UK Court Rules Miranda Detention At Heathrow Airport Was Lawful, But Questions Remain About What Was Seized

from the journalism-equals-terrorism dept

A UK Court has ruled that the nine-hour detention of Glenn Greenwald's partner David Miranda, and the seizure of his electronic equipment, was lawful and proportionate, and did not breach freedom of expression rights in Europe:
Three high court judges have dismissed a challenge that David Miranda, the partner of the former Guardian journalist, Glenn Greenwald, was unlawfully detained under counter-terrorism powers for nine hours at Heathrow airport last August.

The judges accept that the stop and seizure of computer material was "an indirect interference with press freedom" but says this was justified by legitimate and "very pressing" interests of national security.

The three judges, Lord Justice Laws, with Mr Justice Ouseley and Mr Justice Openshaw, conclude that Miranda's detention at Heathrow under schedule 7 of the Terrorism 2000 Act was lawful, proportionate and did not breach the European human rights protections of freedom of expression.
Reading the full judgment (pdf), it's clear that the judges believed that national security outweighed the issues of press freedom, which the judges acknowledged. As well as proportionality, the other key question the judges had to address was whether schedule 7 of the UK Terrorism 2000 Act actually applied in this situation. It might seem surprising that they decided that it did, since Miranda was carrying documents for the purpose of journalism -- hardly what most people regard as terrorism. But the judges came to this conclusion because of the very broad framing of the UK's Terrorism 2000 Act, which says:
(1) In this Act 'terrorism' means the use or threat of action where --

(a) the action falls within subsection (2),

(b) the use or threat is designed to influence the government or an international governmental organisation or to intimidate the public or a section of the public, and

(c) the use or threat is made for the purpose of advancing a political, religious, racial or ideological cause.
Subsection (2) includes:
(c) endangers a person's life, other than that of the person committing the action,

(d) creates a serious risk to the health or safety of the public or a section of the public
The court seems to have been persuaded by the UK government's statements that the material carried by Miranda could put lives at risk if disseminated, even though the documents were encrypted "very heavily". No evidence was offered that Miranda had leaked anything to anyone -- unlike GCHQ, say, which had allowed its top secret materials to be seen by many individuals in the US, one of whom was Edward Snowden.

Speaking of encryption, there's a mystery here. Throughout the judgment, there is a reference to "approximately 58,000 highly classified UK intelligence documents". This figure comes from Oliver Robbins, Deputy National Security Adviser for Intelligence, Security and Resilience in the UK government's Cabinet Office, who stated that:

the encrypted data contained in the external hard drive taken from the claimant contains approximately 58,000 highly classified UK intelligence documents. Many are classified SECRET or TOP SECRET. Mr Robbins states that release or compromise of such data would be likely to cause very great damage to security interests and possible loss of life.
The question is: how did he know there were 58,000 GCHQ documents if the hard drive was encrypted? Miranda is quoted in the judgment as saying he was "unable to open it himself": did GCHQ manage to break the encryption, perhaps with some help from its friends at the NSA? Or did it already know what Snowden had copied, and assumed all those documents were on the hard drive? Or perhaps it just made up those figures; some clarification from Glenn Greenwald would be welcome here.

Meanwhile, we're left with an awful result for freedom of the press in the UK. Miranda's lawyers have said that they have applied for permission to take the case to the Court of Appeal:

Despite recognising that the proper functioning of a modern participatory democracy requires that the media be free, active, professional and enquiring, this judgment leaves little room for responsible investigative journalism which touches on national security issues. Journalism is currently at risk of being conflated with terrorism. Therefore, our client has no option but to appeal. In the meantime, whilst the courts consider our appeal, we understand that journalists are making alternative travel plans to safeguard their material, sources and confidential working systems when they have to travel via the UK. The Government should be very concerned about this and the message it sends internationally.

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  1. icon
    Coyne Tibbets (profile), 19 Feb 2014 @ 7:47pm

    How they got 58,000

    How did they know there were 58,000 GCHQ SECRET documents on his drive? Break the encryption? Know what Snowden copied? Make up the figures?

    No, no, and no.

    They got the number by a very simple and underhanded strategy: There are 58,000 encrypted documents, therefore they are all GCHQ secrets. So what if Miranda says they aren't? The only way he could prove GCHQ wrong is to decrypt all the documents.

    Guilty until he proves himself innocent. Of course he can't do that: if he can't decrypt them, he's stuck; and if he can, he'd show them what he has.

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