On Saturday 20 July 2013, in the basement of the Guardian’s office in Kings Cross, London, watched by two GCHQ technicians, Guardian editors destroyed hard drives and memory cards on which encrypted files leaked by Edward Snowden had been stored. This is the first time footage of the event has been released.
Under the watchful gaze of two technicians from the British government spy agency GCHQ, the journalists took angle-grinders and drills to the internal components, rendering them useless and the information on them obliterated.
In two tense meetings last June and July the cabinet secretary, Jeremy Heywood, explicitly warned the Guardian’s editor, Alan Rusbridger, to return the Snowden documents. Heywood, sent personally by David Cameron, told the editor to stop publishing articles based on leaked material from American’s National Security Agency and GCHQ. At one point Heywood said: “We can do this nicely or we can go to law”. He added: “A lot of people in government think you should be closed down.”
Days later Oliver Robbins, the prime minister’s deputy national security adviser, renewed the threat of legal action. “If you won’t return it [the Snowden material] we will have to talk to ‘other people’ this evening.” Asked if Downing Street really intended to close down the Guardian if it did not comply, Robbins confirmed: “I’m saying this.” He told the deputy editor, Paul Johnson, the government wanted the material in order to conduct “forensics”. This would establish how Snowden had carried out his leak, strengthening the legal case against the Guardian’s source. It would also reveal which reporters had examined which files.
Three Guardian staff members – Johnson, executive director Sheila Fitzsimons and computer expert David Blishen – carried out the demolition of the Guardian’s hard drives. It was hot, sweaty work. On the instructions of GCHQ, the trio bought angle-grinders, dremels – a drill with a revolving bit – and masks. The spy agency provided one piece of hi-tech equipment, a “degausser”, which destroys magnetic fields, and erases data. It took three hours to smash up the computers. The journalists then fed the pieces into the degausser.
Two GCHQ technical experts – “Ian” and “Chris” – recorded the process on their iPhones. Afterwards they headed back to GCHQ’s doughnut-shaped HQ in Cheltenham carrying presents for family members, bought on their rare visit to the capital.
“It was purely a symbolic act,” Johnson said. “We knew that. GCHQ knew that. And the government knew that,” He added: “It was the most surreal event I have witnessed in British journalism.”
Rusbridger told government officials that destruction of the Snowden files would not stop the flow of intelligence-related stories since the documents existed in several jurisdictions. After the destruction on Saturday 20 July, reporting switched entirely to the US.