The Guardian’s global ambitions

Ken Auletta writes: At eight-thirty on the morning of June 21st, Alan Rusbridger, the unflappable editor of the Guardian, Britain’s liberal daily, was in his office, absorbing a lecture from Jeremy Heywood, the Cabinet Secretary to Prime Minister David Cameron. Accompanying Heywood was Craig Oliver, Cameron’s director of communications. The deputy editor, Paul Johnson, joined them in Rusbridger’s office, overlooking the Regent’s Canal, which runs behind King’s Cross station, in North London. According to Rusbridger, Heywood told him, in a steely voice, “The Prime Minister, the Deputy Prime Minister, the Foreign Secretary, the Attorney General, and others in government are extremely concerned about what you’re doing.”

Since June 5th, the Guardian had been publishing top-secret digital files provided by Edward Snowden, a former contract employee of the National Security Agency. In a series of articles, the paper revealed that the N.S.A., in the name of combatting terrorism, had monitored millions of phone calls and e-mails as well as the private deliberations of allied governments. It also revealed, again relying on Snowden’s documents, that, four years earlier, the Government Communications Headquarters (G.C.H.Q.), Britain’s counterpart to the N.S.A., had eavesdropped on the communications of other nations attending the G20 summit, in London.

Such articles have become a trademark of the Guardian. In 2009, it published the first in a torrent of stories revealing how Rupert Murdoch’s British tabloids had bribed the police and hacked into the phones of celebrities, politicians, and the Royal Family. In 2010, the Guardian published a trove of WikiLeaks documents that disclosed confidential conversations among diplomats of the United States, Britain, and other governments, and exposed atrocities that were committed in Iraq and Afghanistan; in August, Bradley (now Chelsea) Manning, a private in the U.S. Army, was sentenced to up to thirty-five years in prison for his role in the leak.

Now Rusbridger was poised to publish a story about how the G.C.H.Q. not only collected vast quantities of e-mails, Facebook posts, phone calls, and Internet histories but shared these with the N.S.A. Heywood had learned about the most recent revelation when Guardian reporters called British authorities for comment; he warned Rusbridger that the Guardian was in possession of stolen government documents. “We want them back,” he said. Unlike the U.S., Britain has no First Amendment to guard the press against government censorship. Rusbridger worried that the government would get a court injunction to block the Guardian from publishing not only the G.C.H.Q. story but also future national-security stories. “By publishing this, you’re jeopardizing not only national security but our ability to catch pedophiles, drug dealers, child sex rings,” Heywood said. “You’re an editor, but you have a responsibility as a citizen as well.” (Cameron’s office did not respond to requests for comment.)

Rusbridger replied that the files contained information that citizens in a democracy deserved to know, and he assured Heywood that he had scrubbed the documents so that no undercover officials were identified or put at risk. He had also taken steps to insure the story’s publication. Days earlier, Rusbridger had sent a Federal Express package containing a thumbnail drive of selected Snowden documents to an intermediary in the U.S. The person was to pass on the package to Paul Steiger, the former editor of the Wall Street Journal and the founding editor of the online, nonprofit news site ProPublica; if the Guardian was muzzled, Steiger would publish the documents on ProPublica. Besides, Rusbridger reminded Heywood, the government’s reach was limited: Glenn Greenwald, the Guardian blogger and columnist with whom Snowden had shared the documents, lived in Brazil, and was edited by Janine Gibson, a Guardian editor in New York.

“It was a little like watching two Queen’s Counsel barristers in a head-to-head struggle, two very polished performers engaging each other,” Johnson, the deputy editor, said. The Guardian has a reputation as a leftish publication that enjoys poking the establishment; its critics object that it allows commentary to occasionally slip into its headlines and news stories. Rusbridger, who is fifty-nine, has been its editor for eighteen years. He wears square, black-framed glasses and has a mop of dark hair that sprawls across his head and over his ears. He could pass for a librarian. “His physical appearance doesn’t tell you how tough he is,” Nick Davies, the investigative reporter whose byline dominated the Murdoch and WikiLeaks stories, said.

After an hour, Rusbridger ushered Heywood and Oliver out with a thank-you. He had taken what he considered a cautious approach to publishing the Snowden revelations. He consulted Guardian lawyers. He called Davies back from vacation and summoned the longtime investigations editor, David Leigh, out of retirement for advice and to help analyze the documents. He sought the opinion of two associates: the centrist Guardian columnist Simon Jenkins and the liberal Observer columnist Henry Porter. “He doesn’t buckle,” Porter, who is a close friend, said. “He’s extremely calm. He could easily head up any of the three intelligence agencies here.” [Continue reading…]

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