Some more information on the reasoning behind Nick Clegg’s approval of the destruction of the Guardian’s information

I think it’s been quite clear, both in the comments to our earlier post giving Nick’s views on the Miranda/Guardian case that people were still unhappy and many felt, including me, that they didn’t really understand why he decided to approve the request to the Guardian to destroy the data that they held. Elsewhere in the Liberal Democrat blogosphere, people like Neil Monnery and Andrew Brown have expressed their concern about Nick’s actions.

This has not gone unnoticed by the party’s spokespeople. They’ve noticed that people have been wondering why they had a quiet word with the Guardian rather than take the legal route, and they’ve been perplexed at the request to destroy the hard drives when there bound to be copies held elsewhere. So, they’ve given us a little more insight into the factors that Nick took into consideration when he made his decision.  They told us:

The destruction of information held by the Guardian, with their consent, took place some weeks ago. The decision was made with Nick’s consent for the following reasons:

  • This material was deemed to be information that could endanger lives. The Guardian had decided not to publish the information that posed that risk.

  • It was therefore necessary to make the information secure and the Guardian was asked either to hand back the material or have it destroyed. The Guardian agreed to have it destroyed.

  • A legal approach could have inhibited the Guardian’s ability to publish the articles that it subsequently published and Nick did not believe that to be the right approach.

  • There may be other sites where this information is held but where the Government has the opportunity to prevent information of this nature from being held insecurely, it has a duty to act.

So, the argument is that Nick’s judgement call was one which he felt would give the Guardian the maximum freedom to publish while ensuring that lives were not put at risk. The spokesperson says that if the Government had taken legal action, the Guardian may not have been able to publish the stories it has done so far.

I am trying to imagine what I would do if I were in Nick’s position. If I knew that information was out there that could put lives at risk if it were widely known, how could we be sure that somebody connected to the Guardian wouldn’t have it on a USB stick and leave it on a train, or that it would somehow get out of there and into less scrupulous hands. How would I live with myself if someone was killed as a result of doing nothing? On the other hand, there’s the absolute necessity of the press being able to hold governments to account. How do you balance it all? Our faith in Nick’s commitment to civil liberties was shaken earlier this year by his insistence on supporting the introduction of secret courts. That might make us less likely to want to give him the benefit of the doubt, but it shouldn’t rule it out.

I can’t pretend I feel comfortable with this, which is probably the right place for a liberal to be, but I do know that, apart from secret courts, Nick has been pretty good on civil liberties. This is, after all, the man who said he’d go to jail rather than have a compulsory ID card, who stood up for the Gurkhas, for Afghan interpreters and who did the right thing on web snooping.

I would, though, be extremely disappointed with the party if it didn’t question his decision to the nth degree. We should be asking questions about this, and I’m sure that we’ll have more.

The party spokesperson also elaborated on the anti-terror measures used to detain David Miranda:

Nick Clegg did not approve or have prior knowledge of the police operation to detain David Miranda.

Liberal Democrats have long stood up for the civil liberties of British citizens and, as you know, the Coalition Government inherited a number of over-broad and draconian terrorism powers from Labour. In Government we led a review of these powers. Some have already been changed and the Coalition is currently pressing Parliament to tighten up these laws further to avoid abuses, including reform of Section 7 which was introduced by the last Labour government. We recognise the serious concerns raised over the detention of David Miranda. The Independent Reviewer of Terrorism Legislation is investigating this and we will wait to hear his conclusions.

That’s very different language to that used by Theresa May, who’s been pretty gung-ho. It’s not even a defence of the detention. I think it’s a reasonable assumption to make that Nick wasn’t told for fear he’d kick up a stink about it. This, though, is not the first time the Home Office has pulled a fast one on the Liberal Democrats. There were the distasteful Go Home or face arrest poster vans, the spot checks by immigration officials at tube stations and now this. I know that the excellent Special Adviser we had at the Home Office has recently left, so it’s maybe logical to feel that this is not necessarily a coincidence. I can’t help wondering if Nick would be well advised to get someone in the Home Office who might mix things up a bit, and stop the Tories getting away with this sort of stuff.

