Jacob Heilbrunn

Britain's Shameful Detention of Greenwald's Partner

If you weren't familiar with Schedule 7, you probably are by now. This capacious provision, passed as part of a Terrorism Act 2000, apparently permits British authorities to detain terrorism suspects for up to nine hours without recourse to a lawyer or much of anything else, which is what Scotland Yard did with Glenn Greenwald's partner David Michael Miranda, who was flying from Germany to Brazil via Heathrow airport. There he was invigilated for the full nine hours by, among others, one agent 203654. Afterwards his electronic devices were seized. They even purloined his game consoles. Does anyone really believe that Miranda was engaged in what the act defines as the proper grounds for detaining a suspect, namely, the "instigation or propagation" of terrorism?

Not a bit of it. This provision is being blatantly misused. The message is clear: Under the pretense of stopping terrorism, the British government is itself attempting to terrorize Greenwald and his associates. By no stretch of the imagination can what Greenwald, a prominent defender and abettor of Edward Snowden, is doing be construed as constituting terrorist activities. American and British authorities may resent his activities, but they fall well within the boundaries of dissent from orthodoxy. If journalists—Miranda's flights were being paid by the Guardian newspaper—are subject, willy-nilly, to interrogation by British authorities if they happen to find themselves at Heathrow, then the traditional liberties that England has prized for centuries have gone by the boards. After this episode, the Union Jack should be fluttering at half-mast.

Greenwald has it right:

This is obviously a rather profound escalation of their attacks on the news-gathering process and journalism. 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.

The question has to be this: what are the British and American governments so frightened about? It's possible that this is an act of simple petulance, an attempt to initimidate Greenwald. If so, it could not be more foolish. It is bound to elicit even more sympathy and notoriety for Greenwald and his partner. But it is also possible that the United Kingdom and United States are going to up the ante when it comes to harrassing anyone who attempts to warn about the the sway of the intelligence services, a kind of warning shot to others. This episode, it must be said, is entirely consistent with the draconian policies that President Obama has sanctioned when it comes to civil liberties, whether it is targeting leakers in the U.S. government or targeting Fox News' James Rosen. As for the British, they should reflect upon a noble birthright that are in danger of squandering, perhaps to placate a remorseless American government. It was the great nineteenth-century historian Thomas Macaulay who observed,

Nothing is so galling to a people not broken in from the birth as a paternal, or, in other words, a meddling government, a government which tells them what to read, and say, and eat, and drink and wear.

With the detention of David Miranda, the UK took a fateful step toward a meddling government that tells its subjects what they may read and say.

Image: Flickr/Gage Skidmore. CC BY-SA 2.0.