In Background, Discussion, Freedom of Information

the guardian

The Guardian used to be considered Britain’s foremost left-leaning broadsheet newspaper. It began in 1821 as the Manchester Guardian and only in 1959 was it renamed the Guardian. For many years it was lauded for its independent and critical journalism. However, according to newly released documents and evidence from former and current Guardian journalists, it has been successfully targeted by security agencies to neutralise its adversarial reporting of the ‘security state’.

By Matt Kennard and Mark Curtis

Published on the Daily Maverick, Sept 11, 2019
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The Guardian, Britain’s leading liberal newspaper with a global reputation for independent and critical journalism, has been successfully targeted by security agencies to neutralise its adversarial reporting of the ‘security state’, according to newly released documents and evidence from former and current Guardian journalists.

The UK security services targeted The Guardian after the newspaper started publishing the contents of secret US government documents leaked by National Security Agency contractor Edward Snowden in June 2013.

Snowden’s bombshell revelations continued for months and were the largest-ever leak of classified material covering the NSA and its UK equivalent, the Government Communications Headquarters. They revealed programmes of mass surveillance operated by both agencies.

According to minutes of meetings of the UK’s Defence and Security Media Advisory Committee, the revelations caused alarm in the British security services and Ministry of Defence.

“This event was very concerning because at the outset The Guardian avoided engaging with the [committee] before publishing the first tranche of information,” state minutes of a 7 November 2013 meeting at the MOD.

The DSMA Committee, more commonly known as the D-Notice Committee, is run by the MOD, where it meets every six months. A small number of journalists are also invited to sit on the committee. Its statedpurpose is to “prevent inadvertent public disclosure of information that would compromise UK military and intelligence operations”. It can issue “notices” to the media to encourage them not to publish certain information.

The committee is currently chaired by the MOD’s director-general of security policy Dominic Wilson, who was previously director of security and intelligence in the British Cabinet Office. Its secretary is Brigadier Geoffrey Dodds OBE, who describes himself as an “accomplished, senior ex-military commander with extensive experience of operational level leadership”.

The D-Notice system describes itself as voluntary, placing no obligations on the media to comply with any notice issued. This means there should have been no need for the Guardian to consult the MOD before publishing the Snowden documents.

Yet committee minutes note the secretary saying: “The Guardian was obliged to seek … advice under the terms of the DA notice code.” The minutes add: “This failure to seek advice was a key source of concern and considerable efforts had been made to address it.”

Considerable efforts’

These “considerable efforts” included a D-Notice sent out by the committee on 7 June 2013 – the day after The Guardian published the first documents – to all major UK media editors, saying they should refrain from publishing information that would “jeopardise both national security and possibly UK personnel”. It was marked “private and confidential: not for publication, broadcast or use on social media”.

Clearly the committee did not want its issuing of the notice to be publicised, and it was nearly successful. Only the right-wing blog Guido Fawkes made it public.

At the time, according to the committee minutes, the “intelligence agencies in particular had continued to ask for more advisories [i.e. D-Notices] to be sent out”. Such D-Notices were clearly seen by the intelligence services not so much as a tool to advise the media but rather a way to threaten it not to publish further Snowden revelations.

One night, amidst the first Snowden stories being published, the D-Notice Committee’s then-secretary Air Vice-Marshal Andrew Vallance personally called Alan Rusbridger, then editor of The Guardian. Vallance “made clear his concern that The Guardian had failed to consult him in advance before telling the world”, according to a Guardian journalist who interviewed Rusbridger.

Later in the year, Prime Minister David Cameron again used the D-Notice system as a threat to the media.

“I don’t want to have to use injunctions or D-Notices or the other tougher measures,” he said in a statement to MPs. “I think it’s much better to appeal to newspapers’ sense of social responsibility. But if they don’t demonstrate some social responsibility it would be very difficult for government to stand back and not to act.”

The threats worked. The Press Gazette reported at the time that “The FT [Financial Times] and The Times did not mention it [the initial Snowden revelations] … and the Telegraph published only a short”. It continued by noting that only The Independent “followed up the substantive allegations”. It added, “The BBC has also chosen to largely ignore the story.”8

The Guardian, however, remained uncowed.

 

 

 

 

 

According to the committee minutes, the fact The Guardian would not stop publishing “undoubtedly raised questions in some minds about the system’s future usefulness”. If the D-Notice system could not prevent The Guardian publishing GCHQ’s most sensitive secrets, what was it good for?

It was time to rein in The Guardian and make sure this never happened again.

GCHQ and laptops

The security services ratcheted up their “considerable efforts” to deal with the exposures.

On 20 July 2013, GCHQ officials entered The Guardian’s offices at King’s Cross in London, six weeks after the first Snowden-related article had been published.

At the request of the government and security services, Guardian deputy editor Paul Johnson, along with two others, spent three hours destroying the laptops containing the Snowden documents.

The Guardian staffers, according to one of the newspaper’s reporters, brought “angle-grinders, dremels – drills with revolving bits – and masks”. The reporter added, “The spy agency provided one piece of hi-tech equipment, a ‘degausser’, which destroys magnetic fields and erases data.”

Johnson claims that the destruction of the computers was “purely a symbolic act”, adding that “the government and GCHQ knew, because we had told them, that the material had been taken to the US to be shared with the New York Times. The reporting would go on. The episode hadn’t changed anything.”

Yet the episode did change something. As the D-Notice Committee minutes for November 2013 outlined: “Towards the end of July [as the computers were being destroyed], The Guardian had begun to seek and accept D-Notice advice not to publish certain highly sensitive details and since then the dialogue [with the committee] had been reasonable and improving.”

