You've had your fun: now we want the stuff back. With these words the British government embarked on the most bizarre act of state censorship of the internet age. In a Guardian basement, officials from GCHQ gazed with satisfaction on a pile of mangled hard drives like so many book burners sent by the Spanish Inquisition. They were unmoved by the fact that copies of the drives were lodged round the globe. They wanted their symbolic auto-da-fe. Had the Guardian refused this ritual they said they would have obtained a search and destroy order from a compliant British court.
Two great forces are now in fierce but unresolved contention. The material revealed by Edward Snowden through the Guardian and the Washington Post is of a wholly different order from WikiLeaks and other recent whistle-blowing incidents. It indicates not just that the modern state is gathering, storing and processing for its own ends electronic communication from around the world; far more serious, it reveals that this power has so corrupted those wielding it as to put them beyond effective democratic control. It was not the scope of NSA surveillance that led to Snowden's defection. It was hearing his boss lie to Congress about it for hours on end.
Last week in Washington, Congressional investigators discovered that the America's foreign intelligence surveillance court, a body set up specifically to oversee the NSA, had itself been defied by the agency "thousands of times". It was victim to "a culture of misinformation" as orders to destroy intercepts, emails and files were simply disregarded; an intelligence community that seems neither intelligent nor a community commanding a global empire that could suborn the world's largest corporations, draw up targets for drone assassination, blackmail US Muslims into becoming spies and haul passengers off planes.
Yet like all empires, this one has bred its own antibodies. The American (or Anglo-American?) surveillance industry has grown so big by exploiting laws to combat terrorism that it is as impossible to manage internally as it is to control externally. It cannot sustain its own security. Some two million people were reported to have had access to the WikiLeaks material disseminated by Bradley Manning from his Baghdad cell. Snowden himself was a mere employee of a subcontractor to the NSA, yet had full access to its data. The thousands, millions, billions of messages now being devoured daily by US data storage centres may be beyond the dreams of Space Odyssey's HAL 9000. But even HAL proved vulnerable to human morality. Manning and Snowden cannot have been the only US officials to have pondered blowing a whistle on data abuse. There must be hundreds more waiting in the wings – and always will be.
There is clearly a case for prior censorship of some matters of national security. A state secret once revealed cannot be later rectified by a mere denial. Yet the parliamentary and legal institutions for deciding these secrets are plainly no longer fit for purpose. They are treated by the services they supposedly supervise with falsehoods and contempt. In America, the constitution protects the press from pre-publication censorship, leaving those who reveal state secrets to the mercy of the courts and the judgment of public debate – hence the Putinesque treatment of Manning and Snowden. But at least Congress has put the US director of national intelligence, James Clapper, under severe pressure. Even President Barack Obama has welcomed the debate and accepted that the Patriot Act may need revision.
In Britain, there has been no such response. GCHQ could boast to its American counterpart of its "light oversight regime compared to the US". Parliamentary and legal control is a charade, a patsy of the secrecy lobby. The press, normally robust in its treatment of politicians, seems cowed by a regime of informal notification of "defence sensitivity". This D-Notice system used to be confined to cases where the police felt lives to be at risk in current operations. In the case of Snowden the D-Notice has been used to warn editors off publishing material potentially embarrassing to politicians and the security services under the spurious claim that it "might give comfort to terrorists".
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Most of the British press (though not the BBC, to its credit) has clearly felt inhibited. As with the "deterrent" smashing of Guardian hard drives and the harassing of David Miranda at Heathrow, a regime of prior restraint has been instigated in Britain whose apparent purpose seems to be simply to show off the security services as macho to their American friends.
Those who question the primacy of the "mainstream" media in the digital age should note that it has been two traditional newspapers, in London and Washington, that have researched, co-ordinated and edited the Snowden revelations. They have even held back material that the NSA and GCHQ had proved unable to protect. No blog, Twitter or Facebook campaign has the resources or the clout to confront the power of the state.
There is no conceivable way copies of the Snowden revelations seized this week at Heathrow could aid terrorism or "threaten the security of the British state" – as charged today by Mark Pritchard, an MP on the parliamentary committee on national security strategy. When the supposed monitors of the secret services merely parrot their jargon against press freedom, we should know this regime is not up to its job.
The war between state power and those holding it to account needs constant refreshment. As Snowden shows, the whistleblowers and hacktivists can win the occasional skirmish. But it remains worrying that many otherwise liberal-minded Britons seem reluctant to take seriously the abuses revealed in the nature and growth of state surveillance. The arrogance of this abuse is now widespread. The same police force that harassed Miranda for nine hours at Heathrow is the one recently revealed as using surveillance to blackmail Lawrence family supporters and draw up lists of trouble-makers to hand over to private contractors. We can see where this leads.
I hesitate to draw parallels with history, but I wonder how those now running the surveillance state – and their appeasers – would have behaved under the totalitarian regimes of the 20th century. We hear today so many phrases we have heard before. The innocent have nothing to fear. Our critics merely comfort the enemy. You cannot be too safe. Loyalty is all. As one official said in wielding his legal stick over the Guardian: "You have had your debate. There's no need to write any more."
Yes, there bloody well is.