Hang on…WHAT? Heathrow?! David Miranda’s detention and the threat to investigative journalism, free speech and civil liberties.

hSo, I guess now we know what happens to journalists who report inconvenient truths these days. Their partners are detained at international airports. By now I am sure you will all have heard that Glenn Greenwald’s partner, David Miranda was held for nine hours at London’s Heathrow Airport on Sunday.

Yes sure, we have all suspected – since the Iraq war and the WMD fiasco at the latest – that the UK is effectively the US’ lapdog but to see this proven true once again and in so brazenly obvious a fashion – that was shocking, even for me.

Thinking back, my initial reaction speaks volumes. When I read the headline “Glenn Greenwald’s partner detained at Heathrow for nine hours”– I snorted and thought: why am I not surprised? This was because the word “Heathrow” hadn’t even registered. For some reason (prejudice on my part, no doubt), my mind instantly imagined a US airport, not a British one.

Then it sank in; this is the UK. This is London. The city I live in. The country I have chosen to live in and which I dearly love (although not for its political culture, I can tell you that).

For the US to do something like this seems to be one thing, but for the UK to do it – that so far had seemed like a different thing altogether. This may have been frightful naiveté on my part.

Certainly, following the incident with Evo Morales’ plane some weeks ago, no one should be surprised that European governments go to extraordinary lengths to demonstrate who they stand with in this whole affair.

Then again, the person they were trying to detain back then was Edward Snowden himself, whereas here a civilian was targeted whose only “crime” apparently was to be part of Glenn Greenwald’s family.

 Errr… so now Investigative Journalism = Terrorism?

Neither David Miranda, nor Glenn Greenwald are doing anything but their job as investigative journalists. As far as we know, suspicions of terrorism against David Miranda are unfounded and ludicrous. Andrew Sullivan is right to ask: “what could possibly lead the British security services to suspect [him] of […] ties to terror groups?” (I suggest you read Sullivan’s blog, it is mighty).

But then, Miranda wasn’t quizzed on terrorism either. Rather, he was interrogated about “his “entire life” while held at Heathrow.”

Describing what happened to him, he said: “There were six different agents coming and going. They asked questions about my entire life, about everything. They took my computer, video game, mobile phone, my memory card. Everything.”

You can read a more detailed account of what went on here and this makes it clear that Miranda was also questioned about “Greenwald, Snowden, Poitras and a host of other apparently random subjects.”

Then again, David Anderson points out that under the current legislation there needs to be no suspicion of being a terrorist for someone to be detained: “At the moment anybody can be stopped under [schedule 7 of the Terrorism Act]. There is no need for the police to believe they are a terrorist or to suspect they are a terrorist. The only reason they can talk to them is in order to determine whether they are a terrorist.”

Now, give me a minutes here. Surely, there should be no possibility for anyone to be detained if there is no suspicion whatsoever against them? Do I need to fear that, when I come back from my next trip to see my family, I will be detained for nine hours for no reason at all? No, hang on, my family consist of a couple of nurses, teachers and designers, not investigative journalists. Given that, I am probably quite safe.

But then, David Miranda should have been safe too, shouldn’t he? Says a spokesman for the British PM: “The government takes all necessary steps to protect the public from individuals who pose a threat to national security. Schedule 7, which was used in this case, forms an essential part of the UK’s border security arrangements.”

Okay then, how exactly is David Miranda a threat to national security? Are we to understand that investigate journalism now constitutes an act of terrorism?

Nick Cohen suggests, rightly I think, that “the detention of David Miranda at Heathrow is a clarifying moment that reveals how far Britain has changed for the worse. Nearly everyone suspects the Met held Miranda on trumped up charges because the police, at the behest of the Americans, wanted to intimidate Miranda’s partner Glenn Greenwald, the conduit of Edward Snowden’s revelations, and find out whether more embarrassing information is on Greenwald’s laptop.”

Actually, if reports from Reuters are to be believed, then there isn’t even a lot of room for suspicion or conjecture anymore: “One U.S. security official told Reuters that one of the main purposes of the British government’s detention and questioning of Miranda was to send a message to recipients of Snowden’s materials, including the Guardian, that the British government was serious about trying to shut down the leaks.”

What year is it again? 1984?

