WASHINGTON (AP) — 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 said it would be nearly unimaginable for the U.S. government to 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.
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