On Sunday 18 August, David Miranda, the partner of Guardian journalist Glenn Greenwald, was detained for nine hours at Heathrow airport and questioned by police.
His phone, computer and other electronic equipment was confiscated. He was not allowed access to a lawyer until the last hour of the questioning. The police told him he would be locked up if they thought he was “not co-operating”.
He was detained under Schedule 7 of the 2000 Terrorism Act, and the police questioned him as if they suspected he was a terrorist. They asked Miranda, a Brazillian citizen, for his political opinions about recent protests in his country. Those protests were sparked by bus price rises!
Bullying, highly coercive and unreasonable treatment like this must be illegal, right? No. Schedule 7 of the 2000 Terrorism Act gives the police powers to detain and question anyone at ports and airports in the UK and, unlike the (equally harassing) “stop and search” law, there don’t have to be “reasonable grounds” for stopping people.
Schedule 7 has, according to the civil liberties campaign Liberty, been routinely abused and it is being challenged in the European Court of Human Rights. People who fit a certain “racial profile” —people of Asian or Arab descent —have been detained under Schedule 7.
But Miranda’s detention was not “routine” in that sense. It was an intervention by the British state, more than likely co-ordinated with the US state, prompted by paranoia about press investigations into the state spying, and intended to intimidate the press into silence on these matters.
Miranda’s partner Glenn Greenwald is at the centre of journalistic investigations into UK and US state surveillance arising from revelations made by US whistleblower and former intelligence analyst Edward Snowdon. All the emails, phone calls, texts and social media communications made by you, me and everyone else in the world are potentially available to the state.
David Miranda at the time of his detention was travelling to Rio de Janeiro after a visit to a film maker working on Snowdon’s revelations.
The government’s lawyers, backing up the police, have argued that Miranda is not a journalist, therefore his detention and confiscation of the documents he was carrying was “in the national interest”, was about “protecting the country”and so on. They and the police were forced into a ludicrous position of saying David Miranda is, or could be, a terrorist.
The left must make a political campaign out of these alarming events. We need to spell out what the state is doing and why it does what it does.
Firstly, David Miranda’s detention and the subsequent court ruling (22 August) which allows the government to keep, scrutinise and use the documents they confiscated from Miranda, is a very serious threat to press freedom. If journalists cannot protect their research and sources on which they base their stories, they cannot do their job of calling powerful people to account.
Miranda’s detention is part of a global picture of creeping repression. In the US, following the Snowden leaks, the Justice Department was caught spying on Associated Press journalists. The government has also threatened to send a New York Times reporter to jail if he refuses to disclose the source of another leak.
Second we should point out this secret surveillance is not essential or even very effective at catching and stopping Islamist terrorists or any other group inclined to murderous acts in the name of reactionary political causes.
And even if it was effective it would not be right. Suspected Islamist terrorists should have the same rights as everyone else, and those should include the right to a lawyer, the right not to be “rendered” to a state torturer on the other side of the world, and the right not to be locked up without charge.
Secret monitoring is about the state creating and maintaining controlling mechanisms in society — building up the police and other coercive powers, developing a legal infrastructure weighted in favour of the rich. The state presides over, keeps in check and helps to reproduce class society.
Along with the Chelsea Manning case these events have shown the extent to which the capitalist state will sacrifice the lives of individuals and democratic rights in order to maintain its ability to operate without scrutiny.
Defend whistleblowers and press freedom. Lift the lid on state surveillance. Abolish the anti-terror legislation.