MPs today warned Guardian editor Alan Rusbridger that he has breached the Terrorism Act 2000 by transmitting the names of British spies oversees.
Rusbridger was grilled by MPs today about his paper’s revelations based on 58,000 documents leaked by former National Security Agency contractor Edward Snowden.
They expressed concern that Rusbridger had “lost control” of the documents by sending them overseas to the US.
But Rusbridger insisted that the only people who had lost control of the files were the NSA who had allowed them to be leaked in the first place.
He said there was no evidence The Guardian had placed spies at risk or harmed national security and said the paper used military-grade encryption techniques to ensure the secrecy of its documents.
Committee chairman Keith Vaz opened the hearing by saying that Rusbridger had not been compelled to testify but had been “invited”.
Rusbridger said: “I wasn’t aware it was optional but I’m glad to be here.”
He said copies of the Snowden files were held by the Washington Post and were also in Rio and Germany. The copy which The Guardian has access to is shared with the New York Times.
Rusbridger asserted that 850,000 people would have been able to access the files via the NSA and noted that they were downloaded by a 29-year-old contractor in Hawaii (Edward Snowden) who was not even an NSA employee.
Last month the heads of the UK security services told MPs that the Guardian’s revelations had put the public at risk by helping terrorists evade detection.
Rusbridger said: “The problem with these allegations is that they don’t tell us how they relate to specific stories.”
He said that Norman Baker MP, a member of the US Senate Intelligence Committee, a senior Obama administration official and a senior White House official had all assured The Guardian that nothing it had published had risked lives.
Rusbridger was told that by sending a copy of the Snowden files overseas to the United States he had broken the law under the Terrorism Act because the files contained the names of secret service officers.
The Met Police has confirmed that it is considering whether to take action against The Guardian, but Rusbridger said he has received no communication from the Met about this.
He said he had told the Cabinet Office that he was sending a copy of the files to the US six months ago.
Mark Reckless MP said: “You have committed a criminal offence.”
Rusbridger replied that the Crown Prosecution Service guidelines place great emphasis on the public interest when deciding whether to bring charges.
At one point committee chair Keith Vaz asked Rusbridger: “Do you love this country?”
Rusbridger looked taken aback by the question and said “I’m rather surprised to be asked this”. He said: “Most of the people working on this story live in this country.
“We are patriots and one of things we are patriotic about is that we live in a democracy and have a free press.”
He said that The Guardian had consulted with DA Notice committee secretary Andrew Vallance about all its Snowden, stories with the exception of the one exposing spying by GCHQ on delegates at a G20 conference in 2009.
“He said that nothing he had seen harmed national security in terms of risking life – not that he gave us a completely clean bill of health. Most of the time when we rang him he said ‘there’s nothing here that’s damaging to national security’.”
It has been suggested that the Guardian coverage of an online tool called Tor, which allows users to communicate secretly online, had compromised national security. Rusbridger said his paper hadn’t revealed anything that wasn’t available on the Tor website.
It was suggested to Rusbridger than when David Miranda was arrested in Heathrow while carrying some of the Snowden files he had the encryption password in his pocket.
Rusbridger said that the password was only for an index file and that the rest were encrypted so securely that the police have still not unlocked them.
He noted that the security services themselves have been subject to almost no scrutiny about the fact they managed to lose the 58,000 documents in the first place.
He said there had been just one question about it in Parliament, by the Commons Intelligence and Security Committee last month, and that The Guardian was making up for Parliament’s failure to properly oversee the security services.
He said: “If the president of the United States calls a review of everything to do with intelligence, and that information only came into the public domain through newspapers, it's clear evidence that newspapers did something that oversight failed to do. I’d say it’s true in this country and the US.”
Rusbridger was also questioned about the use of a Fedex courier to transport some of the Snowden documents.
He said: “It was a small amount of material relating to one story which was encrypted with military grade encryption. It was sent safely and arrived safely.”
Rusbridger said the Guardian had only published information from around 1 per cent of the Snowden documents and that it would continue to publish more information but not use the Snowden files as a “biscuit barrel” for stories.
He said that the paper had made more than 100 contacts with officials at the White House, FBI, NSA, National Security Council, Downing Street, GCHQ and others and would continue to consult with the authorities ahead of publication.
He said that the paper had published 26 Snowden documents, taking care to redact the names of security service staff, and that it expect to publish a small amount more documents.
Talking about the GCHQ-supervised destruction of the Guardian hard drives containing the Snowden files, Rusbridger said: “It was made completely clear to the Cabinet Secretary that the files would be sent elsewhere and reporting would continue.”
And he warned MPs: “The next Edward Snowden won’t go to a newspaper they will dump this stuff on the internet.”