Guardian editor Alan Rusbridger is clearly a man who takes his time.
Following the nine-hour shakedown of Glenn Greenwald’s spouse, David Miranda, by officials of Britain’s NSA satellite, The GCHQ, Rusbridger took to his paper’s blog and disclosed what NYU Journalism professor Jay Rosen called ‘the biggest Fourth Estate/free press news in a long time.’
People following the link may have felt they’d been sent the wrong way, because long before getting to the story that’s now all over the world’s front pages, Rusbridger leisurely recounts his attendance at a private screening of a ‘Dreamworks film about Wikileaks’ in which Peter Capaldi, who Rusbridger reminds us will be the next Dr. Who, plays Rusbridger, and very plausibly too, by Rusbridger’s account. The film’s rendering of New York Times lickspittle Bill Keller is apparently equally convincing, such that the real Rusbridger yelled an expletive at him during a scene in which Keller is less cinematically courageous than himself.
After savoring this reverie on the immortalization of his heroism by Hollywood, the reader is still seven paragraphs away from Rusbridger’s bombshell, which is that two months ago, ‘a very senior government official claiming to represent the views of the prime minister’ contacted Rusbridger and in the course of two meetings demanded the return or destruction of the Snowden files. A month later ‘shadowy Whitehall figures’ showed up and after a few more meetings with an allegedly non-compliant Rusbridger –
one of the more bizarre moments in the Guardian’s long history occurred – with two GCHQ security experts overseeing the destruction of hard drives in the Guardian’s basement just to make sure there was nothing in the mangled bits of metal which could possibly be of any interest to passing Chinese agents. “We can call off the black helicopters,” joked one as we swept up the remains of a MacBook Pro.
There is quite a lot that’s bizarre here, certainly, but not in the way Rusbridger means. There’s that Rusbridger is only just now getting around to telling anyone about this, a full two months after the Cameron government had issued its first threat. There’s also the image of Rusbridger obligingly smashing Guardian computers and sweeping the remains up under the watchful eye of GCHQ goons, chortling to himself about their lack of tech savvy.
Whitehall was satisfied, but it felt like a peculiarly pointless piece of symbolism that understood nothing about the digital age.
By that he means, can you believe the keepers of gigantic data repositories don’t know that files can be replicated??? Don’t these goons realize how terribly unimportant it is that they’ve forced the editor of the newspaper monopolizing the Snowden story to destroy all local files related to it? Have they not considered that the lead on the story, Glenn Greenwald, lives and works in Brazil??? How DO these morons manage to keep the entire world under surveillance??? Oh har har bloody har.
Let’s put aside the obvious point that forcing a newspaper editor to destroy his own computers has all kinds of political and psychic benefits beyond, well, destroying the computers, and consider instead that David Miranda was detained while acting as a go-between for a manual exchange of local files between Greenwald and his Berlin-based colleague Laura Poitras. Doesn’t this exchange suggest that this crew isn’t doing the kind of networked file replicating that makes the Guardian raid so cheeringly risible to savvy knowing knowers like Alan Rusbridger and Jay Rosen? Recall also that Miranda’s laptop was stolen from his and Greenwald’s home after Greenwald Skyped that he would send Miranda an encrypted copy of the Snowden files. Consider also that Lavabit, Snowden’s email provider, took itself offline, lest it, in the words of its owner, become ‘complicit in crimes against the American people.’
While intimidation is certainly playing a role here, it also seems as if the security establishment has not ruled out getting hold of all the files and destroying them. Nor should we underestimate the file-destroying powers of a global surveillance mob that can burglarize a home in the Rio suburbs or force an encrypted email service off line as easily as it can bully some preening Guardian twit into indifferently smashing his own laptop. Weird things happen. Remember how all those allegedly damning Bank of America files just disappeared? Poof. That story’s gone. We’ll never know what secrets those files disclosed, all because a couple of people thought they knew best when and how information should be disseminated and weren’t about to compromise control by sharing it with anyone else.
Even if Snowden’s files are so widely distributed at this point that government seizure is completely impossible no matter how repressive, ruthless and wide-ranging the surveillance apparatus becomes, a syndicate with even unwarranted confidence can wreak quite a lot of havoc. Isn’t it a side benefit, if not the the main point of mass surveillance, that people get driven offline into the kind of small, marginalized groupings that can be harassed, stolen from, jailed and murdered the old fashion way? Isn’t that exactly what happened when David Miranda, in lieu of an upload, wandered under Guardian auspices into the stateless zone of Heathrow, where the only thing protecting him really was the extent to which Anglo-American media elites would find his persecution problematic? And isn’t each of these events an opportunity for the global surveillance state to both sharpen and show its fangs and to make these spectacles seem increasingly normal, especially when ostensibly serious people like Rusbridger brush them off as a pre-digital age anachronism, while idiotically beating their chests?
Before we continue further down this rabbit hole, it’s appropriate to ask how much of this repression/defiance theatre is necessary to getting Snowden’s disclosures to the people and to what extent it’s getting in the way. Greenwald and his Guardian colleagues would like you to savor these David and Goliath spectacles without considering that what’s being fought over here is not so much people’s access to Snowden’s disclosures as Greenwald and co’s right to own and profit by them. If Rusbridger thinks government destruction of files in the digital age is anachronistic, how, then, in reflective moments can he rationalize the mediation of whistleblowing by media elites like himself?
It is quite unlikely that if Snowden had simply handed off the files to, say, Cryptome, that the raid of the Guardian offices, the theft of Miranda’s laptop, the interrogation of Miranda at Heathrow and arguably the closure of Lavabit would have happened at all. This is not to say that the surveillance state wouldn’t be in discipline and punish mode, but their hands would be very much more full than they are now. It’s also quite likely that the NSA’s secrets would be more widely known and understood than they are presently.
It’s fairly obvious what Greenwald and pals — some of whom will soon be immortalized, Rusbridger-like, in films — are getting out of their monopoly. What it yields for the rest of us is much less obvious.
More on that tomorrow.