WASHINGTON — The Obama administration knew in advance that the British government would oversee destruction of a newspaper's hard drives containing leaked National Security Agency documents last year, newly declassified documents show. The White House had publicly distanced itself on whether it would do the same to an American news organization.
The Guardian newspaper, responding to threats from the British government in July 2013, destroyed the data roughly a month after it and other media outlets first published details from the top secret documents leaked by former NSA contractor Edward Snowden.
After news of the Guardian incident broke the following month, White House spokesman Josh Earnest said it would be "very difficult to imagine a scenario in which that would be appropriate." He had been asked whether the U.S. would ever order the destruction of a U.S. media company's computer data.
The NSA emails, obtained by The Associated Press under the Freedom of Information Act, showed that senior intelligence officials were notified of Britain's intent to retrieve the Snowden documents and that one senior U.S. official appeared to praise the effort.
"Good news, at least on this front," the current NSA deputy director, Richard Ledgett, said at the end of a short, censored email to then-NSA director Gen. Keith Alexander and others. The subject of that July 19, 2013, email was: "Guardian data being destroyed." A paragraph before Ledgett's comment was blacked out by censors, and the NSA declined to answer questions about the documents.
The White House said Thursday the comment from Ledgett — then the head of the NSA's Media Leaks Task Force — was confined to intelligence operations because it was "good news" that classified information was recovered and "didn't reflect a broader administration view" on press freedoms.
The Guardian's hard drives were destroyed the day after Ledgett's email. Top editor Alan Rusbridger made the decision after a week of increasingly blunt threats from British officials. A senior aide to British Prime Minister David Cameron even warned that Rusbridger's nearly 200-year-old newspaper faced closure unless the documents were destroyed.
In a statement to the AP, the Guardian said it was 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 U.K. government's intervention," the newspaper said.
The White House said Thursday that the British government had acted on its own in destroying the Guardian drives.
News organizations in America are largely protected by the First Amendment, but British media have to comply with laws that prohibit the publication of classified information. The U.S. edition of the Guardian, along with The Washington Post and The New York Times, also had copies of the Snowden files outside of Britain. Last year, British officials also tried unsuccessfully to persuade then-New York Times executive editor Jill Abramson to return the documents.
It was unclear from the heavily censored emails whether the NSA had any role in ordering the Guardian's data destruction, or whether the U.S. pressured Britain to compel the newspaper to return the files. The NSA's British counterpart, Government Communications Headquarters, or GCHQ, also declined to comment for this story.
At least one censored email sent to a top NSA executive appeared to have a date and time format more commonly used in Britain than in the U.S.; another email looped in an NSA liaison at GCHQ.
"Can you confirm that this actually occurred?" Alexander replied on July 20. The largely censored response wished Alexander a "wonderful weekend."
"Thanks, Keith," Director of National Intelligence James Clapper said in another note to Alexander after being alerted of the incident. "Appreciate the conversation today."
Clapper's office — following a separate, identical request from the AP under the Freedom of Information Act — 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 recent NSA document release.
The Snowden documents revealed the NSA and GCHQ were collecting the phone records and digital communications of millions of citizens not suspected of a crime.
Rusbridger called the file destruction "one of the more bizarre moments in the Guardian's long history." He insisted that Guardian staff carry out the destruction itself, according to an account of the episode published in "The Snowden Files" by Guardian journalist Luke Harding.
The paper's editors spent three hours destroying hard drives and memory cards with drills and angle grinders. Two GCHQ staffers supervised as the sparks flew, feeding the crushed bits of computer into a degausser — a microwave-like device intended to irreversibly erase data.
A month later, the British government also detained the partner of journalist Glenn Greenwald under terrorism laws and confiscated his memory sticks when he tried to take Snowden files through a London airport.
Online: View the emails at http://apne.ws/1oKwvy9
Associated Press writers Eileen Sullivan in Washington and Raphael Satter in London contributed to this report. Follow Jack Gillum on Twitter at https://twitter.com/jackgillum