The United Kingdom responded to criticism today of its detention of David Miranda for nine hours at Heathrow Airport over the weekend. Miranda is the partner of Guardian reporter Glenn Greenwald, who has written about Edward Snowden and U.S. surveillance programs. Miranda has begun legal action against the government, claiming it had no authority to detain him:
Police used a contentious anti-terrorism law to detain Miranda, the civil partner of Guardian newspaper journalist Glenn Greenwald, on Sunday. Greenwald has published stories about U.S. and British surveillance programs based on documents leaked by former National Security Agency contractor Edward Snowden.
Miranda was held for nearly nine hours — the maximum allowed by law — and had electronic equipment confiscated.
Miranda, a 28-year-old university student, was traveling home to Brazil after visiting Germany, where he met with Laura Poitras, a U.S. filmmaker who has worked with Greenwald on the NSA stories. Greenwald said Miranda was carrying materials between the two, but didn’t specify what they were.
“The government and the police have a duty to protect the public and our national security,” the Home Office said in a statement.
“If the police believe that an individual is in possession of highly sensitive stolen information that would help terrorism, then they should act and the law provides them with a framework to do that,” it said.
“Those who oppose this sort of action need to think about what they are condoning.” . . .
Guardian editor Alan Rusbridger characterized the detention of Miranda as part of a campaign of official intimidation against the newspaper since it began publishing stories based on Snowden’s leaks in June. The articles revealed details of surveillance of electronic communications carried out by U.S. and British spies.
For more on what Snowden’s documents reveal, watch the discussion with Washington Post contributor Barton Gellman below.
The White House has claimed that U.K. agents decided to detain Miranda on their own initiative:
White House spokesman Josh Earnest told reporters that U.S. officials had received a “heads-up” that London police would detain David Miranda on Sunday, but he said the U.S. government did not request Miranda’s detention, calling it “a law enforcement action” taken by the British government.
“This was a decision that was made by the British government without the involvement and not at the request of the United States government. It’s as simple as that,” Earnest said.
He said the hard drives were torn apart in the basement of the Guardian’s north London office with “two GCHQ security experts overseeing the destruction ... just to make sure there was nothing in the mangled bits of metal which could possibly be of any interest to passing Chinese agents.”
It was not clear exactly when the incident occurred. Rusbridger gave a vague timeline, suggesting that it happened within the past month or so. Guardian spokesman Gennady Kolker declined to comment further, and messages left with GCHQ after working hours were not immediately returned. An operator at the intelligence agency’s switchboard said no one was available until Tuesday.
Rusbridger said the destruction was the culmination of weeks of pressure on the Guardian by British officials.
Shortly after his paper began publishing reports based on Snowden’s leaks, he said he was contacted by “a very senior government official claiming to represent the views of the prime minister” who demanded the return or destruction of Snowden’s material. There followed a series of increasingly tough meetings in which officials demanded the Guardian comply. Eventually, he said, officials threatened legal action, and that’s when the editor allowed British agents into his basement.
A spokesman for British Prime Minister David Cameron declined comment.
The Switch’s Andrea Peterson warns against interpreting the story as a conflict between Greenwald and the United Kingdom, citing media reports that “implied that Greenwald would be publishing more documents in response to the government’s decision to detain his partner.” Peterson writes:
Greenwald’s point seems to have been that he was determined not to be scared off by intimidation. Greenwald and the Guardian have already been publishing documents outlining surveillance programs in Britain, and Greenwald has long declared his intention to continue publishing documents. By doing so, Greenwald isn’t taking “vengeance.” He’s just doing his job.
For more on the National Security Agency and U.S. surveillance, continue reading here.