Miranda’s Rights: State Intimidation, Edward Snowden, and the New Definition of Terrorism

by Joe Morby on August 25, 2013

‘You’ve had your fun. Now we want the stuff back.’ Such was the phone call that Guardian editor Alan Rusbridger fielded after his paper had written stories based on the CIA whistleblower Edward Snowden’s leaks (he later watched as two GCHQ goons destroyed some hard drives that had contained a copy of the information). In a way, this sentiment perfectly captures the mood of our governments to any criticism of their policies or the actions of ‘our’ security services: briefly tolerated instances of accidental clarity and public accountability, followed by a swift drawing of the curtain and a return to the programme of zero transparency, thuggish threats and increasingly authoritarian methods of domestic control and intimidation.

News of last week’s detention of Guardian journalist Glenn Greenwald’s partner, David Miranda, at London’s Heathrow airport for nine hours under dubious terror legislation has crossed the Atlantic back and forth as some commentators express outrage, others hawkish support, and still others indifference to this seemingly minor, but chillingly ominous little event. Greenwald had been working with Edward Snowden’s leaked materials and was collaborating with filmmaker Laura Poitras; Miranda, working as an assistant, had met Poitras and received the material in Berlin. However, before he got back to his native Brazil he was detained at Heathrow airport  by British police and held for nine hours, during which time he was incessantly questioned and had all his electronic devices, including his laptop, memory sticks and DVDs confiscated. He was eventually released, without having been arrested or charged, but now without the material he was to pass on.

The police were able to arbitrarily detain him thanks to Britain’s nebulous terror laws, in particular the now-infamous ‘Schedule 7’ of the Terrorism Act of 2000. This law allows the security forces to detain anyone for any reason, or lack thereof, for up to nine hours at any of Britain’s ports, ostensibly to ascertain if they are terrorists. The law gives them unchallenged powers to confiscate material, interrogate detainees and even press charges if the person fails to answer a question (throwing away the right to silence), all for up to a maximum of nine hours. Actions that would be impossible to get away with anywhere else in Britain are quietly sanctioned in its ports and airports, which operate almost as a state within a state, not quite Britain, but not not Britain either.

Miranda’s detention clearly was not a random occurrence, neither was it an accident that they kept him for the whole nine hours (official figures show only 1 in 2000 stopped are detained for more than six hours). Both the UK and US governments have admitted that they knew of the operation beforehand, making this a specific political act. They also knew full well that this story would not go down quietly− with Miranda being the partner of one of the UK’s best-known journalists it would have been obvious that the story would explode, and that there would be a lot of criticism. But then, that was the whole point.

Miranda’s detention was designed not only to see what information Snowden had leaked but also to intimidate any journalists and activists who would use such material, and ultimately the British and American public themselves, whose curiosity and concern in the Snowden leaks is what our governments fear most. The point was for us all to read about this in the morning papers and be warned away not only from writing about the state’s shady works, but also from reading about them, too.

If the Guardian or any of its journalists had committed any actual crime, they could have been arrested at any time. But the public perception of arresting journalists for what they write would have been too toxic even for our authority-obsessed security forces; also, there would have been pesky legal hurdles in the way, such as the oft-threatened habeas corpus, plus the acceptable defence of free speech in the public interest. Doing it in an airport under Schedule 7 removes those legal problems, while doing it under terror laws in general has the double effect of not only maligning the detainee, making them appear to be dangerous or criminal, but also highlighting just how pervasive the terror laws are. The point is to show the public that they, or anybody, can be held just as easily, and that there will be no legal sanctuary for them to hide in if the state dislikes what they write or say.

The case also sets an alarming precedent, priming the public for the future detention of journalists, writers and publishers based merely on information that they possess or print. Merely knowing about something becomes a terrorist act. Slowly, the definition of the word ‘terrorist’ is changing. Edward Snowden and the Guardian newspaper have been accused of aiding terrorism by publishing details on how the American and British governments spy on the populace; now journalists are being intimidated by anti-terror laws. With each step, the government’s image of a terrorist comes to resemble less and less the bomb-wielding maniacs that we usually associate the term with and more and more like people who look like us: ordinary citizens who take an interest in what our governments are doing in our name. It is an essential part of any democracy that the media be able to act freely as a check and balance on government; it is the means by which a people learn of its government’s actions. Something is deeply wrong when that process becomes a criminal act, one that our governments insist is close to ‘terrorism’.

Further evidence of this subtle change in the definition of ‘terrorist’ and of that nebulous charge of ‘aiding terror’, can be seen in another story that broke at the same time as the Miranda detention. A British businessman, Gary Bolton, was found guilty of fraud for selling fake bomb-detectors, just a few months after a near-identical case hit the headlines. The ‘devices’ were just hollow plastic units with antennae that did nothing, and yet in both cases, the men were able to sell them for ridiculous prices (up to £10,000 each in the Bolton case) to countries such as Iraq and Afghanistan, places overrun with the most violent terrorism, convincing them that they worked. Now by definition, the only people who would have profited from a fake bomb-detector (other than the fraudsters making money) would have been the people trying to conceal their bombs, i.e. ‘terrorists’. With the devices being used for years in Iraq, where they were regularly employed at checkpoints, any number of actual terrorists would have evaded detection− Iraq’s massive bombing death-toll over this period is evidence of that. And yet were these businessmen held under the terror laws? Were they charged with aiding terror, which they undoubtedly did? Of course not! ‘Terrorists’ are people who threaten state power, not people who blow up Iraqis!

Now that information possession and dissemination is equated with terror, all journalism that investigates the state becomes technically impossible. As, with the Schedule 7 laws, the state need not even give a reason for your detention, anything you print can theoretically be held liable for any reason; this is the beauty of impune, arbitrary laws, and the reason why every autocratic state has them somewhere on the books. This is the reality that the state wished to impress upon us in the Miranda case, that the state is to be the judge not only of what the public is allowed to hear, but what they are allowed to say as well. The Guardian is unlikely to publish any dangerously compromising material (and arguably hasn’t) that would endanger lives, say, of agents abroad, but the message is clearly that the public should not be privy even to the concepts of ‘national security’, let alone the individual details. This case will have repercussions the world over, as if our supposedly free press faces such threats, there will be even less incentive for autocratic regimes to allow their own citizens freedom of speech, for when it comes to international policy perception what’s good for the goose is good for the gander.

The Miranda case does also, however, highlight the state’s secret fear− its own people. And with all the revelations about the extent of the government’s electronic surveillance of its own citizens, it is not hard to see why they want to keep it quiet.  A country without our history of free speech may very well have just arrested the journalists involved, or even closed down the newspaper, but this would be political suicide in the US or Britain. To survive public perception they used the terror laws, where technically the detainee is never ‘arrested’, and so you can not be accused of ‘arresting journalists’ in the same way that China or Azerbaijan, for example, are. These terror laws are unquestioned, so you do not have to justify yourself, or even give any great explanation for your actions− it’s for national security, you say, and no questions will be fielded. This tacit knowledge that the population would not approve and would collectively dissent is what forces our governments to put up this façade of ‘anti-terror’. It is also the only thing that will be able to take it down, which is why, at all costs, the state needs to dissuade the public from even thinking about it. The antidote, is therefore more of the new terrorism: information possession and dissemination, and lots of it. Now, of course, we now the price: arbitrary arrest, nine hours detention, confiscation of material, threats of imprisonment and a drink only after eight hours. You have been warned.

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