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UK officials justify Guardian airport detention, destruction of disk drives

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hard drive platter actuator arm (flickr lyrandian)
hard drive platter actuator arm (flickr lyrandian)

Following the UK government’s decision to detain Guardian journalist Glenn Greenwald’s partner at Heathrow Airport under the auspices of a counterterrorism law, the country’s Home Office is ramping up the rhetoric, saying that he had "highly sensitive stolen information" and suggesting journalists and critics do some soul searching before pointing fingers at law enforcement. The news follows an earlier Guardian report that a UK intelligence agency ordered it to destroy disk drives and flash storage containing leaked NSA files, the reason behind which ostensibly being that China or Russia could hack into the Guardian’s network and steal the data.

"Those who oppose this sort of action need to think about what they are condoning."

According to the Guardian, a UK Home Office spokesperson stated that "If the police believe that an individual is in possession of highly sensitive stolen information that would help terrorism, then they should act and the law provides them with a framework to do that. Those who oppose this sort of action need to think about what they are condoning." They declined to discuss specifics of the case, noting that the police inquiry is ongoing. Until now the Home Office had been refusing to comment on David Miranda’s detention, stating that it was an operational police matter.

The government has taken extraordinary measures to keep new materials out of the hands of Greenwald and the Guardian despite the files in Miranda’s possession clearly not being the only copies. At the same time, the organization has faced similar legal hurdles trying to keep the files it already had in its possession.

"Foreign agents could train a laser on [a plastic cup] to pick up the vibrations of what was being said."

After Guardian employees argued that the files weren’t stored on a networked computer and therefore inaccessible from outside, intelligence officers reportedly explained that even having the files in the building posed a risk. "[The agent] said by way of example that if there was a plastic cup in the room … foreign agents could train a laser on it to pick up the vibrations of what was being said. Vibrations on windows could similarly be monitored remotely by laser," writes the Guardian’s Julian Borger. Ultimately, the drives were destroyed with angle grinders and drills while officials looked on.

The GCHQ is tasked with signals intelligence (SIGINT), including the surveillance of online communications, and was reported in June to be working with the NSA on a shared spying program called Tempora. Earlier this month, it was revealed that the NSA has also been secretly funding GCHQ investments in intelligence-gathering programs. Despite the links, the US government has insisted that it had no hand in Miranda’s detainment.