* Caron Lindsay is Editor of Liberal Democrat Voice and blogs at Caron's Musings

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34 Comments

  • It is another example of Clegg’s (or the advisors he has chosen to surround himself with) tactical uselessness that he apparently didn’t realise that the activists in the party would greet this as an outrage against liberal principles. To defend him on the basis that he said he would go to gaol rather than be forced to have an ID card is a bit thin: I seem to remember he made a pledge about something else that he didn’t stick to

  • If this is truly the case, what proof did Clegg have to suggest beyond reasonable doubt, that the Guardian had this information in an unsafe and easily accessible form by terrorists? Did he believe that Al Queda infiltrators were imminently about to storm the Guardian’s HQ? Did he also know that members of GCHQ were going to be present to hammer home the intimidation tactics and joke about “black helicopters” (while hammering on the hard drives and computers)? Is he also aware of why so many reasonable people, who consider themselves democrats and of a liberal disposition – myself included – are so angry about GCHQ, Prism, Tempora, XKeyscore and the wholesale theft of our data? Could he not see that storming the Guardian and allowing people to smash machinery just reinforces the belief that this is a government that represents not the electorate, but a Securitate apparatus out of all legal jurisprudence and beyond accountability? One that is profiting from it’s close ties to the NSA and is in breach of several international laws by illegal obtaining data via taps on transatlantic cables? It is appalling that any government should conflate journalism with terrorism – it should be his moral duty to stand up for liberal democratic values – not help to dismantle them.

    ‘roo

  • Sue Doughty 21st Aug '13 - 6:58pm

    Caron, Thanks for following this up. It is of course vital that we do not publish information which would put lives at risk. As Liberals it has been painful to see the cloak of anti terrorism being used to lock up so many people and deny them the opportunity to respond to accusations. As you say, we should question every time.
    In fairness, I feel that the argument is fair that information which could put lives at risk is destroyed, leaving the Guardian free to continue to expose the abuse of data by governments. Had the Guardian not taken this course of action it would then have been guilty of abusing the sensitive data itself. Difficult call but I feel the right one.

  • “I do know that, apart from secret courts, Nick has been pretty good on civil liberties”

    Only once the party outrage machine has pushed him into it in several instances. I’m thinking particularly of the infamous conference call. He can see the point of Liberalism, but he’s not an instinctive Liberal, and that’s a BIG problem when something like this arises and he invariably falls the wrong way until someone points out to him what the right way is.

  • Clear Thinker 21st Aug '13 - 7:07pm

    Nick Clegg did right, and most voters will surely agree.

    Surely no right thinking person would expect a Deputy PM to personally guarantee the security of national secrets being held willy-nilly on an independent newspaper’s hard disks?

    Surely no-one who understands the value of the separation of powers would expect a politician to either permit or forbid an arguably lawful operational action by police or security services?

    Or to explicitly allow national secrets to be apparently exported by what Rusbridger calls a “courier” – one who would presumably not be needed if the secrets were capable of being transmitted in electronic form via the internet.

    I can just imagine the Daily Maul’s headlines if he did! And the outcry from ordinary LibDem voters who are just as keen to prevent terrorism as most others.

  • “Surely no right thinking person would expect a Deputy PM to personally guarantee the security of national secrets being held willy-nilly on an independent newspaper’s hard disks?”

    Every right thinking person would expect exactly that, and would further expect him to condemn the very concept of “national secrets”. Only dictatorships have “national secrets”.

    “Surely no-one who understands the value of the separation of powers would expect a politician to either permit or forbid an arguably lawful operational action by police or security services?”

    One would expect him to publicly object to an obviously unlawful and anti-British operational action.

  • … That possibly came out harsher on Clegg than I meant it to. For the record, in this case, I think he made the right decision. But in terms of his pattern of behaviour, he’s an intellectual Liberal but not an instinctive one. So when he stops to think about something he will generally be Liberal, but when he just reacts, all too often he isn’t. Of course, thinking about things rather than just reacting is to be applauded, but I’d be happier with a leaders whose reactions were Liberal too.

  • “… apart from secret courts, Nick has been pretty good on civil liberties. This is, after all, the man who said he’d go to jail rather than have a compulsory ID card, who stood up for the Gurkhas, for Afghan interpreters and who did the right thing on web snooping.”

    Clegg actually approved and publicly defended the original plans for ‘web snooping’. As so often, he only ‘did the right thing’ when people kicked up an almighty fuss.

