War breaks out between the British government and Snowden writers

British authorities detained David Miranda, partner of UK Guardian journalist Glenn Greenwald, for nine hours at Heathrow Airport on Sunday morning.  According to an interview Miranda gave to the Guardian on Monday, he was returning from Berlin on a trip to “ferry materials between Greenwald and Laura Poitras, the US film-maker who has also been working on stories related to the NSA files released by US whistle-blower Edward Snowden.”

The British government acted under its Terrorism Act of 2000, which allows a maximum nine hours of detention for designated terrorism suspects.  The UK Telegraph says only about 40 people per year are held for such an unusually long period.  The authorities took Miranda’s computer, along with all of the other electronic devices he was carrying.  A statement from the government relayed by Reuters makes it clear they were looking for stolen security documents:

“The government and the police have a duty to protect the public and our national security,” a Home Office (interior ministry) spokesman said in a statement.

“If the police believe that an individual is in possession of highly sensitive stolen information that would help terrorism, then they should act and the law provides them with a framework to do that.

“Those who oppose this sort of action need to think about what they are condoning.”

Miranda described the experience in his Guardian interview:

“They were threatening me all the time and saying I would be put in jail if I didn’t co-operate,” said Miranda. “They treated me like I was a criminal or someone about to attack the UK ??? It was exhausting and frustrating, but I knew I wasn’t doing anything wrong.”

[…] Miranda was seized almost as soon as his British Airways flight touched down on Sunday morning. “There was an announcement on the plane that everyone had to show their passports. The minute I stepped out of the plane they took me away to a small room with four chairs and a machine for taking fingerprints,” he recalled.

His carry-on bags were searched and, he says, police confiscated a computer, two pen drives, an external hard drive and several other electronic items, including a games console, as well two newly bought watches and phones that were packaged and boxed in his stowed luggage.

“They got me to tell them the passwords for my computer and mobile phone,” Miranda said. “They said I was obliged to answer all their questions and used the words ‘prison’ and ‘station’ all the time.”

Miranda accused the British government of abusing its anti-terrorism laws to “get access to documents or people that they cannot get the legal way through courts or judges.”  He and Greenwald also claim this was an effort to intimidate the journalists who have been working with Edward Snowden, carried out at the behest of the Obama Administration.  “”It’s bad enough to prosecute and imprison sources,” said Miranda in a Brazilian TV interview.  “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.  Even the Mafia had ethical rules against targeting the family members of people they felt threatened by.”

The White House says it was given a heads-up by the British government, but denies it requested the action.  CNN reports that a White House spokesman “would not comment on whether the United States has obtained material from Miranda’s laptop — and would not say whether President Barack Obama condemns the detention.”

The Brazilian foreign ministry issued a statement about the detention of Miranda, who is a citizen of Brazil: “This measure is without justification since it involves an individual against whom there are no charges that can legitimate the use of that legislation. The Brazilian government expects that incidents such as the one that happened to the Brazilian citizen today do not repeat.”

Greenwald is hopping mad about the incident and has vowed revenge, as reported by CNN:

Glenn Greenwald, the reporter who broke the news about secret U.S. surveillance programs, said the authorities who took his partner into custody at London’s Heathrow Airport “are going to regret what they did.”

“I am going to write my stories a lot more aggressively now,” the Guardian reporter told Brazil’s Globo TV on Monday in Rio de Janeiro.

“I am going to publish many more documents now. I am going to publish a lot about England, too, I have a lot of documents about the espionage system in England. Now my focus is going to be that as well.”

[…] “If the UK and U.S. governments believe that tactics like this are going to deter or intimidate us in any way from continuing to report aggressively on what these documents reveal, they are beyond deluded,” said Greenwald.

“If anything, it will have only the opposite effect: to embolden us even further.”

It’s disturbing to think of governments abusing anti-terrorism laws to intimidate reporters, but it’s also disturbing to think of national security held hostage to the hurt feelings of vengeful journalists.  A roundup of journalist and watchdog reactions at Politico shows widespread support for Greenwald and Miranda, with descriptions of Miranda’s detention ranging from “an attempt at pure intimidation,” to proof of “how sinister the State has become.”

Some of these journalists echo the description of Miranda as an innocent “family member” targeted for mob-style intimidation tactics by the repressive government, although the Guardian concedes that it paid for Miranda’s flights, treating him as an assistant to Greenwald’s work.  And it does seem possible that he was carrying stolen files on his computer (Miranda himself says he doesn’t know what he was carrying, and did not read the encrypted files.)  Journalism is not an unlimited license to transport stolen property.  And what happens if a terrorist organization gets its hands on a laptop filled with sensitive intelligence information?

The BBC reports that “pressure is mounting on police to justify” Miranda’s detention:

Keith Vaz, chairman of the Home Affairs Select Committee, and shadow home secretary Yvette Cooper said police must explain why terrorism powers were used.

Brazil’s foreign minister Antonio Patriota said he would call his UK counterpart William Hague to tell him the detention of Mr Miranda – a Brazilian national – was “not justifiable” and ask him to ensure it “won’t happen again”.

The Independent Reviewer of Terrorism Legislation, David Anderson QC, said it was very unusual for someone to be held for the full nine hours, and he wanted to “get to the bottom” of what had happened.

He said he had asked the Home Office and Scotland Yard for a full briefing.

[…] Mr Vaz said police must “of course” question people if they have “concerns” about what they are doing in the UK.

“What is extraordinary is they knew he was the partner [of Mr Greenwald] and therefore it is clear not only people who are directly involved are being sought but also the partners of those involved,” he said.

“Bearing in mind it is a new use of terrorism legislation to detain someone in these circumstances… I will write to the police to ask for the justification of the use of terrorism legislation – they may have a perfectly reasonable explanation.”

A former counter-terrorism detective quoted by the BBC pointed out that the sheer volume of encrypted documentation stored on Miranda’s laptop might account for the length of his detention.  It bears repeating that characterizations of Miranda as an innocent family member unjustifiably targeted for harassment are disingenuous; he was working as a courier, and it’s not entirely unreasonable for the authorities to suspect he might be carrying stolen security material.  However, that doesn’t automatically and completely justify what the British government did.  It’s important for them to provide a full explanation for their invocation of anti-terrorism laws.  Accountability is the fundamental issue here, and aggressive journalism is indispensable for securing accountability from government.  So… who holds Glenn Greenwald and the UK Guardian accountable?