Miranda Warning

Regardless of what one thinks about Edward Snowden, hero whistleblower or traitor, or Glenn Greenwald, UK Guardian reporter who broke the news of our National Security Agency aggregating all of our digital metadata “just in case,” what followed yesterday to 28-year-old Brazilian David Miranda took it to a very different level.

Miranda is Greenwald’s “partner,” meaning whatever that word means these days when we’re not supposed to care. At least the New York Times was kind enough to expressly explain that Miranda wasn’t a journalist, per se, but running an errand for Greenwald from Brazil to Berlin to visit Laura Poitras, a documentary film maker who, like Greenwald, is engaged in spreading the Snowden word. On his way back from Berlin, Miranda stopped in London, where he was welcomed too much.

Mr. Miranda, Mr. Greenwald said, was told that he was being detained under Section 7 of the British Terrorism Act, which 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.

“What’s amazing is this law, called the Terrorism Act, gives them a right to detain and question you about your activities with a terrorist organization or your possible involvement in or knowledge of a terrorism plot,” Mr. Greenwald said. “The only thing they were interested in was N.S.A. documents and what I was doing with Laura Poitras. It’s a total abuse of the law.” He added: “This is obviously a serious, radical escalation of what they are doing. He is my partner. He is not even a journalist.”

Miranda had a thumb drive on him with stuff from Poitras for Greenwald, who is most assuredly a journalist, even if you don’t care for what he writes. After holding and questioning Miranda for nine hours, they let him go, sans thumb drive.

It appears that noting Miranda’s personal connection to Greenwald, and that he’s not a journalist as if that word is akin to enemy combatant, was meant to evoke sympathy. Think of it as if it was Greenwald’s daughter who was seized by hostile government against whom Greenwald had declared war. It seems utterly irrelevant to me. If Miranda had been the Fed Ex guy delivering a package to Greenwald, it would make no difference.

Similarly, that it happened under a British law called the Terrorism Act that allows someone to be held for investigation, is a mere aside. What happened, devoid of silly attempts to make it appear legally justified, is that a person bringing damning information to a journalist was taken, the information seized, because the government has the guns and manpower to do so. The opportunity to interfere with Greenwald’s obtaining, and disseminating, information that the government desperately wanted to remain secret presented itself, and the government seized it, along with everything else.

And so whatever was on that thumb drive is now in the hands of the British government and, therefore, not in Glenn Greenwald’s hands.

For those who contend that no person unauthorized to know the deep, dark secrets of the nasty things the government must do to protect us from the terrorists should possess this information, then the seizure by the Brits will be applauded, keeping our secrets safe from the likes of Greenwald, who would reveal it to the world. But then, even those who embrace the government’s authority to engage in ultra vires actions to save us from our enemies miss a point.

There would be no debate, no questions, no opportunity to get one’s wrinkled mug on TV opining about the evils of an America-hater disclosing government secrets, but for what Snowden and Greenwald have done. While the people in government insist that we trust them blindly because they are smart, good and only have our best interests at heart, and which compels them to conceal what they do and lie about it when asked, because oversight and scrutiny defeat the very purpose of secrecy, some of us aren’t inclined to hand over our world so easily.

Those who do trust the government enough are angry with those who don’t, because we’re screwing up their outcomes. By revealing what they believe must remain secret, it’s no longer secret and they lose. But without revealing what they believe must remain secret, they don’t know that there is a secret to protect and something to get upset about.

By seizing the thumb drive Miranda was carrying for Greenwald. the Brits have used brute force to challenge the old aphorism that the pen is mightier than the sword. As outraged as we may be by the government’s actions, this concern isn’t anywhere near as overarching as the disclosures of what the government is doing in secret to circumvent our Constitution as it gets in the way of the most effective governmental control possible. In other words, the Miranda seizure will be forgotten long before the NSA’s collection of everything under the sun will be forgiven.

This clash of interests, the government claiming to own the authority to keep us safe at all costs and the media to keep us informed even if it requires the revelation of our deepest national secrets that risk our safety, is at stake. The government has guns and manpower. Newspapers have ink.

But if the government can impede the transmittal of the information to the newspapers, then we will never know whether the pen is mightier than the sword. And even the people who trust the government blindly will never know that they made the right choice.

We may ultimately come to realize that what Snowden and Greenwald did, and are doing, has compromised safety to an extent we regret, and that maybe the government isn’t as evil (at least in this instance) as we think, but without the ability to subject government to scrutiny, without the ability for information to flow into the hands of the media so that it has the possibility of eventually filtering through to us, we will never know.

