The past week’s events ought to be the catalyst for restoring civil liberties
The arrest of David Miranda and destruction of The Guardian’s hard-drives was such a bizarre event that it has become hard to discuss it without sounding like a conspiracy theorist. The government has been accused of abusing anti-terror legislation at best and acting like a police state at worst. It is hyperbolic to claim that this week marks the start of UK as a police state. Nevertheless, that is not a reason to do nothing and people should start getting angrier about their loss of civil liberties.
The genesis of the David Miranda controversy is interlinked with the NSA whistleblower, Edward Snowden. The BBC has an excellent summary here that explains how Edward Snowden released information, mainly through the journalist Glenn Greenwold. Two connected but distinct events happened on the 19th of August: the Guardian agreed (after weeks of pressure from the government) to destroy hard-drives containing the leaked documents and the security services arrested David Miranda in an airport and retained his phone, laptop and other media devices.
The security services justified pressurising The Guardian into destroying its hard-drives on the grounds that the information could aid terrorists if it fell into the wrong hands. It also claimed that it was not an act of censorship as the only information being destroyed was that which The Guardian had voluntarily chosen not to release on the grounds that it was too sensitive. Thus no information destroyed on 19th August was censored; it was simply removed to eliminate the danger of it falling into the wrong hands. The Guardian claimed that it was a futile act, as it holds digital copies in other countries, a fact that was made clear to the security services before the destruction of the hard-drives. As it did not prevent any information being released (for good or ill) it can be viewed as neither an act of outright censorship nor a government protecting national security, but instead a rather pointless task.
The destruction of the Guardian’s hard-drives was through mutual agreement, the same cannot be said for the detention of David Miranda. The police decided to detain David Miranda, the partner of Glenn Greenwold, for the same purpose: to retrieve the leaked information. They also retained any device that could have stored the leaks upon releasing David Miranda. They did so under Section 7 of the Terrorism Act. Not even the most ardent supporter of authoritarian anti-terror powers can deny that they were using anti-terror powers against a man who was clearly not a terrorist.
Charles Falconer, former Lord Chancellor and ardent supporter of authoritarian anti-terror powers, claimed that Section 7 was a justifiable law that had disrupted terrorist operations in Northern Ireland, but it could not be justified in the way that it was used against David Miranda. Section 7 is supposed to help the police determine whether an individual is a terrorist, not detain journalists. David Miranda was clearly not involved in terrorist activities even before he was detained, yet the security services chose to detain him on the grounds that the information that he may be carrying, may help terrorist, as it may fall into the wrong hands.
The implications are severe. The governments new, broad, definition of terrorism could lead to anti-terror powers being used against the media again in the future. Another worrying fact is that the Home Secretary claims that the security services had ‘operational independence’ over the decision to arrest David Miranda. Nick Clegg also denies knowing the way in which David Miranda was going to be detained. Just how much was the government in control of the state security apparatus? The NSA has been criticised as beyond [the] effective democratic control of the US government, as the director of the NSA denied the extent of their security operations to Congress and some of the NSA’s operations broke through safeguards. The erosion of Ministerial responsibility over the last decade cannot be changed by law, but politicians should start being held accountable nonetheless. Surely this should be seen as severe incompetence on the part of the Home Secretary?
A cynic may argue that this could not have come at a better time for people who wish to see the authoritarian legislation of the last few decades reversed. Since 1984 (ironically) there has been an annual review of anti-terror legislation. The current person tasked with this responsibility, David Anderson Q.C, has already announced an early review the legality of David Miranda’s detention and the government is planning on a Bill next Autumn designed to limit anti-terror powers. It should also be viewed in the context of other actions taken by the government to unpick many of the authoritarian acts of New Labour, such as scrapping ID cards and limiting some anti-terror powers. Labour has also criticised the government for arresting David Miranda, suggesting that they may be leaving behind the worst of their authoritarian streak.
It is hyperbolic to claim that this week marked the creation of a British Police State. Nevertheless, it is high time the public started getting angrier about the erosion of civil liberties and high time the government started listening to them.