Privacy SOS

On revenge and the NSA

You’ve most likely heard by now that, over the weekend, en route home to Brazil after visiting Laura Poitras in Berlin, Glenn Greenwald’s husband David Miranda was stopped by UK authorities at London’s Heathrow airport, where he was detained for 9 hours and interrogated about the Guardian’s NSA journalism and his visit with Poitras. The British government confiscated his electronics, which included an encrypted thumb drive containing documents Poitras wanted delivered to Greenwald pertaining to their NSA and surveillance work. (You can take action here to tell the government to back off the press.)

At a press conference today, a US government spokesperson said that the UK gave its spy-partner government a ‘heads up’ about its plans to detain and interrogate Miranda, though the US claims it didn't 'order' the detention. The spokesperson would not confirm or deny whether or not the US now has access to the contents of the devices that UK authorities took from the Brazilian national. I would bet a million dollars that the NSA’s brightest minds are currently hard at work trying to decrypt those files.

In short: a top US ally held a journalist’s partner at the airport for 9 hours, with the knowledge and likely permission of the United States, interrogated him, and confiscated his electronics, citing a ‘Terrorism’ statute.

The responses to this chilling abuse of authority have been nearly as shocking as the incident itself. Some chastised Greenwald for involving his partner in the terroristic crime of Committing Acts of Adversarial Journalism, while others focused on attacking Greenwald's response to this brazen act of political intimidation.

The second motif appears to have won out, leaving us with things like this:

I didn’t want to address this ‘controversy,’ but it appears to have taken on a life of its own and therefore I feel compelled to. Here are some points in no particular order of importance:

