When Britain's the Guardian newspaper was pressured into destroying hard drives and laptops containing leaked documents from Edward Snowden, US officials looked on with a performed air of smug bafflement. No such thing would happen in the US, their remarks suggested, not with our respect for the Fourth Estate, not with our Constitution.
"That's very difficult to imagine a scenario in which that would be appropriate," said White House spokesman Josh Earnest, in response to the UK government's intervention with the leaked files.
So much for that. According to an AP report Friday, US officials, including NSA chief Keith Alexander, had been briefed in advance that the Guardian hardware would be destroyed. And they commended it. In an email to Alexander about the imminent deletion, now deputy NSA director Rick Ledgett wrote, "Good news at least on this front."
The destruction of the files, under the keen stare of British GHCQ agents, was largely symbolic. As we know, the contents of the files were safely in the hands of journalists in the US. As such, the US's initial public reaction to the Guardian hardware destruction was nothing but political theater. At a time when the US's global reputation for civil liberties protections was plummeting due to Snowden's leaks, the ability to point at Britain as a more villainous counterpart was certainly "good news" for NSA top brass.
As a Guardian spokesperson commented, "We're disappointed to learn that cross-Atlantic conversations were taking place at the very highest levels of government ahead of the bizarre destruction of journalistic material that took place in the Guardian's basement last July… 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 UK government's intervention."
The US cannot help itself to this distance anymore than Britain can exempt itself from the moral burden of the Iraq War. The dark vagaries of the US-UK "special relationship" cannot be so easily picked up and discarded at politicians' whims. Snowden's leaks have amply proven how mass surveillance is a game of corporate-government empire, not isolated nation states.
The Five Eyes countries (US, UK, Canada, Australia, and New Zealand) have been allied in intelligence sharing since World War II — an activity of mutual mass surveillance that has gone into superdrive in the digital age. As Snowden himself commented, the Five Eyes functions as "supra-national intelligence organization that doesn’t answer to the laws of its own countries."
To be sure, there are differences between the US and the UK in terms of media law. It is, for example, far easier to sue a publication for libel under UK jurisdiction than in this country. But under the pretext of national security, the distance between America and the sceptered isles is no more material than a stretch of ocean: The surveillance state knows no borders.
Follow Natasha Lennard on Twitter: @natashalennard
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