British paper details confrontation with U.K. intelligence

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LONDON -- A British newspaper released new details of its confrontation with the nation's intelligence service Tuesday, saying it destroyed hard drives containing material leaked by Edward Snowden in order to insulate the former U.S. intelligence worker from potential prosecution and keep reporting on his leaks.

The Guardian said senior staffers shattered the electronics using angle grinders and drills in mid-July in a bid to avoid legal action or even a police raid that could halt its reporting or provide evidence for U.S. officials seeking to put Mr. Snowden behind bars.

"I didn't want to get in that position," editor Alan Rusbridger said in a video interview posted to the Guardian's website. "Once it was obvious that they would be going to law, I would rather destroy the copy than hand it back to them or allow the courts to freeze our reporting."

He said the paper has other copies of the same material located elsewhere.

Mr. Rusbridger spoke as disquiet continued to grow over the detention of Guardian journalist Glen Greenwald's partner, David Miranda, who was held for nine hours Sunday at London's Heathrow Airport as he was ferrying material related to the Snowden story between filmmaker Laura Poitras in Germany and Brazil, where Mr. Greenwald is based.

Mr. Snowden's leaks have served as the jumping-off point for a series of stories about the globe-spanning U.S. surveillance program, including revelations that U.S. spies reach deep inside private companies to keep track of tens of millions of innocent Americans' phone and Internet conversations with limited independent oversight. The stories have emboldened privacy activists and embarrassed President Barack Obama, who recently unveiled a slate of intelligence overhauls intended to calm public concerns.

Legal commentators have questioned the legality of Mr. Miranda's detention, which civil liberties groups have decried as an abuse of power aimed at sabotaging Mr. Greenwald's coverage.

The British government has declined to comment on the shattered hard drives, but it defended its decision to detain Mr. Miranda, saying it was right to stop anyone suspected of possessing "highly sensitive stolen information that would help terrorism."

A law firm representing Mr. Miranda has begun legal action against the government, calling his detention unlawful and seeking assurances that British officials would not share the material seized from Mr. Miranda with anyone else. In a letter released to The Associated Press, London-based Bindmans called upon the government to return a "mobile phone, laptop, memory sticks, smart-watch, DVDs and games consoles" taken from Mr. Miranda. "These items contain sensitive, confidential journalistic material and should not have been seized."

Experts have suggested that the government's case is dicey. The piece of legislation used to stop Mr. Miranda -- Schedule 7 of the 2000 Terrorism Act -- is especially contentious because it allows police to stop people for passing through airports for as long as nine hours without suspicion that they have committed any offense.

British legal blogger David Allen Green said Schedule 7 could be used only to determine whether a person was a terrorist -- and not, as he put it, "a fishing expedition for property." He added, "If the questioning, detention and search of Miranda was for a purpose other than to determine if he was a terrorist, then it was unlawful."

Former police officer David Lowe, a Liverpool John Moores University academic, said in a phone interview that he believed that the government was acting in good faith. He argued that the Snowden leaks could contain details of intelligence operations against groups such as al-Qaida, which he said was where anti-terror laws could come into play. "It's a thin connection," he acknowledged.

The role of U.S. authorities in the Guardian saga has remained a matter for speculation.

U.S. officials have acknowledged getting advance warning of Mr. Miranda' detention. But when White House spokesman Josh Earnest was asked Tuesday whether the United States would ever order the destruction of a U.S. media firm's hard drives, he said it was "very difficult to imagine a scenario in which that would be appropriate."

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