Foreign Policy Blogs

Miranda Writes: Guardian vs. Government

The Guardian/The Observer Building – London, U.K.

Metal surrenders to the heat, slinking away to dust.  The remnants, lumped on the floor, are loomed over by an audience of intelligence agents — dispatched to watch the burn and all too pleased with the task – and journalists confounded by the absurdity of the scene.  As if ripped from the old celluloid of a pounding spy film, our characters find themselves huddled in a basement watching the destruction of computer hard drives carrying copies of sensitive government transmissions.  Little more than a month later, this subterranean affair would find its way above ground after a sorted confrontation at Heathrow airport — a confrontation that has thrust the fraught relationship between the U.K.’s Guardian newspaper and the security communities of both the U.S. and Britain into another global counterterrorism debate.

The Atlantic Ocean was probably never more loved by British intelligence than on the day David Miranda tried to fly home to Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, on 18 August.  If he was going to make the trek, he’d have to make his way through London’s Heathrow airport, and once there, the short steps from the curb to the terminal would make all the difference for what happened next.  He didn’t realize it at the time, but Miranda’s wait in the transit lounge placed him perfectly in a kind of legal No Man’s Land.

David Miranda (L) and Glenn Greenwald (R)

Miranda is the partner of American Guardian columnist Glenn Greenwald, the civil liberties journalist Edward Snowden turned to after absconding from the NSA with a treasure trove of classified information.  The ensuing, ongoing, saga of the analyst’s global chase and its long-term security impact remain questions to be answered.  The debate rages onward about how defensible or treasonous his efforts were, but the position of the NSA, its counterparts and allies is unwavering – they want it all back and they wanted it yesterday.

Miranda is not in fact a writer, but Greenwald has leaned on him throughout the mania that trails his work with Snowden.  The volume of information to sift through and analyze is enormous, and the attention paid to him by any number of parties interested in his comment keep his time and phone heavily occupied.  Miranda has acted as a go-between for his partner’s contacts, and he travelled to London to meet with one of these when he was tagged by police on his way back to their shared home in Rio.  He was detained for nine hours, during which time, he claims, his computer was confiscated and he was made to confess usernames and passwords under threats of serious jail time.  Miranda was denied access to an attorney.

In defense of the police action, the U.K.’s Home Office placed its legality under Schedule 7 of the Terrorism Act of 2000. Originally enacted to prevent potential terrorists from Northern Ireland from sweeping into the mainland at the close of The Troubles, the provision suspends a number of probable cause protections afforded in Britain proper where shipping, air and rail ports are concerned.  Detention without counsel can take place for exactly as long as Miranda was held if it’s thought such a person could be engaging in or assisting acts of terrorism.

And therein lies a problem. The mere suspicion of participation in terrorism is enough to warrant interception and the stripping of usual rights under Schedule 7, but the letter and spirit of the provision is not so wide that it may include just anyone, accused of anything. Miranda himself was not thought to be a terrorist, nor that he was transferring materials to enemies of the state like Al Qaeda. Barring any as-yet unknown reason to believe otherwise, it may very well be that Schedule 7 was misapplied to his ordeal and that the government and law enforcement tried to force-jam Miranda into a framework that doesn’t fit because it was just vague enough to meet their ends.  Few question why law enforcement thought Miranda was in possession of stolen documents (he was), but many reject the notion that it met the standard of aiding terrorism – a worrisome characterization among journalists working in a field designed to check government’s accountability to the public.

The next morning, another Guardian columnist, Alan Rusbridger, divulged his role as an observer to the destruction of computer hard drives containing Snowden’s bounty a month earlier.  He weaves the reader through a number of biting confrontations of his own with stormy high-level government figures, demanding the return or dismantling of these holdings before arriving at the moment two security agents cackled over a pile of embers.

