Lies, Truth, and the Guardian

by John O’Sullivan
The mob orthodoxy on the detention of Glenn Greenwald’s partner is false.

When someone is caught lying about scandalous misconduct, any allegation about him is believed thereafter. When a government is caught spying on ordinary people, any investigation is assumed to be an unjustified abuse of power. And when the government justifies its investigation as protecting official secrets, the secrecy is dismissed as either needless or sinister.

In this climate, defenders of reasonable official secrecy and legitimate intelligence operations run for cover. Most people accept in the abstract that some secrecy is justified — for instance, defending the identities of our own spies who might be imprisoned or killed if identified — but they are cowed into silence or acquiescence by the mob which, having discovered some official misconduct, treats all official conduct as criminal or oppressive.

The NSA’s wholesale spying on people’s electronic communications — together with the apparent weakness or failure of oversight agencies — has created just such a climate. It is one of the worst effects of this official overreach. And the result yesterday was that almost all reporters, commentators, editors, and bloggers swallowed– equally wholesale — some lies peddled by the Guardian about the nine-hour detention in Heathrow Airport of David Miranda, the partner of Glenn Greenwald, a Guardian reporter who has collaborated with Edward Snowden in breaking stories taken from the CIA files stolen by the former.

As was the case with the first WikiLeaks publication two years ago, some stories revealed abuses, some, legitimately confidential government conversations; some, vital state secrets. When Miranda was stopped and interrogated, however, the story quickly disseminated, repeated endlessly, and almost universally believed was that the government’s motive was to intimidate the partner of a reporter in order to punish the Guardian for its reporting. Many writers who might previously have been skeptical about this account joined the chorus. The “intimidation” thesis soon gelled into an orthodoxy.

Among the very few people to ask awkward questions about it are Louise Mensch, a former Tory MP and freelance blogger, and Dan Hodges, a “Blairite” blogger on the Daily Telegraph website. Ms. Mensch is more forensically devastating than Mr. Hodges, who in turn is more wittily sarcastic than Ms. Mensch. Both are “must reads,” though. Together they blow the Guardian’s account and the mob orthodoxy out of the water. Indeed, they convict the Guardian and its correspondent, Mr. Greenwald, of telling a succession of lies about Mr. Miranda’s detention. And they demonstrate that the mob of independent minds was guilty of deep incuriosity about what the Authorized Version said and, more important, what it concealed.

Take Ms. Mensch first. Among the several arguments offered by Greenwald and the Guardian that she demolishes are the following:

He [Miranda] is my partner. He is not even a journalist. 

Maybe, maybe not; but the Guardian was paying for his air fare.

David [Miranda] was not allowed to have a lawyer present. 

Except that, as the Guardian later wrote, he was offered a lawyer and a cup of water, but he refused both.

It’s clear why they took me. It’s because I’m Glenn’s partner. Because I went to Berlin. Because Laura [Poitras, a film director making a movie about Wikileaks] lives there. So they think I have a big connection. But I don’t have a role. I don’t look at documents. I don’t even know if it was documents that I was carrying.

Hang on, he was carrying documents! What kind of documents? And what was his reply when he was asked the standard security question: Has anyone given you something to carry on board?

As Dan Hodges points out, it’s very unlikely that he replied, “Yes, but I’m not sure what. Some documents for the Guardian and for my partner, the famous leaker of official secrets. They’re encrypted, so I don’t know what’s in them, but probably nothing very interesting.”

In fact Greenwald subsequently confirmed that all the documents came from the trove of materials provided to the two journalists by Snowden. They were on encrypted thumb drives. The thumb drives were among the electronic gadgets confiscated from Miranda by intelligence agents. And those encrypted documents all but certainly contained official secrets whose disclosure would be highly damaging to Britain (and, by extension, to the U.S.).

How do we know that? Because Greenwald very obligingly told us so, in an interview with a Brazilian TV station:

I am going to write my stories a lot more aggressively now. I’m going to publish a lot about England too. I have a lot of documents about the espionage system in England. Now my focus is going to be on that. 

That sounds like a silly, resentful, and petulant remark — damning and disabling qualities in someone who is claiming the right to determine what official secrets should and should not be published. But the remark takes on more chilling overtones when one recalls that the information stolen from the CIA (and perhaps from MI6) about “the espionage system in England” probably contains the names of agents who, if they become known, may suffer badly for it. Remember that Greenwald is an ally in this matter of Julian Assange, who, when that possibility was put to him by reporters in an earlier context, said brutally that these people were “informants” and deserved all they got.

Dan Hodges sums up this reality very well as follows:

A man arrives at Heathrow airport. He’s not a journalist, but someone carrying a mystery package for a friend. What he’s carrying could, by common consent, have huge implications for the national security of the UK if it fell into the wrong hands. By definition, the wrong hands could include terrorists.