Say again? Did the guy just say that the government “sen[t] [an intimidating message] to the recipients of Snowden’s materials”? Including a major, well-respected media organisation? You see, what’s so shocking about this aren’t just the mafia antics the police, border police and government are displaying here. What’s also shocking is the brazen obviousness of what is going on: that this was an attempt not only at silencing the leakers but also, quite possibly, of getting at information that American and British police do not know how to obtain otherwise.

It seems that now that gagging Edward Snowden by attaching conditions to his asylum in Russia (yes, this was the Russians doing that but, come on!) hasn’t really worked, the next logical step is to target the people who will most likely continue to leak the information Snowden passed on to them before he was told to shut his gob or else.

From what I understand Laura Poitras, the film maker who filmed the Snowden interviews, is in Berlin, Germany, the country I was born and raised in. The German administration’s reaction to the NSA affair hasn’t been much to write home about. We already know how they react to a group of NSA spy conservationists having barbecues outside the Dagger Complex in Griesheim (in case you haven’t heard; they send the police. With five cars and a heli. That’s tax money well spent, that is). What’s next, I wonder? Someone’s finger in a box or something?

In any case, this sounds a lot like bye-bye freedom and of speech and free press, hello Big Brother!

Says David Davis, former shadow home secretary: “We are a country where freedom of speech and freedom of movement are fundamental and that is never more true [than] when you are talking about journalists holding the light up to the actions of government.” Admirable sentiments. Completely true as well. Sadly, I am not quite sure they are shared by the powers that be. In fact, there seems to be no “not quite” about it. It is rather “not at all”. And here’s why.

Alan Rusbridger, editor of the Guardian, has come out reporting that he was asked by UK government officials to hand over the documents leaked to his newspaper by Edward Snowden or face legal action. Apparently, what a “UK official” told Rusbridger at the time was that “you’ve had your fun. Now we want the stuff back”.

Er, I am sorry…WHAT?! Seriously, apart from the fact that this is telling the free press to shut up, how derogatory can rhetoric get? You’ve had your fun. You’ve had your fun. You’ve. Had. Your. Fun?! Yes, we’re all having tremendous fun these days, aren’t we? We have learned that our governments not only fail to protect our rights, we are also learning that they do not seem to respect us at all.

Which is just what frightens me. I’ve been trying to elucidate the exact same problem in my blog a couple days ago; governments seem to have no respect for the opinions and concerns of the people they were elected to represent. And if it’s not the governments but their executive organisations going rogue then it is no more reassuring that the governments are so very reluctant or powerless to intervene. Increasingly, the press seems to turn into the only regulating force we have left, the only way of scrutinizing what is going on.  And they are being told: “You’ve had your debate. There’s no need to write anymore.”

I am disconsolate to say that things don’t end there either. Telling the press to stop reporting “the stuff” wasn’t enough for GCHQ. Alan Rusbridger reports: “One of the more bizarre moments in the Guardian’s long history [witnessed] two GCHQ security experts overseeing the destruction of hard drives in the Guardian’s basement just to make sure there was nothing in the mangled bits of metal which could possibly be of any interest to passing Chinese agents.
“We can call off the black helicopters,” joked one as we swept up the remains of a MacBook Pro.” Well, spooks, Germany has one up on you there; they did send the heli. Okay, it wasn’t black and they said it was “in the area anyway” but who keeps score, eh?

Do you know what would be fun? Let’s look at how exactly we define Police State.

“[A] totalitarian state or country in which a national police force, esp. a secret police, suppresses any act that conflicts with government policy.”

Hmmmm…. we could, in theory, argue with the term totalitarian here. Yet definition of the term includes that “the individual is subordinated to the state, and opposing political and cultural expression is suppressed.”

Note that this is precisely what our governments like to rebuke other governments for; the suppression of opposing political and cultural expression. Yet, while our governments may still kindly allow us to have our debate, wouldn’t you agree that, for all the difference it makes, we are very much subordinated to the state?

It’s no use arguing about semantics here either; we are of course all subject to the law, otherwise we would be living in anarchy. However, the state, i.e. the government, and the law are obviously not the same thing and the state should itself be subject to the law and, in fact, the constitution.

