Readers know I have been grappling for a while with the vexing question of the balance between the surveillance state and the threat of Jihadist terrorism. When the NSA leaks burst onto the scene, I was skeptical of many of the large claims made by civil libertarians and queasily sympathetic to a program that relied on meta-data alone, as long as it was transparent, had Congressional buy-in, did not accidentally expose innocent civilians to grotesque privacy loss, and was watched by a strong FISA court.
Since then, I’ve watched the debate closely and almost all the checks I supported have been proven illusory. The spying is vastly more extensive than anyone fully comprehended before; the FISA court has been revealed as toothless and crippled; and many civilians have had their privacy accidentally violated over 3000 times. The president, in defending the indefensible, has damaged himself and his core reputation for honesty and candor. These cumulative revelations have exposed this program as, at a minimum, dangerous to core liberties and vulnerable to rank abuse. I’ve found myself moving further and further to Glenn’s position.
What has kept me from embracing it entirely has been the absence of any real proof than any deliberate abuse has taken place and arguments that it has helped prevent terror attacks. This may be too forgiving a standard. If a system is ripe for abuse, history tells us the only question is not if such abuse will occur, but when. So it is a strange and awful irony that the Coalition government in Britain has today clinched the case for Glenn.
A disclosure upfront: I have met David Miranda as part of a my friendship with Glenn Greenwald. The thought of his being detained by the British police for nine hours because his partner embarrassed the American government really sickens me at a gut level. I immediately think of my husband, Aaron, being detained in connection to work I have done – something that would horrify and frighten me. We should, of course, feel this empathy with people we have never known – but the realization is all the more gob-smacking when it comes so close to home. So of course my instinct is to see this exactly as Glenn has today.
But put that instinct aside for a moment. David was detained under an anti-terrorism law:
Section 7 of the British Terrorism Act allows the authorities to detain someone for up to nine hours for questioning and to conduct a search of personal items, often without a lawyer, to determine possible ties to terrorism. More than 97 percent of people stopped under the provision are questioned for under an hour, according to the British government.
David was detained for nine hours – the maximum time under the law, to the minute. He therefore falls into the 3 percent of interviewees particularly, one assumes, likely to be linked to terrorist organizations. My obvious question is: what could possibly lead the British security services to suspect David of such ties to terror groups?
And yet they held him for three hours before informing his spouse and another six hours thereafter. I can see no reason for those extra six hours (or for that matter the entire nine hours) than brute psychological intimidation of the press, by attacking their families.
More to the point, although David was released, his entire digital library was confiscated – including his laptop and phone. So any journalist passing through London’s Heathrow has now been warned: do not take any documents with you. Britain is now a police state when it comes to journalists, just like Russia is.
In this respect, I can say this to David Cameron. 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 you 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?
(Photo: Dan Kitwood/Getty.)