The British security services had carried out more than a “symbolic act”. It was both a show of strength and a clear threat. The Guardian was then the only major newspaper that could be relied upon by whistleblowers in the US and British security bodies to receive and cover their exposures, a situation which posed a challenge to security agencies.

The increasingly aggressive overtures made to The Guardian worked. The committee chair noted that after GCHQ had overseen the smashing up of the newspaper’s laptops “engagement … with The Guardian had continued to strengthen”.

Moreover, he added, there were now “regular dialogues between the secretary and deputy secretaries and Guardian journalists”. Rusbridger later testified to the Home Affairs Committee that Air Vice-Marshal Vallance of the D-Notice committee and himself “collaborated” in the aftermath of the Snowden affair and that Vallance had even “been at The Guardian offices to talk to all our reporters”.

But the most important part of this charm and threat offensive was getting The Guardian to agree to take a seat on the D-Notice Committee itself. The committee minutes are explicit on this, noting that “the process had culminated by [sic] the appointment of Paul Johnson (deputy editor Guardian News and Media) as a DPBAC [i.e. D-Notice Committee] member”.

At some point in 2013 or early 2014, Johnson – the same deputy editor who had smashed up his newspaper’s computers under the watchful gaze of British intelligence agents – was approached to take up a seat on the committee. Johnson attended his first meeting in May 2014 and was to remain on it until October 2018.

The Guardian’s deputy editor went directly from the corporation’s basement with an angle-grinder to sitting on the D-Notice Committee alongside the security service officials who had tried to stop his paper publishing.

A new editor

Guardian editor Alan Rusbridger withstood intense pressure not to publish some of the Snowden revelations but agreed to Johnson taking a seat on the D-Notice Committee as a tactical sop to the security services. Throughout his tenure, The Guardian continued to publish some stories critical of the security services.

But in March 2015, the situation changed when the Guardian appointed a new editor, Katharine Viner, who had less experience than Rusbridger of dealing with the security services. Viner had started out on fashion and entertainment magazine Cosmopolitan and had no history in national security reporting. According to insiders, she showed much less leadership during the Snowden affair than Janine Gibson in the US (Gibson was another candidate to be Rusbridger’s successor).

Viner was then editor-in-chief of Guardian Australia, which was launched just two weeks before the first Snowden revelations were published. Australia and New Zealand comprise two-fifths of the so-called “Five Eyes” surveillance alliance exposed by Snowden.

This was an opportunity for the security services. It appears that their seduction began the following year.

In November 2016, The Guardian published an unprecedented “exclusive” with Andrew Parker, the head of MI5, Britain’s domestic security service. The article noted that this was the “first newspaper interview given by an incumbent MI5 chief in the service’s 107-year history”. It was co-written by deputy editor Paul Johnson, who had never written about the security services before and who was still sitting on the D-Notice Committee. This was not mentioned in the article.

The MI5 chief was given copious space to make claims about the national security threat posed by an “increasingly aggressive” Russia. Johnson and his co-author noted, “Parker said he was talking to The Guardian rather than any other newspaper despite the publication of the Snowden files.”

Parker told the two reporters, “We recognise that in a changing world we have to change too. We have a responsibility to talk about our work and explain it.”

Four months after the MI5 interview, in March 2017, the Guardian published another unprecedented “exclusive”, this time with Alex Younger, the sitting chief of MI6, Britain’s external intelligence agency. This exclusive was awarded by the Secret Intelligence Service to The Guardian’s investigations editor, Nick Hopkins, who had been appointed 14 months previously.

Head of MI6, (the foreign intelligence service of the government of the United Kingdom) Alexander Younger wait for a visit of Britain’s Elizabeth II outside Watergate House to mark the centenary the United Kingdom’s Intelligence, Security and Cyber Agency (GCHQ) in London, Britain, 14 February 2019. PA-EFE/FACUNDO ARRIZABALAGA

The interview was the first Younger had given to a national newspaper and was again softball. Titled “MI6 returns to ‘tapping up’ in an effort to recruit black and Asian officers”, it focused almost entirely on the intelligence service’s stated desire to recruit from ethnic minority communities.

“Simply, we have to attract the best of modern Britain,” Younger told Hopkins. “Every community from every part of Britain should feel they have what it takes, no matter what their background or status.”

Just two weeks before the interview with MI6’s chief was published, The Guardian itself reported on the high court stating that it would “hear an application for a judicial review of the Crown Prosecution Service’s decision not to charge MI6’s former counterterrorism director, Sir Mark Allen, over the abduction of Abdel Hakim Belhaj and his pregnant wife who were transferred to Libya in a joint CIA-MI6 operation in 2004”.

None of this featured in The Guardian article, which did, however, cover discussions of whether the James Bond actor Daniel Craig would qualify for the intelligence service. “He would not get into MI6,” Younger told Hopkins.

More recently, in August 2019, The Guardian was awarded yet another exclusive, this time with Metropolitan police assistant commissioner Neil Basu, Britain’s most senior counter-terrorism officer. This was Basu’s “first major interview since taking up his post” the previous year and resulted in a three-part series of articles, one of which was entitled “Met police examine Vladimir Putin’s role in Salisbury attack”.

The security services were probably feeding The Guardian these “exclusives” as part of the process of bringing it onside and neutralising the only independent newspaper with the resources to receive and cover a leak such as Snowden’s. They were possibly acting to prevent any revelations of this kind happening again.

What, if any, private conversations have taken place between Viner and the security services during her tenure as editor are not known. But in 2018, when Paul Johnson eventually left the D-Notice Committee, its chair, the MOD’s Dominic Wilson, praised Johnson who, he said, had been “instrumental in re-establishing links with The Guardian”.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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