The UK can detain anyone crossing its borders for nine hours without charges under Schedule 7 of its Terrorism Act, using that time to determine whether a suspect constitutes a terrorist threat. They used almost every minute of that time to detain David Miranda, the civil-union partner of Glenn Greenwald, the Guardian journalist reporting on the NSA scandal, and confiscated all of the computer equipment Miranda carried. Brazil has filed a protest on behalf of its citizen, and both Greenwald and the Guardian are howling as well:
The partner of a journalist who received leaks from former National Security Agency contractor Edward Snowden was detained for nearly nine hours Sunday under anti-terror legislation at Heathrow Airport, triggering claims that authorities are trying to interfere with reporting on the issue.
David Miranda, the partner of Guardian reporter Glenn Greenwald, was held for nearly the maximum time authorities are allowed to detain individuals under the Terrorism Act’s Schedule 7, which authorizes security agencies to stop and question people at borders. Greenwald said Miranda’s cellphone, laptops and memory sticks were confiscated.
“This is obviously a rather profound escalation of their attacks on the news-gathering process and journalism,” Greenwald said in a post on the Guardian website. “It’s bad enough to prosecute and imprison sources. It’s worse still to imprison journalists who report the truth. But to start detaining the family members and loved ones of journalists is simply despotic.”
According to the UK’s own statistics, most people detained and released under Schedule 7 spent less than an hour — 97%, in fact, of those similarly detained in the three-year reporting period ending in March 2012. Only 0.1% of those spent more than six hours. Miranda spent eight hours and 55 minutes in custody, and left without his equipment.
Obviously, something else was at play with Miranda, and it wasn’t counter-terrorism. The Guardian rushed attorneys to the airport to deal with the situation, and it seems unlikely that Miranda presented a real terrorist profile to the UK. This looks very much like retaliation and intimidation by the UK government — although it’s difficult to know why they’d get their noses out of joint over a leak about the NSA. Other than their friendship with the US and the close partnership between the two countries on a wide range of military and intelligence efforts, what would be the purpose of intimidating Greenwald on the NSA’s behalf? Why take on the heat over the NSA when the British government could quietly stand aside and let the US deal with the fallout by itself? That just doesn’t make a lot of sense.
Unless, of course, Miranda was doing something other than traveling for pleasure. Marc Ambinder at The Week wonders whether Miranda hasn’t been a courier for the stolen materials, and the UK caught him in the act:
“Because: journalism” is not a sufficient response. I don’t like how the Guardian put Miranda on its payroll, turning him into a courier of sorts and conferring on him the patina of the legal and traditional protections afforded to journalists. That’s sloppy tradecraft and it’s cruel to Miranda. Doing journalism makes you a journalist. As Joshua Foust points out, the transitive property does not apply. (I am not a corporate strategy consultant, and I would not be one if my spouse’s company suddenly paid for me to fly stolen documents to my husband somewhere.)
Greenwald is doing real journalism. If extra protections are afforded, they are afforded to him. If extra scrutiny is warranted, he should get it. I know the Snowden case is a boundary case, that it is of an echelon that other leak cases are not and that there are real first amendment equities involved. I also know that the government takes leaks of this magnitude — and consider the totality of what’s been leaked and what precedents it sets, not just the stuff we like (the U.S. stuff), but everything — terribly seriously. As all governments do, and have done, and will do. A separation between spouse and source is a foundational principle of how reporters approach complicated stories involving secrets and classified information. IF you do choose to involve your spouse, or you and your spouse work together, then you cannot reasonably complain that your partner was harassed for no reason whatsoever. Decisions have consequences.
With that said, though, Ambinder still thinks the detention was about intimidation rather than necessary police work in the aftermath of the theft of classified material:
But: A nine-hour detention based on a tetchy counter-terrorism statute is absurd. It would be easy enough to detain Miranda, explain why, be polite, confiscate his electronics, and then let him go. That should take less than an hour. And in this case, with the world watching, a velvet glove approach is called before because public opinion about the Snowden secrecy breach absolutely matters (whether it should or not) and will influence the disposition of his case and the precedents that are set.
