By Estelle Shirbon and Michael Holden

LONDON | Tue Aug 20, 2013 9:35am EDT

(Reuters) – The British authorities forced the Guardian newspaper to destroy material leaked by Edward Snowden, its editor has revealed, calling it a “pointless” move that would not prevent further reporting on U.S. and British surveillance programs.

In a column on Tuesday, Alan Rusbridger said he had received a call from a government official a month ago who told him: “You’ve had your fun. Now we want the stuff back.” The paper had been threatened with legal action if it did not comply.

Later, two “security experts” from the secretive Government Communications Headquarters (GCHQ) had visited the paper’s London offices and watched as computer hard drives containing Snowden material were reduced to mangled bits of metal.

Asked by the BBC who he thought was behind those events, Rusbridger said he had “got the sense there was an active conversation” involving government departments, intelligence agencies and the prime minister’s Downing Street office.

Downing Street and GCHQ declined to comment.

Rusbridger said the “bizarre” episode and the detention at London’s Heathrow airport on Sunday of the partner of Guardian journalist Glenn Greenwald showed press freedom was under threat in Britain.

The nine-hour detention under an anti-terrorism law of David Miranda, Greenwald’s Brazilian partner, has caused a furor with Brazil, British opposition politicians, human rights lawyers and press freedom watchdogs among those denouncing it.

Greenwald was the first journalist to publish U.S. and British intelligence secrets leaked by Snowden, a former U.S. National Security Agency (NSA) contractor who is wanted in the United States and has found temporary asylum in Russia.

Snowden’s leaks have revealed details of NSA and GCHQ surveillance of global communications networks. Washington and London say their security agencies act within the law and the leaks are a threat to national security.

Britain’s Home Office, or interior ministry, defended Miranda’s detention on Tuesday.

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