LONDON – The editor of Britain’s Guardian newspaper on Tuesday defended the publication of leaks by Edward Snowden, telling lawmakers under fierce questioning that the daily’s staff were “patriots”.
Alan Rusbridger told a parliamentary committee that his newspaper had published just one percent of the files from former US National Security Agency contractor Snowden and the rest were secure.
Britain’s spy chiefs told parliament last month that the publication of the Snowden leaks by the Guardian and other papers including the New York Times had helped Britain’s enemies.
“We are not going to be put off by intimidation but nor are we going to behave recklessly,” Rusbridger told the Home Affairs Select Committee, which summoned him as part of its counter-terrorism inquiry.
“This stuff may be politically embarrassing but there’s nothing here that is risking national security.”
He noted that the editors of the Washington Post and New York Times newspapers in the United States had made the same decision to publish, adding: “So this is not a rogue newspaper.”
The owlish, bespectacled Rusbridger said he was “surprised” when committee chairman Keith Vaz asked him during the televised hearing: “Do you love this country?”
Rusbridger hit back, “We are patriots, and one of the things we are patriotic about is democracy and the nature of our free press.”
The revelations in the Guardian, the Washington Post, the New York Times and Germany’s Der Spiegel are based on files leaked by Snowden, who has been granted temporary asylum in Russia.
Over the past six months the reports have laid bare the scale of mass surveillance by the US, Britain’s electronic eavesdropping station GCHQ, and other countries — often on their own allies.
Rusbridger said that only around one percent of the 58,000 secret documents passed to the Guardian and other papers by Snowden had been published.
The rest were “secure”, he said. He declined to reveal in public where they were kept, saying that he would write to the committee to tell them if they wanted.
The Guardian did not intend to publish many more, Rusbridger said, adding that files on Iraq, Afghanistan and other topics had remained off limits because they did not concern the core issue of surveillance.
Asked if the Guardian was responsible for revealing the names of intelligence agents, Rusbridger said the paper had “published no names and we have lost control of no names”.
One committee member, Conservative MP Michael Ellis, had to be cut off by Vaz after accusing Rusbridger of having “outed” gay spies and speculating that the Guardian would have published the Enigma codes used to defeat the Nazis during World War II.
“I can make those distinctions, Mr Ellis, thank you,” Rusbridger replied.
Some of the MPs pressed Rusbridger, 59, on whether he had committed a criminal offence by communicating secret information containing details about GCHQ staff out of the country, namely to journalists at the New York Times.
But he said it had been “apparent to the government for many months” that Snowden’s material contained documents with the names of security people working for the NSA and GCHQ.
He also reminded the committee that GCHQ officials had later supervised the destruction of computer hard drives and other equipment containing copies of the Snowden files at the Guardian’s offices in London.
Senior Scotland Yard officer Cressida Dick later told the same committee that police were examining material seized at Heathrow from the detained boyfriend of former Guardian journalist Glenn Greenwald as it appeared “possible offences” might have been committed.
The heads of Britain’s main intelligence agencies MI5, MI6 and GCHQ warned last month that Al-Qaeda and other enemies were “lapping up” Snowden’s revelations and were using them to change the way they operate.
Ahead of the parliamentary hearing, Rusbridger tweeted a “v nice letter” of support from Carl Bernstein, the veteran US journalist who helped break the Watergate scandal.
Bernstein said the hearing appeared to be “an attempt by the highest UK authorities to shift the issue from government policies and excessive government secrecy in the United States and Great Britain to the conduct of the press”.