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Tuesday, August 20, 2013

Dancing to Republicans' Tune on Security

Surveillance cameras
Is it legal for a journalist to disclose classified information to the public? That's something of an open question, although legal opinion seems to lean heavily toward "no." After all, if you could prosecute reporters for detailing classified info, all the executive branch would need to do to censor any news story would be to direct the appropriate agency to smack that info with the "TOP SECRET" stamp. So the notion that journalists could be jailed for publishing leaked information is a very dangerous one and one that courts have not treated well.

From a historical standpoint,  publishing classified info as journalism is completely legal and any finding that said otherwise would upset years of legal opinion.

Which brings us to this:

The Guardian: The partner of the Guardian journalist who has written a series of stories revealing mass surveillance programmes by the US National Security Agency was held for almost nine hours on Sunday by UK authorities as he passed through London's Heathrow airport on his way home to Rio de Janeiro.

David Miranda, who lives with Glenn Greenwald, was returning from a trip to Berlin when he was stopped by officers at 8.05am and informed that he was to be questioned under schedule 7 of the Terrorism Act 2000. The controversial law, which applies only at airports, ports and border areas, allows officers to stop, search, question and detain individuals.

The 28-year-old was held for nine hours, the maximum the law allows before officers must release or formally arrest the individual. According to official figures, most examinations under schedule 7 – over 97% – last less than an hour, and only one in 2,000 people detained are kept for more than six hours.


Miranda was eventually released, but not before pretty much every electronic gadget he had with him -- including "DVDs and games consoles" was confiscated.

The UK is not the US and they don't enjoy the protections of the First Amendment, obviously. But the US was given a "heads up" from Britain about the planned detention and White House spokesperson "wouldn't say whether the U.S. tried to dissuade British officials from stopping Miranda." The White House denies any involvement in the detention, but the spokesperson also won't say "whether U.S. authorities have had access to information collected from Miranda on Sunday" nor "whether President Barack Obama thought it was wrong."

If the US had "tried to dissuade British officials from stopping Miranda," it might never have happened. And yes, the UK will share any pertinent data with the US. That seems so obvious that I feel a little silly even bothering to type it out.

During the Bush administration, the US shipped terror suspects to other countries to be tortured. The reasoning was that if we sent them where we knew they would be tortured, the neocons could have their cake and eat it to -- terror suspects would be torture for info, they'd get that info, and they could pretend their hands were clean because they never actually committed the acts of torture. By outsourcing their war crimes, they created a legal pretense that they committed no war crimes at all.

This situation is somewhat similar. We knew the UK was about to do something that would've been illegal if we had done it, but since any info the UK got we'd get -- and maybe because the White House had had it up to here with Glenn Greenwald -- we let them know we were cool with it. Steve Benen points out that regardless of how you feel about Greenwald and his work with Edward Snowden, you should at least agree that this Heathrow incident is a terrible abuse of police power:

Put it this way: if we remove the names from the story, would Greenwald's critics endorse what's transpired? A journalist doggedly covers an important story and publishes classified information (which is legal), prompting a worthwhile national debate. Soon after, prominent federal U.S. lawmakers speak openly about arresting the journalist, while British officials subject his partner to harassment without cause.

Why would anyone defend this?
Because we've gotten so used to the post-9/11 surveillance state that we've lost the concept of the private citizen. We've become so used to having everyone be suspected of plotting anything that this sort of overreach is almost reflexive. After the Boston bombing, I'm legitimately surprised you don't have to sign your name to a list to buy a pressure cooker, like you do to buy pseudoephedrine. These are dark days for the Fourth and Fifth amendments -- stop-and-frisk being another fine example. The neocons haven't just left their mark on America, they've given us a tattoo. And now preventing crime is seen as so important that we'll ironically allow criminal behavior from law enforcement. All citizens are presumed guilty until proven innocent.

I would hope that it's merely political cowardice that brings the Obama administration to this point. At least then there's some hope that they'll wise up and get over it. After all, who wants to be the guy who ended a certain surveillance program after a terrorist attack? There's a certain paranoia about being seen as "soft on terror" and "soft on crime" on the left and it drives many Democrats to support things that go against Democratic principles of fairness, justice, and equality. Barack Obama seems to suffer from this disability -- the fear that the moment you restore freedoms, a terrorist will strike and you'll be blamed for it.

What this paranoia does is force us to live in a Republican world. Being afraid of how the GOP will attack you allows them to set the standards for acceptable risk. And Republicans are cowards; they accept very little risk, which means they demand ever greater restrictions on freedom and privacy. You won't hear a lot of complaining about how Miranda was treated on the right.

You really wish you'd hear more from the left, though.


[photo via Wikimedia Commons]

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