Newly Obtained Emails Contradict Administration Claims on Guardian Laptop Destruction

Glenn Greenwald

On July 20, 2013, agents of the U.K. government entered The Guardian newsroom in London and compelled them to physically destroy the computers they were using to report on the Edward Snowden archive. The Guardian reported this a month later after my partner, David Miranda, was detained at Heathrow Airport for 11 hours under a British terrorism law and had all of his electronic equipment seized. At the time, the Obama administration — while admitting that it was told in advance of the Heathrow detention — pretended that it knew nothing about the forced laptop destruction and would never approve of such attacks on press freedom. From the August 20, 2013, press briefing by then-deputy White House press secretary Josh Earnest:

“Q: A last one on the NSA — The Guardian newspaper, following on everything that was discussed yesterday — The Guardian is saying that British authorities destroyed several hard drives, because they wanted to keep secrets that Edward Snowden had leaked from actually getting out. They were stored in The Guardian‘s — they had some hard drives there at their offices. British authorities went in there and destroyed these hard drives. Did the American government get a heads up about that the way you did about the person being detained?

“MR. EARNEST: I’ve seen the published reports of those accusations, but I don’t have any information for you on that.

“Q: And does the U.S. government think it’s appropriate for a government, especially one of our allies, to go in and destroy hard drives? Is that something this administration would do?

“MR. EARNEST: The only thing I know about this are the public reports about this, so it’s hard for me to evaluate the propriety of what they did based on incomplete knowledge of what happened.

“Q: But this administration would not do that, would not go into an American media company and destroy hard drives, even if it meant trying to protect national security, you don’t think?

“MR. EARNEST: It’s very difficult to imagine a scenario in which that would be appropriate.”

But emails just obtained by Associated Press pursuant to a Freedom of Information Act request (FOIA) prove that senior Obama national security officials — including Director of National Intelligence James Clapper and then-NSA chief Keith Alexander — not only knew in advance that U.K. officials intended to force The Guardian to destroy their computers, but overtly celebrated it.


One email, dated July 19 (the day prior to the destruction) bears the subject line “Guardian data being destroyed” and is from NSA deputy director Richard Ledgett to Alexander. He writes: “Good news, at least on this front.” The next day, almost immediately after the computers were destroyed, Alexander emailed Ledgett: “Can you confirm this actually occurred?” Hours later, under the same subject line, Clapper emailed Alexander, saying: “Thanks Keith … appreciate the conversation today.”

It’s hardly surprising that the Obama Administration was fully informed in advance: It’s virtually inconceivable that notoriously subservient London officials would ever take any meaningful action without the advance knowledge and permission of their Washington overseers. There are, however, several notable points from these new disclosures:

(1) How many times do Obama administration officials have to be caught misleading the publicbefore U.S. media outlets will stop assuming their claims to be true? Just this weekend, The Washington Post described the tens of thousands of FISA-collected emails that are in Snowden archive: the very material that Keith Alexander just two months ago unequivocally denied Snowden had obtained (Alexander: “He didn’t get this data. They didn’t touch –“; the New Yorker: “The operational data?”; Alexander: “They didn’t touch the FISA data … That database, he didn’t have access to”).

Now we have proof that Obama’s most senior officials were aware in advance of the very events that Obama’s spokesman pretended they knew nothing about. It’s possible, though unlikely in the extreme, that both Clapper and Alexander knew about this and neglected to tell anyone in the White House. Incredibly claiming that Obama was unaware of what his most senior national security officials get caught doing is this administration’s modus operandi: See, for instance, this and this. But that should raise the question — yet again — of whether these national security agencies are completely rogue and operating without any controls.

And whatever else was true: Obama’s senior officials were clearly delighted at this attack on press freedom while Obama’s press secretary pretended that the U.S. would never regard such behavior as “appropriate.” As The Guardian said today about all of this: “What’s perhaps most concerning is that the disclosure of these emails appears to contradict the White House’s comments about these events last year, when they questioned the appropriateness of the U.K. government’s intervention.”

(2) At least as notable as what the Obama administration disclosed in response to AP’s FOIA request is what they suppressed. Look at the documents the administration produced: Virtually all of it is censored, even though it pertains to discussions by public officials of the U.K. government’s attack on The Guardian‘s news gathering process. We are permitted to see only the smallest of snippets; virtually everything in this email chain is concealed, once again making a complete farce not only out of FOIA but also Obama’s self-glorifying claim that he presides over the Most Transparent Administration Ever.

Also, recall how we have constantly heard from people like Sen. Dianne Feinstein and even the president himself that when the government collects “only metadata,” that does not even constitute real spying (it “is not surveillance,” Feinstein wrote; “we don’t have a domestic spying program,” proclaimed Obama). Yet here, the administration is concealing not only virtually all of its own email content but also substantial portions of the metadata of those emails:

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