    What he has been good at is saying populist things in opposition and acting completely differently in government. Gary McKinnon was another example.

  • A Social Liberal 21st Aug '13 - 7:38pm

    Am I wrong in understanding that only the information held on the Guardians computer has been destroyed? That the same information is held on other computers (just as insecurely)elsewhere?

    If I am not wrong then not only did the actions of the government trample on civil liberties but it also did so for no good reason – certainly not for those given by Cleggs spokesman in trying to justify our leaders condoning of such a disgraceful act.

  • David Allen 21st Aug '13 - 7:39pm

    Legal grounds can be found to support what Clegg did. Legal grounds also supported the arrest of the Tolpuddle Martyrs. Jesus Christ was on shaky legal grounds when he overthrew the tables of the moneychangers in the temple.

    Then again, any public enquiry into instances of police brutality is bound to place at some risk the freedom of the police to operate in the best way to protect us from crime. It could well help the criminal to find better ways of preventing the police from discovering the truth of his crimes during an interrogation. Does it follow that we should never enquire if police brutality is alleged?

    A real Liberal Democrat leader cannot just leave it there. A real Liberal Democrat leader must engage with what Snowden has shown us and demand change. There has to be a way to combine proper oversight of what the security services do with the effective protection of the nation against terrorism.

  • Tony Greaves 21st Aug '13 - 7:56pm

    Fairly pathetic attempt really by the LDV crew to stop their website being taken over by a party revolt!

    What we have is another display of feebleness.

    (1) the Miranda detention. Sorry, no-one bothered to tell us. Told Cameron and May (and got at least their tacit support. But not the DPM. Doesn’t matter, doesn’t need to be told. After the event – let’s wait to find out what someone elser tells us.

    (2) Guardian hard disks. Went along with it – for the laughable reasons or excuses that have already been exposed. Presumably not having through it through, certainly not thought through the likely reaction in the party. Assuming they would understand what that is.

    And what’s all this about it all being done through an anonymous spokesperson?

    Meanwhile, pictures go round the world of agents of the British state smashing up the computers of a leading serious newspaper. The state of Britain today.

    Tony Greaves

  • “A legal approach could have inhibited the Guardian’s ability to publish the articles that it subsequently published and Nick did not believe that to be the right approach.”

    Could is the key word here. A legal approach “could” do all sorts of things. However I don’t see why a court order made by consent couldn’t have required the secure destruction of the information without restricting the Guardian’s ability to print the articles which it (apparently) has done without any legal issues being raised.

    But once again the party leadership has had to have a vaguely acceptable statement issued only days later after “the party activists” have dragged it out of them.

    Time and again we Nick is failing to articulate an effective liberal case. And every time it happens it drains the morale of party activists.

    When there is a need to stand up for liberal principles Nick chooses to stay silent or put Sir Humphrey style civil service conservatism front and centre. It’s not good enough and he’s not good enough.

  • “Fairly pathetic attempt really by the LDV crew”

    I am often struck when there is a controversial moment around Clegg how LDV publishes a number of articles in a very short time period. Whether this is a deliberate tactic or not (and obviously a controversial issue will attract lots of articles) it does serve to dilute any debate over a number of threads.

    Were I a person with a devious mind (and lets face it I am!) it would be the sort of strategy I would adopt.

  • NotInMyName 21st Aug '13 - 8:24pm

    Edward Snowden or the Guardian newspaper has not put anybody’s life at risk so far, it may have put our government in an difficult situation having to explain mass surveillance by a foreign and the UK government of UK citizens. But hey the Libdems don’t mind as Nick has proved he wants it covered up as quickly as possible. It also shows that there are no room for whistle blowers in government anymore as it would be counter productive for a countries citizens to know the truth, now they just hang the whistle blowers out as a terrorist. How dare you say you support civil liberties when you support the mass surveillance UK citizens, your party only supports the liberties that suits the Libdems party line for power.

  • Caron Lindsay Caron Lindsay 21st Aug '13 - 8:36pm

    Hywel,

    How should we deal with the development of a story, then?

    If our strategy had been to dilute debate, I think from the threads on each post prove that to have failed miserably:-).

    I think our readers are intelligent enough to follow a story as it develops & to generate robust debate. There are comments coming in on all the posts.

