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.