The Brits and the Yanks have long enjoyed a “special relationship,” and the bond between The Guardian and The New York Times is certainly special.
But when it comes to printing stories based on top-secret documents supplied by Edward Snowden, the relationship between the British and American media outlets occasionally seems frayed as well.
In the summer of 2013, as the British government moved to destroy The Guardian’s classified cache provided by the National Security Agency whistleblower who fled to Russia—going so far as to dispatch a wrecking crew to the paper’s London offices to shatter computer hard drives with drills and chisels—Guardian Editor in Chief Alan Rusbridger arranged for the tens of thousands of documents to be shared with and protected by the Times in New York, beyond the reach of British authorities.
The cooperative arrangement initially resulted in several eye-popping stories for both newspapers, including the Times’s Snowden-based exposé of how American and British intelligence operatives were data-mining the popular Angry Birds smartphone app to reveal all sorts of personal information about users.
The spies had also figured out, the Times reported, how to squeeze personal data from Flickr, Facebook, and Twitter accounts, among other social media.
That was in January.
But nine months later, according to Times newsroom employees who spoke on condition of anonymity, some reporters and editors at the U.S. newspaper are unhappy because of the agreement that Times editors struck with Rusbridger in 2013. It gives The Guardian total control over the Snowden cache, including how and when it can be used to develop, pursue, and publish investigations.
They say The Guardian has been dragging its feet on the pursuit of NSA-related stories while keeping the Times on a short leash. “People feel shackled,” a Times staffer told The Daily Beast.
On Monday, responding to the report of grumbling in his newsroom, Times Executive Editor Dean Baquet was at pains to downplay the tensions.
“Are there disagreements? Of course there are,” Baquet said in an interview. “In the case of Snowden, we’re talking about two big independent newspapers in separate countries, with very different laws and also with a little bit of a different story sense… But have there been fights? No. I don’t feel held captive by The Guardian, because I wouldn’t have access to these particular documents without The Guardian.”
Baquet—who, as Washington bureau chief in 2007, worked cooperatively with The Guardian on the WikiLeaks revelations—denied that the Times would have been ready to publish certain Snowden-based stories but for The Guardian’s veto.
He was vague on whether the Times, with The Guardian’s assent, has planned any specifically Snowden-related reports. But he said that in a meeting two weeks ago in New York with Rusbridger and Katharine Viner, the recently named editor in chief of The Guardian’s U.S. edition, they discussed “a couple of areas” of potentially promising Snowden-related reporting.
Rusbridger, meanwhile, said by phone from London: “I feel we’ve worked cordially, according to the agreement that we discussed in the summer of last year. And we continue to work cordially.”
Playing second fiddle to a competitor is an unusual, and deeply uncomfortable, position for the Times, which is arguably the most influential outlet in American journalism and prides itself on setting the agenda for everyone else.
But when the 29-year-old Snowden was looking for sympathetic and trustworthy journalists to sound a global alarm on what he considered illegal NSA snooping on millions of private individuals, he chose Glenn Greenwald, then of The Guardian, and documentary filmmaker Laura Poitras, as well as the Washington Post's Barton Gellman.
The Times was initially caught flatfooted in June 2013 when The Guardian splashed its first blockbuster based on Snowden’s revelations about the NSA’s widespread surveillance program, vacuuming up the metadata of billions of cellphone calls and texts, emails and personal computers.
Gellman, who also enjoyed a close working relationship with Snowden, soon followed with world-shaking stories of his own—and Gellman and Greenwald shared the 2014 Pulitzer Prize for Public Service, among other laurels.
For the Times, which had won four Pulitzer Prizes in 2013, the Snowden slip-up was a bitter pill to swallow. Enter Alan Rusbridger, with a plan to help The Times recover.
In a summer 2013 meeting with Jill Abramson, then executive editor, and Baquet, then managing editor, Rusbridger offered to share The Guardian’s Snowden cache, on the condition that the British paper would retain control of the documents, even while the American paper had physical custody.
The reason, Rusbridger explained, was that he was duty-bound to honor The Guardian’s agreements with its source—Snowden—on how the documents would be used, and Rusbridger had to be in a position to strictly enforce the terms.
The Times editors quickly accepted Rusbridger’s proposal, and Abramson’s abrupt firing as executive editor in May did nothing to alter the arrangement.
“To be perfectly frank,” Baquet said in the interview, “we would not be competitive on the story if The Guardian had not let us join them. That’s just the reality.”
Baquet said that while The Times has also produced Snowden-related stories working with Poitras, independent of The Guardian, “we wouldn’t be players on the story if it wasn’t for The Guardian.”
He added that if the agreement eventually proves untenable, “we could walk any time.”