So we would hope. The same hope is expressed by Alan Rusbridger when he writes that “[i]t is […] I hope, unthinkable that any […] government would attempt prior restraint against a news organisation planning to publish material that informed an important public debate, however troublesome or embarrassing.”

This is a hope, I think, we all share. More than that, it is something we rely on. And while our faith may have been severely shaken with regard to the US in recent weeks, I for one still relied on this here in the UK. So much that it didn’t register until I had read the headline three times that David Miranda was detained in the UK, not the US. When it finally sank in, it left me feeling stunned and incredulous for hours. And the more I read on the subject, the more uncomfortable, angry and frightened I feel.

Okay, you may say, this is the state going head to head with large media organisations, I am neither an investigative journalist, nor a terrorist, I have nothing to fear.

That view is as hopelessly naïve as Rusbridger’s and my reliance on the right to a free press turns out to be. The state is already targeting civilians with no ties to any terrorists. They have just done it, using a hotly debated piece of legislation: Schedule 7 of the Terrorism Act, “[u]nder [which] – [because it was] uniquely crafted for ports and airport transit areas – […] [t]here is no need to arrest or charge anyone and there is no protection for journalists or their material.” Telling, isn’t it? To use a law obviously drafted to (once again) fight the “War on Terror” to detain a man carrying potentially useful and embarrassing information, confiscate all his storage devices and then let him go because actually you have nothing to charge him with.

“The transit lounge at Heathrow is a dangerous place,” remarks Mr Rusbridger and I cannot help but wince a little bit of the irony of this; Edward Snowden effectively lived in the transit area of Russia’s Sheremetyevo airport for weeks. I know it can be argued that their spooks probably had a chat with him but still; imagine what would have happened to him had he landed at Heathrow. Then again, it’s not as ironic for all that – I’ve previously argued that the perceived irony of incidences like this probably doesn’t run as deep as we think.

Interestingly, David Lowe, a former Special Branch counter-terrorism officer claims that “the use of the Terrorism Act against David Miranda was proportionate [because] Edward Snowden had access to secret documents relating to the NSA and the UK’s GCHQ [but] but the authorities did not know what material he had.”

Says Lowe: “Here schedule 7 has been used because there’s a short window of opportunity for police officers, immigration officers or customs officers to use this to actually stop and check what was in the laptop and in the electronic sources that have been talked about.”

Great, so police are allowed to search him under the Terrorism Act to get information he has. And that’s all right then? Enter Tom Watson, former British Defense Minister and knowledgeable about these things by profession, who criticizes this “ill-conceived plan” in no uncertain terms. Similarly, “courts both in England and in Strasbourg have invited argument on the precise question of whether the exercise of the schedule 7 power is necessary in a democratic society”.

Well, here’s the glitch though; the use of this power against David Miranda points to anything but a democratic society.

Democracy or no democracy – that is the question

It’s an interesting term, isn’t it? Democratic society?

You see, Democracy Watch’s definition of the term includes the following: “a society in which all adults have easily accessible, meaningful, and effective ways to participate in the decision-making processes of every organization that makes decisions or takes actions that affect them, and to hold other individuals, and those in these organizations who are responsible for making decisions and taking actions, fully accountable if their decisions or actions violate fundamental human rights, or are dishonest, unethical, unfair, secretive, inefficient, unrepresentative, unresponsive or irresponsible.” I have taken the liberty to mark in bolt all adjectives that apply to most Western governments with regard to the NSA affair, Edward Snowden, Glenn Greenwald, David Miranda, the Guardian and/or us as citizens.

By the way, in addition to the above requirement, the definition also asks, among other things, that there be no loopholes and “a clear right for anyone to “blow the whistle” on any violation of any requirement, and to be protected from retaliation, and rewarded if the requirement violation is proven true.”

Now. Consider the loopholes for example in the FAA and the treatment of Bradley Manning, Edward Snowden, Thomas Drake and now David Miranda and Glenn Greenwald and you may start questioning how democratic our societies really are.

That being said though, another important aspect of democracy is that “all organizations in the society are citizen-owned, citizen-controlled, and citizen-driven, and all individuals and organizations are held accountable for wrongdoing”.