  • Call me old fashioned and maybe slow to the world of liberal politics, but isn’t it the duty of Clegg and his happier, sunnier, fluffier (yellower) side of the Coalition to question and hold in abeyance the more conservative (small c) and authoritarian instincts of his blue shirted colleagues?

    I may be a bit slow at times, but why hasn’t Clegg deployed some kind of liberal minded thinking to at least engage in debate about Snowden and his very real information about the NSA and GCHQ abuses of our cherished (and very hard won) liberties? At the very least he could be ‘concerned’ – as everyone seems to be ‘concerned’ about the junta in Egypt killing their own citizens? No?

    I can only imagine that it would enhance Clegg’s position to take a positive and humanist stance on this. It can’t be right in our democracy to allow the security services to deploy the most draconian of terror laws against the family of journalists, intimidate the editor of the Guardian and smash up property ‘to send a message’ (Scarface style) and to support a Home Office statement that makes implied threats against people (the electorate, no less) who condone any other point of view on the matter.

    Surely this is an inversion of the British spirit; the ideal of fair play, the very rights and freedoms we fought two bloody wars for? Just look at the reaction from Russia and Germany to see this inversion spelled out in print.

    ‘roo

  • @Caron Lindsay – I think you are doing just fine – and thank you for having such light touch moderation. I really hope some of this filters back to Clegg. This is “the story” of our times and affects all of us, as we are all victims of this spying. Doubtless Lib-Dem activists more so than most. Sadly.

    Keep up the good work on this forum.

    ‘roo

  • “This material was deemed to be information that could endanger lives.”

    Stop right there. We all know this is untrue. This is what governments always use as their excuse when they want to cover up leaked information. If Nick Clegg seriously believe it then is far too stupid to hold political office, and should resign as soon as someone tells him how to spell “resign”.

  • I’m not sure it’s reasonable to claim, as they do, that “Liberal Democrats have long stood up for the civil liberties of British citizens”.

    Look at what’s happening right now, they waited two days and then swung into action by… acknowledging that some people have concerns before attempting some party political point scoring. They haven’t even gone so far as to say they share those concerns, they’d just like us to know that they’re aware that concerns exist. That’s standing up for civil liberties, is it?

    When the coalition came into power, do you know what the one area I thought they’d be really good on was?

    Civil liberties. Don’t I feel like a fool?

  • Sadly nick’s instincts seem to be to side with the governing authority. In opposition he was determined in his opposition to attacks on civil liberty and infringements of human rights; plus he opposed the Iraq war.

    Sadly this is what happens when you taste power – the influence of civil servants and power elites soon start to erode any libertarian beliefs over belief in the ‘protection’ of the state.

    The Tories in the main are instinctive authoritarians whereas Liberals like the Greens are instinctive free thinkers and believers in rights of the individual and the locality/community above the state.

    Joining forces in coalition with anyone (including Labour authoritarians) especially such natural believers in authority and hierarchy like our friends in the Tory Party was always bound to poison those closest to power with them.

    Hence the reason why Nick has been blown off course from his (I believe) natural liberal instincts.

    The disgraceful treatment of David Miranda is just one example of the way this government just like the previous government has flagrantly trampled on our human and civil liberties. Nick must realize that liberal minded folk will not tolerate being associated with this gross travesty of governance by fear and threat and bullying and intimidation to cower the people of this country to be silent in the face of/and when they witness government illegalities and perversion of our long and hard won freedoms.

    There is one way out – either exit from coalition with the devil or speak out and oppose anything done that is an affront to our fundamental and cherished beliefs – beliefs that have always made the Liberals stand out above the other two authoritarian parties.

  • “If I am not wrong then not only did the actions of the government trample on civil liberties but it also did so for no good reason …”

    Well, I suppose that they are not quite so stupid that they would do it for no reason. Which makes me think the reason was to try to intimidate the Guardian. And that would fit in very well with the David Miranda incident.

    I don’t say Nick Clegg would have understood this when he agreed to it. On the contrary, I can well imagine he was fed a line and swallowed it whole.

  • Peter Watson 21st Aug '13 - 10:09pm

    @Hywel “I am often struck when there is a controversial moment around Clegg how LDV publishes a number of articles in a very short time period.”
    I’d never ascribed this to an LDV conspiracy, but it is certainly a pain to keep track of several parallel threads on the same topic.
    Could I politely suggest that when a major story is evolving, LDV contributors should be a little more modest and join in by posting to an existing thread rather than feel the need to have their photo next to an article at the top of the page.

