Newly Obtained Emails Contradict Administration Claims on Guardian Laptop Destruction

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Documents obtained from the Obama administration from an Associated Press FOIA request

On July 20, 2013, agents of the U.K. government entered The Guardian newsroom in London and compelled them to physically destroy the computers they were using to report on the Edward Snowden archive. The Guardian reported this a month later after my partner, David Miranda, was detained at Heathrow Airport for 11 hours under a British terrorism law and had all of his electronic equipment seized. At the time, the Obama administration—while admitting that it was told in advance of the Heathrow detention—pretended that it knew nothing about the forced laptop destruction and would never approve of such attacks on press freedom. From the August 20, 2013, press briefing by then-deputy White House press secretary Josh Earnest:

Q: A last one on the NSA—The Guardian newspaper, following on everything that was discussed yesterday—The Guardian is saying that British authorities destroyed several hard drives, because they wanted to keep secrets that Edward Snowden had leaked from actually getting out.  They were stored in The Guardian‘s—they had some hard drives there at their offices.  British authorities went in there and destroyed these hard drives. Did the American government get a heads up about that the way you did about the person being detained?

MR. EARNEST:  I’ve seen the published reports of those accusations, but I don’t have any information for you on that.

Q: And does the U.S. government think it’s appropriate for a government, especially one of our allies, to go in and destroy hard drives? Is that something this administration would do?

MR. EARNEST: The only thing I know about this are the public reports about this, so it’s hard for me to evaluate the propriety of what they did based on incomplete knowledge of what happened.

Q: But this administration would not do that, would not go into an American media company and destroy hard drives, even if it meant trying to protect national security, you don’t think?

MR. EARNEST: It’s very difficult to imagine a scenario in which that would be appropriate.

But emails just obtained by Associated Press pursuant to a Freedom of Information Act request (FOIA) prove that senior Obama national security officials— including Director of National Intelligence James Clapper and then-NSA chief Keith Alexander—not only knew in advance that U.K. officials intended to force The Guardian to destroy their computers, but overtly celebrated it.

One email, dated July 19 (the day prior to the destruction) bears the subject line “Guardian data being destroyed” and is from NSA deputy director Richard Ledgett to Alexander. He writes: “Good news, at least on this front.” The next day, almost immediately after the computers were destroyed, Alexander emailed Ledgett: “Can you confirm this actually occurred?” Hours later, under the same subject line, Clapper emailed Alexander, saying: “Thanks Keith … appreciate the conversation today”.

It’s hardly surprising that the Obama Administration was fully informed in advance: It’s virtually inconceivable that notoriously subservient London officials would ever take any meaningful action without the advance knowledge and permission of their Washington overseers. There are, however, several notable points from these new disclosures:

(1) How many times do Obama administration officials have to be caught misleading the public before U.S. media outlets will stop assuming their claims to be true? Just this weekend, The Washington Post described the tens of thousands of FISA-collected emails that are in Snowden archive: the very material that Keith Alexander just two months ago unequivocally denied Snowden had obtained (Alexander: “He didn’t get this data. They didn’t touch —”; the New Yorker: “The operational data?”; Alexander: “They didn’t touch the FISA data … That database, he didn’t have access to”).

Now we have proof that Obama’s most senior officials were aware in advance of the very events that Obama’s spokesman pretended they knew nothing about. It’s possible, though unlikely in the extreme, that both Clapper and Alexander knew about this and neglected to tell anyone in the White House. Incredibly claiming that Obama was unaware of what his most senior national security officials get caught doing is this administration’s modus operandi: See, for instance, this and this. But that should raise the question—yet again—of whether these national security agencies are completely rogue and operating without any controls.

And whatever else was true: Obama’s senior officials were clearly delighted at this attack on press freedom while Obama’s press secretary pretended that the U.S. would never regard such behavior as “appropriate.” As The Guardian said today about all of this: “What’s perhaps most concerning is that the disclosure of these emails appears to contradict the White House’s comments about these events last year, when they questioned the appropriateness of the U.K. government’s intervention.”

(2) At least as notable as what the Obama administration disclosed in response to AP’s FOIA request is what they suppressed. Look at the documents the administration produced: Virtually all of it is censored, even though it pertains to discussions by public officials of the U.K. government’s attack on The Guardian‘s news gathering process. We are permitted to see only the smallest of snippets; virtually everything in this email chain is concealed, once again making a complete farce not only out of FOIA but also Obama’s self-glorifying claim that he presides over the Most Transparent Administration Ever™.

