LONDON — Britain’s government ordered the country’s top civil servant to ask the Guardian newspaper to destroy data leaked by former National Security Agency contractor Edward Snowden, senior ministers said Wednesday.
The Guardian says it came under pressure from the government soon after publishing stories in June about US and British surveillance based on Snowden’s information.
Deputy Prime Minister Nick Clegg defended the decision to ask Cabinet Secretary Jeremy Heywood to approach the newspaper.
“The deputy prime minister thought it was reasonable for the Cabinet secretary to request that the Guardian destroy data that would represent a serious threat to national security if it was to fall into the wrong hands,” Clegg’s office said in a statement. He “felt this was a preferable approach to taking legal action.” The action “was agreed to on the understanding that the purpose of the destruction of the material would not impinge on the Guardian’s ability to publish articles about the issue, but would help as a precautionary measure to protect lives and security.”
The Guardian says it destroyed hard drives with material leaked by Snowden rather than hand it over or face legal action from the government.
The paper says it has other copies outside Britain.
Foreign Secretary William Hague also backed the decision to ask the Guardian to get rid of the documents.
“The government clearly has a duty if information is held insecurely and could be damaging to our national security, to try to make sure that it is recovered or destroyed,” he said.
Guardian editor Alan Rusbridger disclosed the destruction amid disquiet over the detention of Guardian journalist Glenn Greenwald’s partner, David Miranda, who was held for nearly nine hours at Heathrow Airport. Miranda was ferrying data from filmmaker Laura Poitras in Germany to Greenwald, who is based in Brazil.
Civil libertarians says Miranda’s detention was unlawful.
A law firm representing Miranda has begun legal action against the government and wants assurances that material seized will not be shared.
The combination of the data destruction and the Miranda detention has touched off alarm in Britain about the reach of the secret state.