  • ThGet the feelings things are all not well in LD world!

    These couple of events over the last few days seem to have really emphasised how poor the leadership of the party responds to the concerns of the rest of the party.

    I am not sure the leadership is moving in the same direction as the activists now – we here a lot about Ed Miliband but surely Clegg is in no better position

  • What Tony Greaves said at 7.56.

    I don’t think any amount of spinning or nibbing and tucking, ducking and diving changes the fact that this is all wrong, wrong, wrong.

    While our securocrats are obsessed with digital data, they risk under-focussing on more productive forms of investigation. What sort of dumb bum terrorist is going to commicate by email or mobile phone now?

  • “A legal approach could have inhibited the Guardian’s ability to publish the articles that it subsequently published and Nick did not believe that to be the right approach.”

    The Human Rights Act, in the context of any action by a court which could restrict freedom of expression (ie the Guardian’s ability to publish a story) says:
    The court must have particular regard to the importance of the Convention right to freedom of expression and, where the proceedings relate to material which the respondent claims, or which appears to the court, to be journalistic, literary or artistic material (or to conduct connected with such material), to—
    (a)the extent to which—
    (i)the material has, or is about to, become available to the public; or
    (ii)it is, or would be, in the public interest for the material to be published;

    Given that piece of legislation it would be a valid question to ask in what circumstances could the courts restrict freedom of expression in circumstances where neither party was asking for such a restriction.

    I find it hard to believe that there are in fact any such circumstances (basically it could only involve a piece of legislation that gave the court no option other than to restrict publication. Legislation which gives the court no discretion is incredibly rare. The commonly used remedy in such situations – an injunction – is an equitable remedy so always discretionary.

  • Tony Dawson 22nd Aug '13 - 7:53am

    @Nick Perry:

    “Jeremy Browne hasn’t said a dickiebird.”

    …..other than: “Yes Theresa, I’ll keep shtoom.” ? 🙁

  • “I am trying to imagine what I would do if I were in Nick’s position.”

    “How would I live with myself if someone was killed as a result of doing nothing?”

    You forgot to think of the children!

    Your mealy mouthed apology for this illiberal and pointless act is shocking. The correct thing to do was NOTHING. They are likely to copy the data more widely now, and the idea that they only ever had one copy is laughable. You have committed a thuggish act of state terrorism.

  • Andrew Suffield 22nd Aug '13 - 8:10pm

    If this is truly the case, what proof did Clegg have to suggest beyond reasonable doubt, that the Guardian had this information in an unsafe and easily accessible form by terrorists?

    Why exactly is that needed in order to ask the Guardian if they’re willing to have the copy destroyed?

    If any enforcement action had been taken then I might agree with you, but all that happened is they asked and the Guardian said yes.

  • Stuart Mitchell 22nd Aug '13 - 8:56pm

    “If this is truly the case, what proof did Clegg have to suggest beyond reasonable doubt, that the Guardian had this information in an unsafe and easily accessible form by terrorists?”

    Well the police say they have found “tens of thousands” of classified documents on Miranda’s devices. If this is true, the Guardian’s claims that nobody could get their hands on this data is blown out of the water.

  • “Well the police say they have found “tens of thousands” of classified documents on Miranda’s devices. If this is true, the Guardian’s claims that nobody could get their hands on this data is blown out of the water.”

    And – assuming all that to be true – where exactly does that get you? If a journalist made an inaccurate statement, would that justify the government in proceeding against them by behind-the-scenes bullying and intimidation rather than by proper legal means?

  • “… all that happened is they asked and the Guardian said yes.”

    According to the Guardian, they said yes because of a perceived threat that the government would take wide-ranging legal action against them which would be very inconvenient and costly, and would inhibit their ability to report in this area at all. Not a legal action simply to recover or destroy the data. A kind of blackmail, in other words.

  • John Broggio 27th Aug '13 - 12:39pm

    @Stuart Mitchell

    The police may have found those documents because (and I’d assert only because) Miranda was forced to give them his passwords, which would have made those previously secure documents open to inspection by Inspector Knacker.

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