Police at London's Heathrow Airport detained the partner and assistant of journalist Glenn Greenwald for nearly nine hours on Sunday and confiscated his cellphone and computer. It's hard to see the mistreatment of David Miranda as anything other than an attempt to intimidate Greenwald, a columnist for the Guardian newspaper who has published revelations about U.S. and British electronic surveillance programs provided by former National Security Agency contractor Edward Snowden.
Miranda, a citizen of Brazil who lives with Greenwald in that country, was passing through Heathrow on his way home from Berlin, where he met with documentary filmmaker Laura Poitras, Greenwald's collaborator in publishing material supplied by Snowden. Miranda was held under an anti-terrorism law that allows police at "border areas" to detain and question persons who might not themselves be suspected of terrorism.
It was a reasonable deduction that Miranda's computer, telephone and USB drives contained information provided by Snowden. But British authorities surely realized that copies of that information existed elsewhere, beyond their reach. That they confiscated Miranda's devices anyway suggests that their object was intimidation. So does the length of his detention; usually, travelers questioned under the anti-terrorism law are held for less than an hour.
Britain lacks a First Amendment, but its laws do provide for some protection for journalists' files, and lawyers for Miranda have cited those safeguards (along with European law) in threatening a legal challenge to Miranda's detention and the confiscation of his electronic devices.
Although the situations aren't perfectly parallel, journalists in this country also have experienced collateral damage from attempts by government to plug and punish leaks. For example, despite new guidelines making it harder for the Justice Department to issue subpoenas to reporters, the Obama administration has continued to demand that James Risen, a New York Times reporter, identify the source of information in one of his books about a covert operation aimed at Iran's nuclear program. The department should heed a request by Risen's lawyers that it withdraw the subpoena requiring him to testify at the trial of former CIA officer Jeffrey Sterling.
In this country as in Britain, there is a perennial tension between the government's desire to protect secrets and the press' mission to inform readers. But the public is best served when the government focuses on keeping its own house in order rather than muscling the media.
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