A Demented Detention At Heathrow Airport

What the heck were British officials thinking when they detained David Miranda, the partner of Guardian journalist Glenn Greenwald, at Heathrow Airport? As you can read about here, they kept him in custody for nine hours and confiscated a bunch of computer equipment, thumb drives, and the like. They did so under the auspices of Britain’s Terrorism Act of 2000, which authorizes detentions of persons suspected of being “involved in the commission, preparation or instigation of acts of terrorism."

As you’d expect, this foolish yet chilling act of official intimidation is being rightly condemned by Greenwald himself, and by commentators like Andrew Sullivan here. But I’m intrigued by the question of motivation: what did the British government hope to accomplish by doing this? I don’t know, but here are some possibilities that occurred to me.

First, it’s possible that this was just an act of overzealous low-level counter-terror bureaucrats, operating without official approval. But this explanation seems very unlikely: why would low-level functionaries single out Miranda (who was just transiting through Heathrow on his way back to Rio) and detain him for nine hours, all the while questioning him about his partner’s reporting on the NSA? And for that matter, how did he get on a watch list that would allow the British authorities to pluck him out from the thousands of people who stream through that airport every day? So I think we can rule out pure bureaucratic politics or low-level blundering as the explanation here.

Second, perhaps British officials were genuinely worried that Miranda (and by association, Greenwald and Laura Poitras) might be actively engaged in terrorism. But this is daft: whatever you think of Greenwald’s politics and journalistic activities, there isn’t the slightest basis for suspecting that he or his associates have ever endorsed or supported terrorism in any way. If British officials genuinely harbored such suspicions, we ought to be really worried about the quality of thinking inside these organizations.

Third, maybe they suspected that Miranda was transporting more of the information provided by Edward Snowden, information that had yet to be made public. In this version, they stopped him and seized the thumb drives, etc., to prevent another round of juicy revelations in the Guardian. Yet this account makes no sense either, because it assumes that Greenwald and Poitras aren’t smart enough to have made copies of any material that Miranda might have had on his person. If that was the goal, then detaining and harassing him accomplished nothing.

Fourth, maybe this was intended primarily as an act of intimidation: the British government was letting Greenwald know that they can harass his partner if he keeps releasing more materials that are….um….embarrassing to Britain’s U.S. ally. It sends the clear message to Greenwald that he's being watched, and those near to him are too. Greenwald himself believes that this was the motivation for the UK government’s action, and he may well be right. But if so, then it was also a completely lame-brained act on Britain’s part: you don’t need a triple-digit IQ to figure out that Greenwald is not the sort of person who can be intimidated in this fashion. On the contrary, his entire career as a blogger, writer, and journalist has been driven by the desire to expose and challenging abuses of power, and making him the personal object of this sort of abuse is hardly going to make him cease writing and go back to being a corporate lawyer. So if that was the goal, somebody in the UK counter-terror operation either hasn’t been paying attention, isn't very bright, or both.

My own view, for what it is worth, is that this was an act of petty bureaucratic vengeance. It was the outraged bleat of a transnational national security apparatus that is used to having its own way and generally disdainful of genuine oversight. In both the United States and the UK, as well as lots of other countries, the broad national security/intelligence bureaucracies are accustomed to acting with enormous latitude and autonomy. They get to decide what is secret and what is not, and they get to decide when it is ok to leak something to reporters and when it is preferable to prosecute someone for leaking or reporting.  Most of the people doing these things undoubtedly believe that it is for the good of the nation; it just has the ancillary benefit of insulating them from annoying questions or criticisms from the rest of us.  

They’re ticked off at people like Snowden, Greenwald, Poitras, Assange, etc., because they just aren’t playing ball. And these critics and leakers have in fact released a lot of material that has punctured various myths about what officialdom is really doing. And officialdom is probably worried that if the veil of secrecy gets torn back further, ordinary citizens might be disturbed by what they learn and might start demanding that things change. Indeed, Snowden’s revelations about the NSA have already provoked movement for reform, and it would hardly be surprising if a few people in the vast world of intelligence and counterterrorism decided it was time for some payback.

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