British Prime Minister David Cameron ordered his top civil servant to try to stop revelations flowing from the Guardian newspaper about US and British surveillance programs, two sources with direct knowledge of the matter said.
News that Cabinet Secretary Jeremy Heywood had contacted the Guardian drags Cameron into a storm over Britain’s response to media coverage of secrets leaked by fugitive US intelligence contractor Edward Snowden.
Guardian editor Alan Rusbridger said on Tuesday that he had been approached by “a very senior official claiming to represent the views of the prime minister” after his paper had published a series of exposes based on the Snowden material.
The sources named the official as Heywood, who is Cameron’s most senior policy adviser. “The prime minister asked the Cabinet Secretary to deal with this matter, that’s true,” one source told Reuters.
Government supporters say information leaked by Snowden, who has obtained asylum in Russia, could threaten national security. However, rights groups have accused the government of an assault on press freedom over a series of incidents.
These include the detention of a Guardian reporter’s partner, and news that the paper had been forced to destroy computer files containing information from Snowden under threat of government legal action.
A Downing Street spokeswoman said: “We won’t go into specific cases but if highly sensitive information was being held insecurely we have a responsibility to secure it.”
Cameron is on holiday in southwestern England.
The government had tried to distance itself from Rusbridger’s allegation that the Guardian was made to destroy the computer hard drives, and from the detention of David Miranda, partner of reporter Glenn Greenwald who has led the paper’s coverage of the Snowden leaks.
It has argued that these were operational security matters.
On Tuesday a White House spokesman said he could not comment on the destruction of Snowden material. But spokesman John Earnest said he could not see US authorities destroying an American media company’s hard drives to protect national security. “That’s very difficult to imagine a scenario in which that would be appropriate,” he said told reporters.
Britain says its security agencies act within the law and that Snowden’s leaks are a grave threat to national security.
Miranda was held for nine hours on Sunday under an anti-terrorism law at Heathrow airport, where he was in transit on his way from Germany to his native Brazil.
He was released without charge minus his laptop, phone and memory sticks. He had been ferrying documents between Greenwald and a Berlin-based journalist contact of Snowden.
Brazil has said Miranda’s detention had “no justification,” while Miranda has launched legal action against the police and the government, accusing them of abusing anti-terrorism powers to get hold of sensitive journalistic material.
Home Secretary Theresa May, the British interior minister, said on Tuesday police were right to detain Miranda if they thought he was “in possession of highly sensitive, stolen information that could help terrorists, that could risk lives.”
But the controversy over Miranda’s detention has been fuelled by Rusbridger’s revelations on Tuesday about events several weeks ago, when the paper came under pressure to hand back or destroy intelligence material obtained from Snowden.
Rusbridger described conversations with the official now said to be Heywood and with “shadowy Whitehall figures,” a reference to the seat of government, and said he was told: “You’ve had your fun. Now we want the stuff back.”
Later, two agents from the secretive Government Communications Headquarters (GCHQ) came to the paper’s offices and watched while Guardian staff destroyed hard drives containing files obtained from Snowden.
Rusbridger said he agreed to this because there were other copies of the documents elsewhere. He said neither Miranda’s detention nor the destruction of the material would stop the Guardian from publishing more of Snowden’s leaks as it could conduct its reporting work outside of Britain.