Glenn Greenwald’s partner, David Miranda, was detained for nine hours at Heathrow this afternoon under what’s called Schedule 7 of the Terrorism Act, under which people can be detained because, oh, well, any reason, really.
Miranda had been in Berlin visiting Laura Poitras, (I linked to an article about her in my last post). He was returning to Rio de Janeiro. Glenn Greenwald is livid, as he should be.
And we all should be. I don’t really mean to keep coming back to the NSA leaks, but this event is an example of something of broader interest than this particular case: the way in which broad powers given to the intelligence and law enforcement services, or the government, expands towards being used not just for actual criminals, but also for dissidents and people who are trying — right or wrong — to do political harm to some part of the government in a perfectly lawful manner.
Even if you oppose the leaks and what Glenn Greenwald is doing, our political instincts should be against this. When the government is capable of reaching all the way into the private lives of its opponents in such an unrestrained way as this. Alarm bells should be ringing.
You shouldn’t be able to interrogate someone without a lawyer for nine hours and seize their communications equipment (lest we forget: the machines we use for every aspect of our existence) without some form of due process. This is a major and deeply illiberal intervention in the life of mr. Miranda, and clearly intimidating to him and those close to him. If the government has the power to intervene in this way, that should freak you out, even if you don’t appreciate mr. Greenwald’s work.
I see some, for instance Charles Johnson of Little Green Footballs, saying that since Greenwald exposed top secret things, he should apparently forget about due process for his family members. I think that it’s hard to make that argument coherently. On at least two levels. First, Johnson appears to be saying that journalists can keep doing what they’re doing as long as they don’t act contrary to the interests of the government. I don’t think this portends well for investigative journalism.
But, secondly and more to the point, why isn’t Johnson worried about the fact that he is effectively signing off on the use of counterterrorism-measures for very non-terroristey civil society things? This is an anti-terrorism tool used for harrasing political opponents. This is as clean an illustration as any that the blanket powers awarded governments to combat terrorism are used for all kinds of petty things by anyone in government with an axe to grind. As Labour MP Tom Watson says:
He said: “It’s almost impossible, even without full knowledge of the case, to conclude that Glenn Greenwald’s partner was a terrorist suspect.
“I think that we need to know if any ministers knew about this decision, and exactly who authorised it.”
“The clause in this act is not meant to be used as a catch-all that can be used in this way.”
Schedule 7 of the Terrorism Act has been widely criticised for giving police broad powers under the guise of anti-terror legislation to stop and search individuals without prior authorisation or reasonable suspicion – setting it apart from other police powers.
Those stopped have no automatic right to legal advice and it is a criminal offence to refuse to co-operate with questioning under schedule 7, which critics say is a curtailment of the right to silence.
Last month the UK government said it would reduce the maximum period of detention to six hours and promised a review of the operation on schedule 7 amid concerns it unfairly targets minority groups and gives individuals fewer legal protections than they would have if detained at a police station.