • I agree there are problems with the news in the US, but that doesn’t mean there is n’t a liberal filter to the news.

          And in any case conservatives are better at protecting the Bill of Rights than liberals. Look at the recent Supreme Court decisions on Free Speech and the Second Amendment. So again, that would indicate a liberal filter.

          And the worst offenders on protecting us seem to be the liberal members of the press on ABS, NBC and CBS.

  2. “UK telecoms firms, including BT and Vodafone, were secretly collaborating with GCHQ to intercept the vast majority of all internet traffic entering the country. ”

    Quite right. I would be worried if they were not doing that.

    Miranda was carrying stolen documents.


    • Then he should have been arrested for carrying stolen property, not for terrorism. It’s not reasonable to apply Law A to somebody because they are [may be] guilty under Law B.

      The law he was stopped under has specific rules for when it can be applied.

    • Slateone, I would agree the government has the power to intercept traffic crossing international borders. It’s similar to their right to inspect people and materials crossing international borders.

      I don’t remember any reporting that they found Miranda was actually carrying anything stolen. I think you may have fallen for the government’s reporting of the event, and possibly for other government spin of this Snoden affair.

  3. Brian Azzopardi

    States setting up foreign listening posts to listen in on foreign communications is not such a big deal, and I’d argue hardly controversial.

    What is worrying is the state’s pressure on the Guardian and how the treatment of Miranda. That is chilling.