You see, we, as citizens, have a responsibility for our democracy too. It’s not enough to vote in the election every now and again (which a lot of people don’t even do) or to complain about the government. It is not enough to protest only when things are happening in our backyards (although you could argue that the spooks are in fact entering our homes through our phone lines, which is even worse. I have all sorts of shady figures hanging out in the car park behind my house and I am glad I can still bolt my doors and windows to stop them from invading my living room).

Alan Rusbridger writes that “the one good thing to emerge from Miranda’s case is that it has provoked […] debate.”

But has it? Who is debating? I understand that it’s the US, UK and Brazilian governments, the UK’s shadow cabinet, human and civil rights organisations such as Liberty and Amnesty International, journalists and bloggers. A lot of arguments from both sides can be found here. Reuters certainly isn’t exaggerating when it describes what’s going on as an “escalating battle between the news media and governments over reporting of secret surveillance programs.”

Yet, while the debate is no doubt loud, necessary and useful, there is someone I sorely miss in it, especially in the UK.

Where is the general public? Somehow, a lot of this is still professional journalists and bloggers debating with the government. Where are the people? Why is no one out in the streets protesting?

You may say that, considering that Rusbridger himself was told that now we’ve had our debate, the press can stop publishing, the idea of debate sounds a bit useless. Okay, then, let’s start by asking some questions. Or perhaps let’s say this to the people in number 10 Downing Street:

“Thank you for clearing the air on these matters of surveillance. You have now demonstrated beyond any reasonable doubt that these anti-terror provisions are capable of rank abuse. Unless some other facts emerge, there is really no difference in kind between [David Cameron] and Vladimir Putin. You have used police powers granted for anti-terrorism and deployed them to target and intimidate journalists deemed enemies of the state.

You have proven that these laws can be hideously abused. Which means they must be repealed. You have broken the trust that enables any such legislation to survive in a democracy. By so doing, you have attacked British democracy itself. What on earth do you have to say for yourself? And were you, in any way, encouraged by the US administration to do such a thing?”

I, for one, would be interested in the reply. So far, No. 10 has “denied [that] the Government has any political involvement in Mr Miranda’s detention, and said it was “kept abreast of the operation in the usual way”.

“The Government does not direct police investigations,” they added.”

You might think it would be wise, then, to ask the police instead. I am sorry to tell you that the Met refuse to comment or to be held accountable “to the media”. I guess it is safe to conclude that they won’t be held accountable to us either. That’s probably because “[t]he state that is building such a formidable apparatus of surveillance will do its best to prevent journalists from reporting on it.” Alan Rusbridger wonders “how many [journalists] have truly understood the absolute threat to journalism implicit in the idea of total surveillance”

I wonder the same thing; about us, the general public. We may not live quite in a police state yet but how far away are we from it, really? Says Alan Rusbridger: “We are not there yet, but it may not be long.” Not long “before it will be impossible for journalists to have confidential sources,” not long before each and every single one of our communications is stored and targeted and before civilians travelling in between states are detained, questioned and stripped of their electronic devices.

I have said it once and I am going to say it again – and I am sure Mr Rusbridger, for one, is with me on this – that we might “one day have a cruel awakening.” Similar to Bradley Manning’s cruel awakening, similar to that of Evo Morales and that of David Miranda.

The Guardian will keep reporting, they say. That is the good news that’s come out of this story; that the Guardian – in this global age – does not have to do its reporting from the UK, even though communication in a world under mass surveillance won’t be easy either. The sad, sad reality is that the Guardian will no longer be able to do its reporting on the NSA files from London. London. My love, my city – what is happening to you?

David Miranda is planning to take legal action over his detention at Heathrow and also to keep the files on his devices from being hacked.

In the meantime, Alan Rusbrigder jokes: “at least reporters […] know to stay away from Heathrow transit lounges.” The question seems to be though; for how much longer will incidences like this one be confined to the transit lounge at Heathrow and the Guardian’s basement? How much longer until the “day [when] it will be [our] reporting, [our] cause, [our liberty] under attack”?

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4 thoughts on “Hang on…WHAT? Heathrow?! David Miranda’s detention and the threat to investigative journalism, free speech and civil liberties.

  1. Pingback: British journalists worry about civil liberties | Dear Kitty. Some blog

  2. Pingback: Police harassment is nothing new | Karl Dallas Day

  3. Pingback: Journalists and Bloggers Threatened World-Wide | ZombieChicken.org

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