What do we honestly expect the UK authorities to do? Give him a sly wink and say “off you go son, you have a nice trip”?

It’s clear David Miranda wasn’t stopped because he was Glenn Greenwald’s partner. He was stopped because he was suspected of carrying classified information highly detrimental to the UK national interest. And if we don’t stop people because of that, who do we stop? 

In the relatively short time since Mensch and Hodges posted their arguments, there has been a multitude of hostile responses online to them. Some were silly, some thoughtful. Most reflected the generalized suspicion that since the NSA had spied on people worldwide, almost any attack on official secrecy and Western intelligence was justified — presumably even if it makes mass terrorism easier. But the most substantive was a technical legal argument that stealing and transporting official secrets across international boundaries did not constitute terrorism under the relevant law — with the implication that if it did not, then Miranda’s detention was unjustified.

I doubt that argument (though the law can be an ass), but even if it has some legal validity, it has no chance of succeeding with public opinion. Nor do the other criticisms deal with the risk, stressed especially by Hodges, that disrupting Western intelligence agencies is highly likely to inflict major damage on national security and public safety. The possibility is, therefore, that the orthodoxy of yesterday — that detaining Miranda was an attempt to intimidate the press and in particular the Guardian — will be replaced by its opposite. Already Douglas Murray has asked a relevant question: Do people like Greenwald, with a clear (and now admitted) agenda of disrupting Western intelligence, really deserve to be called journalists? Or would the better word be “saboteurs”?

The Guardian would be in a better position to answer that question satisfactorily if it had not committed itself so completely to a false and exaggerated picture of the Miranda arrest and its implications yesterday. Thus its editor, Alan Rusbridger, added to the news stories his own lurid account of how he had been pressured harshly two months ago by the government into destroying . . . well, some or all of the Snowden cache of secrets. Rusbridger linked this incident directly to the detention of Miranda with the argument that both incidents showed that “the threat to journalism is real and growing.”  

His story was that he had several telephone calls and meetings with U.K. government officials over a period of months during which they asked him to hand over or destroy the secrets stolen by Snowden:

During one of these meetings I asked directly whether the government would move to close down the Guardian’s reporting through a legal route — by going to court to force the surrender of the material on which we were working. The official confirmed that, in the absence of handover or destruction, this was indeed the government’s intention. 

Such interventions occur from time to time in Fleet Street. Since before World War I, there has been a system called the “D Notice,” under which government officials ask editors to withhold publication of official secrets, generally related to military questions, that Whitehall fears would be damaging. Requests on other sensitive matters are also made occasionally.

Exactly the same discussions occur between the U.S. government and papers like the New York Times and the Washington Post when national-security revelations are at issue. They are among the things that make responsible journalism responsible. In recent years, the media have become more resistant and governments less demanding in such discussions in both countries. So the supposed threat to journalism, if it is even real, is actually declining. 

Presented with such a request, a tough old bird like Maurice Green, who edited the Telegraph when I started there, would do the following. He would review the matter for himself. If he decided that the request was a reasonable one and that disclosure would be damaging, he would accede to it. If not, he would tell the officials to see him in court. What did Rusbridger do?

He allowed “two GCHQ security experts [to oversee] the destruction of hard drives in the Guardian’s basement just to make sure there was nothing in the mangled bits of metal which could possibly be of any interest to passing Chinese agents.” By any standards this was a humiliation for an independent newspaper even if it was also an ill-judged action by the British government.

Rusbridger makes light of this. He also consoles himself with the thought that the Guardian and Greenwald could still publish official secrets from other jurisdictions via electronic media outside U.K. law. But the facts are that he failed in court to defend the Guardian’s right to publish; that he voluntarily allowed U.K. security agents to enter its premises and destroy the paper’s property; and that he now asserts his right to publish whatever official secrets he can lay his hands on from whatever jurisdiction approves on any given day.

Among the many ironies here is that until three months ago Rusbridger and the Guardian were among the campaigners for greater legal regulation of the press.

Did he suddenly realize that any legal press regulation would have to include some protection of official secrets or look ridiculous? Or did he realize that he would look ridiculous if he continued to press for regulation of other media while the Guardian was arranging to evade English law on official secrecy the way other corporations evade English law on taxation?

There are threats here — both to journalism and to government — and both are growing. The NSA claimed a right to excessive surveillance; the Guardian claims a right to limitless disclosure. Both justify themselves as being on our side. Neither can be fully trusted. But at least our intelligence agencies don’t promise to operate from Beijing, Moscow, and Rio.

— John O’Sullivan is an editor-at-large of National Review.

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