  • The NSA is routinely violating its own extremely lax rules, which are tailored to comport with laws that grant the agency incredibly wide latitude to spy on US and world communications without specific warrants. The crack in the iron wall of state secrecy that Edward Snowden’s sunlight sparked is growing by the day. The resulting public access into the inner workings of the NSA's global surveillance regime is what so maddens the world’s powerful rulers. David Miranda was stopped and interrogated at Heathrow airport because he and his partner are involved — to lesser and greater degrees — in the process whereby government lies become apparent, making mighty rulers look like fools, miscreants, and despots. Powerful people and institutions do not like to be challenged; likely nothing outrages them more than the loss of control over their own secrets. Knowledge is power, and the US’ top spooks are used to having the upper hand. 
  • The real vengeance we have witnessed this week occurred in the Heathrow airport. The governments of the US and UK visited vengeance upon David Miranda because they — accustomed to feeling all powerful — have been made impotent. They feel impotent because they are terrified of the truth getting out, and yet they cannot control its release. Glenn Greenwald has put them in a very difficult position; he has outsmarted them. Forced to address the NSA scandals because of the enormity of public outrage they've unleashed, senior officials have to be very careful about what they say because they aren't sure which leaks are coming next. Today they say 'We have no domestic surveillance program,' and tomorrow the Guardian publishes more evidence contradicting them. They are stuck between a rock and a hard place, and they are lashing out. Officials fear that their power will be diminished as a result of the transparency coming to the surveillance programs that grant them godlike authority to Know All. The real vengeance we are seeing right now is not coming from Glenn Greenwald; it is coming from the state.
  • In free societies, journalists travel to meet and discuss their work without fear of government repression or the confiscation of their source material. Glenn Greenwald should have the freedom to get on a plane and go to Berlin to discuss his work with his colleague Laura Poitras, but he cannot. He cannot travel freely to facilitate his work because if he left Brazil he would most likely be subpoenaed, detained and interrogated about his journalism and contacts with Edward Snowden, or even arrested. Greenwald is, for all intents and purposes, trapped in Brazil for the foreseeable future. That's because the US government is behaving tyrannically in response to the Snowden leaks. It isn't because Greenwald is a terrorist. He is a journalist taking on the most powerful institution on earth.
  • The fact that UK authorities used a so-called ‘terror’ law as the authority under which they harassed and stole from Mr. Miranda is remarkable and alarming in at least two significant ways. First, it’s yet another not-so-subtle demonstration that adversarial journalism is, and will be treated like, violence directed at the state or its interests (a.k.a. Terrorism). Second, warrantless airport and border searches are not a problem confined to the UK. We have our own Draconian detainment and search policies at US airports, as well as within what has come to be known as the 100-mile deep ‘constitution free zone’ along the land and sea borders of the country. These kinds of warrantless searches and seizures take place routinely in the United States, under a variety of authorities, in and outside of airports. Travel should not be exempt from Fourth Amendment protections from unreasonable or unwarranted search and seizure. But at present, to a large degree, it is.
  • The NSA wants to ‘collect it all’ — from Google, Apple, Microsoft, AT&T, Verizon, Sprint, your physical computer and phone, the USPS, and the fiber optics cables that carry the world’s internet traffic. It is therefore very difficult for Greenwald and Poitras to engage in adversarial journalism oriented towards exposing the surveillance state. We can safely assume that, in addition to attempting to monitor their communications over networks, the NSA is targeting both journalists using personalized attacks on their devices and accounts. Peter Maass’ excellent NYT magazine story on Poitras and Snowden gets into some detail regarding how carefully she has to defend her digital activities — including a reference to a computer that she never connects to the internet, which she uses only to read documents. Reports say the encrypted thumb drive UK authorities took from Miranda contained documents Poitras meant to send to Greenwald. All of this leaves us with a troubling conclusion: there is no way to safely communicate information in the 21st century — not by land, nor by sea, nor by satellite, nor by hand. That applies to you, as well as to Greenwald and Poitras. 
  • Some people are defending the government’s omnipotence and absolute power here, arguing that Miranda is involved in some kind of journalism conspiracy and therefore a legitimate target for government repression. We can agree or disagree about whether this is a desirable outcome for our society, but let’s not confuse the facts. The message from the US/UK is clear: we will to our damnedest to try to control everything, either through subterfuge or brute force. 'We are monitoring all traffic that goes through the door, and we will be waiting at the window to take your physical devices,' the message goes. We now live in a world in which our lives are almost completely exposed to powerful governments and corporations. That stark reality has consequences that go far beyond Greenwald and Poitras’ predicament, and we would do well to seriously consider them — for the future of journalism, as well as any hope for living in an open, democratic society.
  • Greenwald wrote that the UK intelligence services would “be sorry” for detaining and harassing Miranda. The Guardian journalist has since elaborated on that statement, explaining that he intends to double down on the leak reportage in the wake of the incident. In short: 'I’m not afraid, neither is David, and we are going to publish things that will make you regret harassing us.' That was too much for the government's defenders. Accusations started flying on Twitter: Greenwald is a narcissist, this is all about him, he’s threatening the government, and on and on. None of this is relevant or important for one simple reason: Greenwald has been publishing embarrassing stories about the NSA and the GCHQ for months. Contrary to extremely misleading headlines like this one, he didn’t wait until officials from those governments personally slighted him before exposing their lies to the public. It sounds like Greenwald is simply saying that he will not be cowed by their their repressive, Orwellian response to his journalism, and that to the contrary, he will publish more embarrassing revelations, not fewer. It seems clear that Greenwald was simply stating that he wouldn't be intimidated into shutting up. And he shouldn't be.
  • The rights you shirk are your own. You might not care that they are interrogating, harassing, and stealing from Glenn Greenwald’s partner David Miranda, but would you endorse such a thing happening to pro-abortion activists in Wisconsin? How about if that happened to your partner or your mother? Or to you? Some people have argued that what the UK government did to Miranda was a minor inconvenience at worst. Those people have likely never been taken to the back room of an airport (often called the ‘Arab room’), had their possessions confiscated, and been interrogated for hours about their life histories, families, and political work. It isn’t pleasant. It is the kind of thing despotic regimes do to dissidents and adversarial journalists. This kind of political intimidation is shocking, it’s shameful, and it has no place in democratic societies. What happens to adversarial journalists and dissidents should matter to people who are not directly challenging government power because rights are like muscles. If you don't flex them, they atrophy. And once they are gone, they are gone for everyone: journalists, dissidents, and you.

Greenwald and Poitras have exposed the US and UK governments as deceitful operators of surveillance regimes that are directed internally, at their own populations. Their reporting has shown that the US government has routinely misled the US public about its surveillance powers, and even about the underlying laws that grant them surveillance authorities. 

Thanks to Edward Snowden, late last week we learned that the NSA can’t even follow its own rules, which grant the agency far too much power to pry into our personal lives and communications without judicial oversight or probable cause warrants. That’s incredibly disturbing, but the underlying problem remains the law itself. What we need more is more sunlight, more agitation, more public outrage, and ultimately, law reform. 

If you are outraged about the government’s massive, shadowy surveillance programs, the best revenge is simple: take away its power to abuse us. 

UPDATE: Read David Miranda on his unjust interrogation and detention at the hands of British authorities.

"They were threatening me all the time and saying I would be put in jail if I didn't co-operate," said Miranda. "They treated me like I was a criminal or someone about to attack the UK … It was exhausting and frustrating, but I knew I wasn't doing anything wrong."
Miranda – a Brazilian national who lives with Greenwald in Rio – was held for the maximum time permitted under schedule seven of the Terrorism Act 2000 which allows officers to stop, search and question individuals at airports, ports and border areas.
During that time, he said, he was not allowed to call his partner, who is a qualified lawyer in the US, nor was he given an interpreter, despite being promised one because he felt uncomfortable speaking in a second language.
"I was in a different country with different laws, in a room with seven agents coming and going who kept asking me questions. I thought anything could happen. I thought I might be detained for a very long time," he said.

© 2021 ACLU of Massachusetts.