When David Michael Miranda was seized at London Heathrow, it was a warning: we have only those rights the government deems us capable of safely exercising. When we push it too far, the government can shut us down at will because they have the guns and manpower. The government, taking Miranda’s thumb drive, has had enough. Just trust the government and know that it’s only doing what it must to keep us safe.

12 comments on “Miranda Warning

  1. R.P.

    So, Snowden steals documents from the government and gives them to “journalist” Greenwald. Greenwald decides to publish whatever he wants to publish, and when. Not you, I, nor our elected government officials have any say in what gets published or the schedule. Then, Greenwald’s agent get stopped and information gets taken from him. It seems to me that Snowden and Greenwald have little to complain about – Snowden stole information by “brute force” (i.e. illegal hacking) and gave it to Greenwald. Now Greenwald complains that info has been “taken” from him? Snowden/Greenwald can’t complain about “brute force” when they live by the rule of “brute force.” Pursuant to your argument (i.e., that we would never have known the extent of the spying program to begin with unless Snowden/Greenwald acted to “protect” us), it is acceptable for any government employee anywhere to hack into classified data and release it to the public. What happened to the rule of law? Yeah, let’s put all of these programs, not in the hands of our elected officials, but in the hands of a guy who doesn’t even have a college degree and a blogger living in Brazil who hopes to get a book deal out of the whole controversy – sounds lot a great idea.

    1. SHG Post author

      I’m shocked that you didn’t blame Greenwald’s sexual preference or unattractive clothing. But yes, that’s the way the counterbalance of media to government works because the only alternative is that government go without scrutiny. Life is full of difficult choices, but only for those who prefer not to go thought it with their eyes shut.

      1. R.P.

        I don’t know anything about Greenwald’s sexual preferences (I don’t have much of a “gay-dar”!) I do know he has quite an axe to grind on these issues; doesn’t even pretend to be an objective reporter and shouldn’t be the sole arbiter of what gets released, and when.

        1. SHG Post author

          That’s an excellent point. The government ought to put all the information in the hands of all media outlets and let them all decide what gets released and when. That’s what you meant, right?

          1. Fubar

            That’s what you meant, right?

            Do you often get bills from readers for professional removal of coffee from keyboards?

            I’d expect even that expense would be much less burdensome than penning a simple explanation of the vagaries in the nine opinions of New York Times Co. v. United States, right?

        2. A Voice of Sanity

          > doesn’t even pretend to be an objective reporter

          Why does anyone have to “pretend to be an objective reporter” (or be one) and who decides? The government? Not seeing a problem there? Polemicists have their purposes.

          When there are mountains of secrets accessible by over 1.5 million people, all of whom have the information which is, however, denied to the voters of the country, it has drifted far from anything the founders could have imagined and closer to something totalitarians would adore.

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  3. Bruce Coulson

    It’s very simple. Greenwald is releasing information to people who are truly dangerous to officials in power. Not terrorists; us. After all, dream as they may like, foreign terrorists lack the power to change the systems of government in Western countries. Or to seriously threaten those truly in charge. But the citizens of those countries COULD prove a threat to the stability of their countries. They might even alter the status quo. So, this seizure was to forestall further revelations, to prevent the real enemies of the State from gain ing access to information that might prove harmful.

  4. drouse

    It’s not if the government removed the documents from Greenwald/Poitras’s possession. To state the obvious, digital information is impossible to suppress once released. It’s not some 70’s spy novel where they are desperately searching for the microfilm. Come to think of it what was taken was most likely work product based on the documents which actually makes this situation worse. Properly encrypted, they won’t be able to read it so all that was accomplished was delay/harassment. What I find disturbing is that so many who call themselves journalists are taking the govt’s side.

    1. SHG Post author

      That’s a very curious point, that other journalists aren’t standing up for the freedom of speech issue even though they consider what Greenwald is doing to be dangerously wrong. Kinda strikes me as a Martin Niemöller moment that will eventually come back to bite them in the butt.

  5. Ultraviolet admin

    You left out the follow up and aftermath. The Guardian’s UK offices were then invaded and had various hard drives destroyed.

    1. A Voice of Sanity

      Rather pointless, except to Luddites. A 32Gb micro SD card will hold about 2,000 books and is smaller than many postage stamps. And you can encode the data with a pass phrase the CIA can’t crack (we think).

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