© Evan Agostini/Associated PressJill Abramson: 'Prior restraint is pretty much unthinkable to me in this country.'
Jill Abramson says she was approached by UK embassy officials after announcing collaboration with Guardian over NSA files

The editor of the New York Times, Jill Abramson, has confirmed that senior British officials attempted to persuade her to hand over secret documents leaked by the former National Security Agency contractor Edward Snowden.

Giving the newspaper's first official comments on the incident, Abramson said that she was approached by the UK embassy in Washington after it was announced that the New York Times was collaborating with the Guardian to explore some of the files disclosed by Snowden. Among the files are several relating to the activities of GCHQ, the agency responsible for signals interception in the UK.

"They were hopeful that we would relinquish any material that we might be reporting on, relating to Edward Snowden. Needless to say I considered what they told me, and said no," Abramson told the Guardian in an interview to mark the International Herald Tribune's relaunch as the International New York Times.

The incident shows the lengths to which the UK government has gone to try to discourage press coverage of the Snowden leaks. In July, the government threatened to take legal action against the Guardian that could have prevented publication, culminating in the destruction of computer hard drives containing some of Snowden's files.

Abramson said the spectacle of angle grinders and drills being used to destroy evidence in a newspaper basement was hard to conceive in the US, where the First Amendment offers free speech guarantees. "I can't imagine that. The only equivalent I can think of is years ago when the New York Times was enjoined by a lower court from publishing the Pentagon papers, but the supreme court came in and overruled that decision. Prior restraint is pretty much unthinkable to me in this country."

Abramson has been executive editor of the New York Times, America's largest and most influential newspaper, since 2011. She said that the conversation with the UK's Washington embassy was the extent so far of British attempts to influence the paper's editorial decisions in relation to Snowden.

Within the US, the Obama administration has asked on several occasions for the New York Times to consider withholding certain information from its stories, and the paper always gives sober consideration to the requests, she said, based on a careful assessment of the possible damage to national security accruing from publication. "Our default position is usually to weigh on the side of informing the public."

In both the US and Britain, Abramson argued, "there's a war on terror being waged in the name of the public, and the public has a right to have information about it. That's critical. The Guardian as well as the New York Times are providing a very valuable service, allowing people to decide for themselves whether the intelligence agencies are being too intrusive in their data collection.

"President Obama has said he welcomes such a debate, and I think it's not only healthy but vital to have that."

Abramson added that she found the reaction of the Daily Mail to the series of stories published by the Guardian on the back of the Snowden leaks "unusual to me". On Thursday, the Mail accused the Guardian of "lethal irresponsibility" in revealing the vast data grab of ordinary people's phone and internet records by the NSA.

"The political tradition is different, and British press laws are more restrictive," she said. "There isn't the same acceptance or devotion to the idea that we have here: that a free press is fundamental to free society, and that the free flow of information is essential to having an informed public making decisions about how they want to be governed."

- Read the full interview