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3 Dec, 2013 16:53

Red-herring ‘inquisition’: Guardian editor robustly defends Snowden leaks to UK MPs

Guardian editor Alan Rusbridger strongly defended his newspaper’s publication of the Snowden leaks in response to a hostile grilling by a UK parliamentary committee Tuesday, as MPs attempted to show that national security was breached.

Prior to the parliamentary hearing, former Guardian journalist Glenn Greenwald who first broke the story on Snowden's revelations, had tweeted that he thought the parliamentary hearing would be like an inquisition.

UK's inquisition of the Guardian today RT @peterkofod@ggreenwald pretty sure it'll be streamed here http://t.co/RaLQK9T3dK

— Glenn Greenwald (@ggreenwald) December 3, 2013

Responding to MPs, The Guardian’s editor-in-chief insisted that national security was never breached and that what his newspaper had published was in the public interest. He said the UK government’s response to the Snowden revelations about NSA and GCHQ spying and its attitude to The Guardian had dismayed many people around the world who believe in a free press.

Asked whether he loves his country by committee chairman Keith Vaz, Rusbridger replied that he was proud to live in a country where there is free press – unlike other countries which “are not generally democracies, where the press are not free to write about these things.” He added, however, that in Britain privacy should be balanced against national security and assured MPs that the entire Guardian staff and their families who live in the UK “want to be secure,” too.

Rusbridger said the only way the UK’s and the US’s mass surveillance programs had become public knowledge was through the press, because politicians had failed in their job to properly scrutinize and regulate the secret services’ activities.

The editor of The Guardian Alan Rusbridger arrives at Portcullis House in London December 3, 2013. (Reuters/Luke MacGregor)

He said that in Britain many MPs were appalled to learn of the lack of parliamentary oversight over intelligence agencies, and that The Guardian had faced intimidation from the UK government and some politicians, including calls for Rusbridger to be prosecuted, while the US had begun to debate the issue properly in Congress.

One Tory MP, Michael Ellis, asked Rusbridger pointedly whether, if he had known about British intelligence agencies breaking the Nazis’ Enigma Code in World War II, he would have published it at the time. The question appeared to fall flat, however, as Rusbridger insisted that even trainee journalists very clearly knew the difference between revealing mass spying on the population today and endangering the lives of Allied troops during the war.

In his reply, Rusbridger retorted that bringing up the Enigma Code “was a well-worn red herring” and that he could “make that distinction.” 

Ellis also accused The Guardian of publishing personal information, including the sexual orientation of GCHQ workers, saying that a Guardian story said there was a LGBT pride group at GCHQ.

But Rusbridger replied: ”There are gay members of GCHQ, is that a surprise?”

“It’s not amusing,” Ellis said. “They shouldn’t be outed by you.”

Rusbridger refuted Ellis’s claim immediately, however: “The existence of a pride group at GCHQ was on the Stonewall website, and it does not out anyone.”

On the sensitive question of whether The Guardian had published the names of any UK intelligence officers, Rusbridger insisted that the paper has not revealed a single name: “We have published no names and we have lost control of no names,” he said.

On the issue of endangering national security and accusations by the chiefs of spy agencies GCHQ, MI5 and MI6 that the Guardians revelations were a “gift” to terrorist groups, Rusbridger replied that the problem with these accusations was that they were too vague.

A portrait of Edward Snowden declaring him a "hero" is seen during a protest against government surveillance in Washington, DC (AFP Photo / Mandel Ngan)

He cited four officials closely connected with security in the UK and the US, whom the Guardian asked if what the newspaper was publishing was a genuine security risk.

Norman Baker, a Home Office minister, a member of the US Senate intelligence committee who asked not to be named, a senior Obama administration official and a UK Whitehall official all said the material published by The Guardian had caused no damage to national security, Rusbridger said.

With reference to the Tor website, Rusbridger defended The Guardian’s actions. Tor, software that hides the identity of the site’s users and owners, has been used by dissidents to communicate with each other, but also by pedophiles. Rusbridger said that the newspaper talked to the White House for three weeks about whether publishing would damage security, and that there was nothing that the Guardian published that wasn’t on Tor’s own website.

When asked if he was better placed to judge what should be public than the heads of the security services, Rusbridger replied he was not better placed, but in a democracy national security should not always be used as a trump card.

At the beginning of the hearing, Rusbridger said that only 1 percent of the information in the Snowden files had been made public so far.

British MP Jeremy Corbyn told RT that the Guardian’s actions have been responsible and that the grilling by British MPs appeared to be a witch-hunt.

“It seems to me it’s ‘Hunt the Guardian’ time and ‘Hunt Alan Rusbridger’ time – this is ridiculous. Alan Rusbridger’s Guardian is a very responsible paper with a great record of investigative journalism and liberal reporting,” he said.

Glyn Moody, a writer and journalist specializing in IT, said that Rusbridger’s inquisition amounted to little more than theater.

“I think what we are seeing is theater to a large extent, in that the UK government is trying to present things in a certain way for appearances,” he told RT.

Legendary Watergate journalist supports Rusbridger

Carl Bernstein, one of the two Washington Post investigative journalists who broke the Watergate scandal, has written an open letter of support to Alan Rusbridger before his interrogation by UK MPs. The letter was published on the Guardian website. 

Former Washington Post reporter Carl Bernstein (AFP Photo / Tim Sloan)

Bernstein said the press had been admirable and responsible in reporting the Snowden NSA and GCHQ spying revelations and that the articles published by The Guardian, The New York Times and The Washington Post had not helped terrorists or enemies of national security. 

“You are being called to testify at a moment when governments in Washington and London seem intent on erecting the most serious (and self-serving) barriers against legitimate news reporting – especially of excessive government secrecy – we have seen in decades,” Bernstein wrote to Rusbridger. 

“As we learned during our experience with the Pentagon Papers and Watergate, it is essential that no prior governmental restraints or intimidation be imposed on a truly free press,” he continued. 

It was a dogged, years-long investigation by Bernstein and his Washington Post colleague Bob Woodward that eventually broke the scandal over the Watergate break-in, which led to US President Richard Nixon having to resign in 1974. 

The scandal began when the Democratic National Committee headquarters at the Watergate office complex in Washington DC, were broken into by people connected to the official organization of Nixon's reelection campaign. A number of tape recordings implicated the president himself, and proved that Nixon had attempted to cover up the illegal skullduggery that took place after the break-in.