LONDON – The editor of The Guardian said Tuesday his newspaper has published just 1 percent of the material it received from former National Security Agency contractor Edward Snowden, and denied the paper had placed lives or national security at risk.
Under questioning by lawmakers on parliament’s home affairs committee, Alan Rusbridger accused British authorities of trying to intimidate the newspaper and warned of “national security being used as a trump card” to stifle debate.
The Guardian helped spark a global debate on privacy and security by publishing a series of stories based on leaks from Snowden disclosing the scale of telephone and Internet surveillance by spy agencies in the U.S. and Britain.
Rusbridger said the leak amounted to about 58,000 files, and the newspaper had published “about 1 percent” of the total. “I would not expect us to be publishing a huge amount more,” he said.
Government and intelligence officials have reacted angrily to the leaks, saying they compromised British security and aided terrorists. Britain’s top three spy chiefs said last month that al-Qaida and other terrorist groups were “rubbing their hands in glee” in the wake of Snowden’s leaks. Several Conservative lawmakers have said the left-leaning Guardian should be prosecuted for breaching terrorism laws.
Rusbridger defended the newspaper’s decision to publish the secret material. He said stories published by The Guardian, The Washington Post and others had prompted much-needed debate about the scale of intelligence activities and exposed the limits of regulatory laws drawn up in the pre-Internet era.
“There is no doubt in my mind . . . that newspapers have done something that oversight has failed to do,” he said.
Questioning by members of the all-party committee ranged from supportive to hostile, a sign of how deeply opinion is divided on the issue. Conservative lawmaker Michael Ellis asked whether The Guardian would have passed information to the Nazis during World War II, while the committee’s Labour chairman, Keith Vaz, asked Rusbridger whether he loved his country.
“I’m slightly surprised to be asked the question,” Rusbridger said, “but yes we (at The Guardian) are patriots, and one of the things we are patriotic about is the nature of democracy and the nature of a free press.”
Rusbridger denied placing intelligence agents at risk, saying The Guardian had “made very selective judgments” about what to publish and hadn’t revealed any names.
British police launched a criminal investigation into the leaks after detaining the partner of then-Guardian journalist Glenn Greenwald at Heathrow Airport in August under terrorism legislation. Rusbridger said he didn’t know whether The Guardian was being investigated by police.
Assistant Chief Commissioner Cressida Dick told the committee that London’s police force was investigating possible breaches of terrorism laws and Britain’s Official Secrets Act. “It appears possible . . . that some people may have committed offenses,” she said, but declined to say whether The Guardian is under investigation.
Rusbridger said The Guardian had come under pressure from authorities in a way that would be “inconceivable” in the U.S., where journalists can rely on First Amendment protections of freedom of speech. He cited pressure to stop the stories from Britain’s top civil servant, politicians’ calls for the newspaper to be prosecuted and a security agency threat to confiscate The Guardian’s hard drives containing Snowden files. Rusbridger destroyed the drives, having first sent copies of the documents abroad.
“I feel that some of this activity has been designed to intimidate The Guardian,” Rusbridger said.
That sentiment was echoed in a letter to the parliamentary panel from the U.S.-based Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press, which said that “to the rest of the world, it appears that press freedom itself is under attack in Britain.” The letter was signed by U.S. media organizations including The New York Times, The Washington Post and The Associated Press.
It said it was “unwise and counterproductive to react to the reporting on disclosures from Edward Snowden by reflexively invoking security concerns to silence the press or to accuse a news organization of aiding terrorists simply by providing citizens with information they need to know.”
Rusbridger said The Guardian would continue to publish responsibly. “We’re not going to be put off by intimidation, but nor are we going to behave recklessly,” he said.