Similarly, Joshua Foust objects to the length of the detention, but also to the portrayal of Miranda as a completely innocent victim — and to the Guardian’s misleading representation of Miranda as simply the family member of a journalist (via Karol at Alarming News):
Amnesty International refers to him as a Guardian employee. At first, the Guardian said nothing about the details of his trip through Heathrow; late Sunday night their story included an update that they were actually funding his travel. And while the Guardian did not include this in its initial coverage, the New York Times reported that Miranda was actually visiting Laura Poitras to help her with her continued reporting on the NSA and other spying programs.
Mr. Miranda was in Berlin to deliver documents related to Mr. Greenwald’s investigation into government surveillance to Ms. Poitras, Mr. Greenwald said. Ms. Poitras, in turn, gave Mr. Miranda different documents to pass to Mr. Greenwald. Those documents, which were stored on encrypted thumb drives, were confiscated by airport security, Mr. Greenwald said. All of the documents came from the trove of materials provided to the two journalists by Mr. Snowden. The British authorities seized all of his electronic media — including video games, DVDs and data storage devices — and did not return them, Mr. Greenwald said.
So basically: Miranda was being a document mule for Greenwald and Poitras, and the Guardian was paying for it. This is no real change of tack. In June, he told the Daily Beast:
“When I was in Hong Kong, I spoke to my partner in Rio via Skype and told him I would send an electronic encrypted copy of the documents,” Greenwald said. “I did not end up doing it. Two days later his laptop was stolen from our house and nothing else was taken. Nothing like that has happened before. I am not saying it’s connected to this, but obviously the possibility exists.”
Among the documents Greenwald published is evidence that the NSA long ago broke open Skype, which is not a secure method of communication. Moreover, as a Brazilian national living in Brazil, Miranda would not be protected by the same laws that protect Greenwald, an American citizen, from being monitored. Moreover, he’s almost bragging to a reporter that he was enlisting his husband’s help in trafficking stolen Top Secret documents across national borders. When combined with knowing his own employer was funding his husband’s travel to collaborate with his well-known coauthor — who is herself flagged by the U.S. government — it’s a bit difficult to see why anyone would be surprised that he would be at the very least questioned by British authorities.
Bob Cesca at the Daily Banter asks why the Guardian wasn’t more truthful about Miranda’s activities from the start:
Regardless, the way this story was reported only served to perpetuate the trend of journalistic smoke-and-mirrors employed by The Guardian and others — the vagueness and disingenuousness that feeds the roiling incredulity about all of this.
Additionally, the optics of the whole thing are unfortunate. By detaining Miranda to the very limit of the law, the U.K. only dumped a tanker truck of fuel onto the massive bonfire of outrage — it exacerbated the increasingly irrational freakout among civil libertarian activists and Greenwald acolytes. The use of the Terrorism Act won’t help either. Among other things, it serves to augment the hyper-paranoid conspiracy theory that the government might assassinate Greenwald or Snowden or both. Miranda was treated like a terrorist; the government kills terrorists with drones; ergo, well, you know. Thanks, U.K.
That said, Miranda was transporting volumes of stolen classified documents between two prime movers associated with one of the biggest stories of the Summer — a story that’s embarrassed both the United States and the United Kingdom. He was being paid to do it. Anyone who expected a smooth journey through an international airport without any security issues was lying to themselves.
As with many aspects of the Snowden/NSA story, the truth here is likely to be a little more nuanced than first impressions allow. Even if Miranda has been involved in moving materials, though, the detention in this case only underscores the Big Brother-ish aspects of the scandal, and hardly gives anyone confidence in the self-limiting imuplses of those who wield enormous power — even when they have a legitimate reason to wield it.