British journalists who worked with leaked National Security Agency (NSA) documents from Edward Snowden are still being secretly investigated, it has been revealed. Critics say police should immediately end the probe as “journalism is not a crime.”
According to an investigation by the Intercept, ‘Operation Curable’ is being led by a counterterrorism unit within London’s Metropolitan Police. “The investigation is still ongoing. In addition to this, I can also confirm that it is still under the direction of AC Mark Rowley,” a spokesperson said in reply to a Freedom of Information Act request.
The investigation has now been active for more than four years. The force has declined to provide any information about the amount of funds spent or the number of officers working on it, instead insisting that it does not hold records of these details.
The National Union for Journalists (NUJ), the UK’s largest journalists’ organization, called for the investigation to be halted immediately. Spokesperson Sarah Kavanagh said news reports based on the Snowden documents had exposed unlawful covert surveillance activities in the public interest.
“The media are often the only group in society able to reveal the intelligence and security forces have exceeded their legitimate powers and remit,” Kavanagh told the Intercept. “The Met Police should be condemned for keeping journalists under investigation because they worked on the Snowden leaks. The investigation should be halted immediately. Journalism is not a crime.”
Police have attempted to keep details about the case secret. In early 2015, the force refused to confirm or deny whether the investigation existed. It eventually conceded the probe was ongoing following an intervention from the UK’s Information Commissioner’s Office, which enforces freedom of information laws in Britain.
The investigation began in May 2013, when NSA contractor Snowden turned over a cache of classified documents about government surveillance to journalists. Among the documents were details about mass surveillance programs operated by the UK’s largest spy agency, Government Communications Headquarters (GCHQ).
British authorities claimed publishing the Snowden files was itself a terrorist act. A memo authored by the Met Police and domestic spy agency MI5 was circulated to UK border entry points which said: “The disclosure [of the Snowden documents], or threat of disclosure, is designed to influence a government and is made for the purpose of promoting a political or ideological cause. This therefore falls within the definition of terrorism.”
In December 2013, one of London’s most senior officers, Cressida Dick, was questioned during a parliamentary hearing. She admitted the force’s investigation was looking at whether reporters had committed criminal offences for their role in revealing secret surveillance operations exposed in the documents. “We need to establish whether they have or haven’t [committed offences],” Dick said. “That involves a huge amount of scoping material.” Such criminal offences carry potential 10-year prison sentences.
A spokesperson for the Metropolitan Police said in a statement that the investigation “was launched in order to protect life and national security.” The spokesperson added: “As would be as expected we do not put a time limit on an investigation, and the priority is that it is thorough and establishes all of the relevant facts. This is a complex investigation and enquiries continue. No arrests have been made to-date.”
Snowden fled the United States after the hack, arriving in Moscow from Hong Kong in June 2013. He spent five weeks at the airport before he was eventually given the right to remain in Russia temporarily. His leave to remain in Russia was extended at the beginning of this year for another three years.