Airports have become a zone where we have less rights and are more at the mercy of government intrusion. Over the weekend, Glenn Greenwald’s partner, David Miranda, was detained for nine hours (the maximum allowed under British law). For Andrew Sullivan, this tipped the balance:
Readers know I have been grappling for a while with the vexing question of the balance between the surveillance state and the threat of Jihadist terrorism. When the NSA leaks burst onto the scene, I was skeptical of many of the large claims made by civil libertarians and queasily sympathetic to a program that relied on meta-data alone, as long as it was transparent, had Congressional buy-in, did not accidentally expose innocent civilians to grotesque privacy loss, and was watched by a strong FISA court.
Since then, I’ve watched the debate closely and almost all the checks I supported have been proven illusory. The spying is vastly more extensive than anyone fully comprehended before; the FISA court has been revealed as toothless and crippled; and many civilians have had their privacy accidentally violated over 3000 times. The president, in defending the indefensible, has damaged himself and his core reputation for honesty and candor. These cumulative revelations have exposed this program as, at a minimum, dangerous to core liberties and vulnerable to rank abuse. I’ve found myself moving further and further to Glenn’s position.
What has kept me from embracing it entirely has been the absence of any real proof than any deliberate abuse has taken place and arguments that it has helped prevent terror attacks. This may be too forgiving a standard. If a system is ripe for abuse, history tells us the only question is not if such abuse will occur, but when. So it is a strange and awful irony that the Coalition government in Britain has today clinched the case for Glenn.
A disclosure upfront: I have met David Miranda as part of a my friendship with Glenn Greenwald. The thought of his being detained by the British police for nine hours because his partner embarrassed the American government really sickens me at a gut level. I immediately think of my husband, Aaron, being detained in connection to work I have done – something that would horrify and frighten me. We should, of course, feel this empathy with people we have never known – but the realization is all the more gob-smacking when it comes so close to home. So of course my instinct is to see this exactly as Glenn has today.
This was more of an emotional response than a fact-based one, yet it is a response which many feel sympathy with, along with many in the news media. Technically the use of a law in the U.K. (which many there agree needs to be reformed) says nothing about NSA abuses by the United States. Looking at just the law, and not questions as to whether Snowden did the right thing in releasing this specific classified information, there does appear to be some justification for investigating Miranda (even if handled in an excessive and abusive manner). The New York Times reports:
Mr. Miranda was in Berlin to deliver documents related to Mr. Greenwald’s investigation into government surveillance to Ms. Poitras, Mr. Greenwald said. Ms. Poitras, in turn, gave Mr. Miranda different documents to pass to Mr. Greenwald. Those documents, which were stored on encrypted thumb drives, were confiscated by airport security, Mr. Greenwald said. All of the documents came from the trove of materials provided to the two journalists by Mr. Snowden. The British authorities seized all of his electronic media — including video games, DVDs and data storage devices — and did not return them, Mr. Greenwald said.
Despite the attention this detention has received, the real issue remains the abuses by the United States government regarding surveillance, and the failure of those bodies entrusted to provide oversight. The detention of Miranda is a side issue. However on an emotional level seeing someone detained for nine hours and having their property seized is a more tangible warning of the dangers of government abusing its power, for many easier to understand than the evidence released to date.
Update II: It looks like Reuter’s took Greenwald’s statement out of context in their interview and a better summation might be that Greenwald said he would not let this deter him from continuing to release documents.