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.