The U.K. government destroyed the Guardian hard drives containing the documents leaked by former U.S. National Security Agency contractor Edward Snowden, the paper’s editor reported.

In an editorial published Monday, Alan Rusbridger revealed that just over a month ago he was contacted by the “centre of [U.K.] government” about the paper’s extensive reporting on U.S. and British surveillance programs.  "You've had your fun," the official apparently told Rusbridger. “Now we want the stuff back."

At this point, the Guardian--along with the Washington Post, Der Spiegel and Brazil’s O Globo--had revealed that the British and American intelligence agencies collaborate to surveil Internet and phone communications around the globe. Apparently led by the NSA, the agencies tap into intercontinental submarine cables and strike agreements with the world’s major telecom providers to capture and review emails, browsing histories, videos, messages and chats--the last in real time.

“There's no need to write any more," the official apparently told Rusbridger, who then asked what would happen if he didn’t turn over or destroy the materials. The official responded that the governent would seek to thwart the paper’s reporting through what is called “prior restraint.”

In this context, prior restraint refers to an attempt by a government, through the judicial system, to censor information before it is published by a media organization.

“Prior restraint, near impossible in the U.S., was now explicitly and imminently on the table in the U.K.” So, apparently, the paper complied with the request to destroy the hard drives. Rusbridger describes the scene this way: 

And so one of the more bizarre moments in the Guardian's long history occurred—with two GCHQ security experts overseeing the destruction of hard drives in the Guardian's basement just to make sure there was nothing in the mangled bits of metal which could possibly be of any interest to passing Chinese agents. "We can call off the black helicopters," joked one as we swept up the remains of a MacBook Pro.

As Rusbridger pointed out, the act of destroying the paper's London servers containing the Snowden leaks was something of an empty gesture in the digital age--especially considering the Guardian has offices outside of the U.K. “We will continue to do patient, painstaking reporting on the Snowden documents, we just won't do it in London,” he wrote.

“Already most of the NSA stories were being reported and edited out of New York. And had it occurred to him that Greenwald lived in Brazil?” Rusbridger asked the government official.

“The man was unmoved,” he added. 

 Photo by Iwan Gabovitch/Flickr