On Friday, The World Association of Newspapers and News Publishers watchdog group slammed the prime minister’s office for its response to the NSA leaks with accusations of press intimidation in both situations.  The heads of other European publications weren’t far behind.  Doubling the pressure on the leadership to answer for the actions, a High Court judge demanded the government share a comprehensive reasoning for Miranda’s detention after he filed suit against the state.  The deadline for its response to the order was set for yesterday, 27 August .

Read: Deputy Prime Minister Nick Clegg responds to the detention of David Miranda

It is virtually inconceivable that anyone involved in the Guardian confrontations could think such displays wouldn’t leak into the realm of public knowledge with little delay.  Drag a newsman to the cellar of his own paper to pay witness to computer carnage, and it is little wonder that he’d put fingertips to keyboard and chronicle the event.  Corner a man loved by the journalist who keeps embarrassing you and you’ll only keep it quiet until he leaves the room.

Government Communications Headquarters (GCHQ) – Cheltenham, Gloucestershire, U.K.

And maybe that was the point.  Make a weakly secretive basement statement just shadowy enough to show intelligence services can live up to their lore and confuse its place in the legal spectrum, and it’ll look like you’re flexing a nice set of serious-work-for-serious-people muscles.  Lash out at the journalist who aided a traitor and convey the message that you’re primed to use whatever means available to cauterize the wound. Rusbridger said it himself – why the need for a bonfire when the digital age means information can still be reported all the same from somewhere else?

One would suspect that this was a combination of re-balancing swings, as the government finds itself still nursing a throbbing jaw for the square hit it took after Snowden’s file-sharing blitz.  Long known to cooperate in intelligence gathering across the vast Atlantic pond, GCHQ found itself on the wrong side of domestic opinion after the Guardian revealed a paper trail of clues that the British intelligence agency carried out by proxy surveillance of U.K. citizens by asking its American counterparts to data-mine for them – taking advantage of U.S. anti-terror laws and circumventing its own law in the process.

GCHQ protested innocence, but couldn’t stop the dredging up of a longstanding debate on the U.K.’s friendship with the U.S. Typically, that conversation is laced with frustrations about the state’s “junior partner” status within the Special Relationship shared between the two.  It’s an attitude that doesn’t ignore the disparity in leverageable power between them on the global scale, but overt displays of the difference are unwelcome where the title still stands and where suggestions can be drawn to make London look overly reliant on Washington.  Here, the question became about the degree of coziness between the two – at what point does one side trudging through the communication footprints of the other constitute a little too much sharing.

The pressure cooker of a crisis compels many to grasp for control, or at the very least, the appearance of such.  With so much still unknown about the extent of Snowden’s information stockpile, intelligence services on both sides of the ocean are scrambling to get out in front of the rest of this story.  Throw your weight around in front of professional newsies and we’ll know for sure that national security agencies want no part in turning whistleblowers into crusaders and will show the rest of us that we’re ill-prepared for the damage that may yet be caused by tattle-taling on the business of secrets.

Time will tell if its a useful tactic, but I doubt it.  Once, counterrorism law read like protection from harm, but that conversation turned to one of invasion of rights long ago — too long ago to not have much clearer law behind the actions described here.  Without it, you’re neither scaring anyone nor making them feel safer.  You’re simply fueling the flames that say Snowden was right to make his move.  In the end, it may only augment the discussion on post-9/11 counterterrorism lessons by asking what else we’re willing to do to ourselves in order to combat those who want to see harm done.

 

Author

Sara Chupein-Soroka
Sara Chupein-Soroka

Sara Chupein-Soroka is a former Program Associate at the Foreign Policy Association. She holds an M.S. in Global Affairs from New York University with a focus on U.S.-European relations, and a B.A. in Political Science from Hunter College. Her graduate thesis examined U.S.-UK bilateral security relations (an ongoing project) and she undertook an in-field intensive at The Hague, Bosnia and Serbia examining transitional justice in the former Yugoslavia in 2011.

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