Also, recall how we have constantly heard from people like Sen. Dianne Feinstein and even the president himself that when the government collects “only metadata,” that does not even constitute real spying (it “is not surveillance,” Feinstein wrote; “we don’t have a domestic spying program,” proclaimed Obama). Yet here, the administration is concealing not only virtually all of its own email content but also substantial portions of the metadata of those emails:

metadata

In justifying its concealments, the administration has the audacity to claim that disclosure “would constitute a clearly unwarranted invasion of privacy.”

So the Obama administration is apparently capable of recognizing how invasive metadata can be when it comes to its own. Thus, we are not even permitted to know which of our public officials participated in this little celebration over British attacks on press freedom, let alone what they said.

Speaking of making a complete farce out of FOIA, AP notes that “Clapper’s office — following a separate, identical records request from the AP — said it had no records about the incident, even though Clapper’s email from his national intelligence director’s office account was part of the NSA document release.” What could possibly justify that?

(3) It’s worth noting that neither the destruction of The Guardian hard drives which U.S. officials were celebrating, nor the seizure of my partner’s electronic goods, had the slightest impact on our ability to report on these documents. There were, needless to say, multiple copies of these archives in multiple safe places around the world. They were thus celebrating something that imposed no impediment whatsoever on disclosure of these materials. As usual for the U.S. and U.K. security services, then, their behavior was as inept as it was thuggish.

* * * * *

There are several follow-ups to note from our story on Wednesday about NSA and FBI spying on prominent Muslim Americans:

(1) According to a report in The Arab Daily News, “several Muslim American organizations have announced their intentions to file lawsuits against the U.S. Government over FBI spying that targeted American citizens who are of the Muslim religion and Arab heritage, and are demanding investigations by Federal authorities.” As noted in our article, vesting people with “standing” to sue over the legality and constitutionality of these spying activities was a major reason why Snowden provided this information, and I am quite certain this will not be the last lawsuit filed in response to our report.

(2) As we reported on Wednesday, “a coalition of 44 civil rights groups organized by the American Civil Liberties Union has sent a letter to President Obama demanding  a ‘full public accounting’ of the government’s ‘targeting of community leaders’ for surveillance.” Members of Congress, including Rep. Keith Ellison, Alan Grayson, and Sen. Ron Wyden, spoke out. Meanwhile, “the White House told the Guardian that it has asked the intelligence community to ‘review their training and policy materials for racial or religious bias” after we published an internal instructional memo that referred to a hypothetical surveillance target as ‘Mohammed Raghead.’” That’s a nice step, but the fact that this is the only review the White House thinks is needed – and not the spying itself – is quite telling.

(3) Among the best commentaries on the implications of our story are those from Kade Crockford of the ACLU of Massachusetts, Marcy Wheeler in Salon, Digby, and Amy Davidson in the New Yorker. Among the better media reports on the story were articles in the Wall Street Journal and the New York Times.

(4) Two of the people named in our story, Faisal Gill and Asim Ghafoor, spoke both to CNN and Democracy Now about their reactions to learning they had been monitored. Meanwhile, CAIR Executive Director Nihad Awad has a great essay in Time describing his reaction to learning he had been subject to surveillance.

(5) Vocal NSA loyalist Benjamin Wittes of the Brookings Institution argued that we can’t possibly know whether this spying was legitimate unless and until we see the “relevant FISA applications.” He then later announced that he would be opposed to release of those applications. In other words, he does not want to see – and does not want anyone else to see – the only documents that he believes could reveal NSA abuse. That, in a nutshell, is the mindset of the NSA loyalist.

Apparently, in the 1960s and 1970s, Wittes and allies would have been arguing that it was impossible to say whether J. Edgar Hoover’s targeting of anti-war protesters, civil rights leaders and other government critics was appropriate unless and until we could read Hoover’s personal files about those targets. After all, could anyone prove the negative that these weren’t dangerous and violent people? And, of course, there was no shortage of Americans back then who wanted those groups surveilled on the ground that they posed threats to the prevailing order, just as there are many who today want their fellow citizens surveilled who are Muslim.

(6) A new Huffington Post/YouGov poll finds that “Most Americans think government surveillance that gathers up masses of telephone and Internet data goes ‘too far.'”

(7) Here are two excellent essays, published prior to our story, on why some non-Muslims react with indifference and boredom to revelations of NSA overreach: by Julian Sanchez and Anna Lekas Miller. As those essays demonstrate, a major reason so many US Government abuses (from indefinite detention to drones to rendition to pervasive surveillance) have been tolerated over the last decade is because people like that perceive that it’s only happening to Muslims – not to them or people like them – and so it’s irrelevant and/or justified.