The recent detention of Glenn Greenwald’s partner David Miranda at Heathrow Airport by Security Service officers is, unsurprisingly, a more complex event than most of the media has acknowledged. At both ends of the British political spectrum the series of events from the release of Snowdon’s stolen information to Miranda’s detention can be easily explained. To some, Greenwald stands as David to the state’s Goliath, the champion of journalistic freedom, fighting against a bullying security apparatus keen to use the necessity of secrecy as an excuse to crush personal liberty. To others, Miranda could be regarded as the naive puppet of a sanctimonious, short-sighted and self-interested liberal media outlet, pursuing profit and the advancement of its political agenda.
This binary perception of events fits conveniently into the timeless antagonism between liberty and security, that problem which troubled the Athenian empire of Thucydides’ History of the Peloponnesian War and still troubles post-industrial states today. For Associate Director of the Henry Jackson Society Douglas Murray, Julian Assange, Snowden and Greenwald are ‘saboteurs’ working towards an ‘increasingly clear and specific anti-Western agenda’. In Janet Daley’s opinion, national security concerns cannot compensate for the fact that the destruction of hard drives at the Guardian looks ‘on the face of it, like something out of East Germany in the 1970s’; Daley has even gone as far as to earnestly warn that ‘once you hear the jackboots, it’s too late’.
Despite the strong convictions of these opposing camps, this most recent incident cannot be explained in such a simplistic manner. The voluntary surrender of The Guardian’s hard drives to British intelligence officers and their subsequent destruction might seem like state intimidation; in reality it was the logical escalation of a series of requests by government officials to have the sensitive information destroyed. Miranda was not merely an innocent victim, detained because of his relationship with the man who broke the Snowden story; Miranda, whose plane ticket was paid for by The Guardian, was carrying sensitive documents on Greenwald’s behalf. Greenwald himself is not merely a champion of freedom, but a complicated actor who recently declared that the he was going to ‘publish things of England too’, that he had ‘many documents on England’s spy system’ and that they would be ‘sorry for what they did’ to his partner. Such a statement hardly echoes with the idealism of ‘give me liberty or give me death!’, and suggests motivations beyond public interest.
Yet it remains true that, if the detention of a journalist and the destruction of a newspaper’s hard drives had occurred in the same manner in Russia, the British government may well have expressed outrage and incredulity. Even Washington has felt the need to publically distance itself from events, perhaps self-indulgently given that US interaction with British security policy is far from that of a detached observer. Indeed, while this drama plays out in London and Heathrow, the real scandal remains curiously under-examined in the US, where alleged abuses of power and apparent mismanagement by the National Security Agency increasingly appear to pose a threat to the security of the US and her allies in a manner that threatens to dwarf the Snowden affair itself.
This leads us to contemplate the ‘security’ aspect of the debate. Guardian editor Alan Rusbridger dismissively remarked in a recent editorial that the destroyed computers had to be thoroughly inspected ‘just to make sure there was nothing in the mangled bits of metal which could possibly be of any interest to passing Chinese agents’. Such flippant comments reveal how little such factors enter into the consideration of those at the centre of this media circus. That foreign nations or non-state actors might take advantage of intelligence leaks in order to damage our national security or that of NATO is a pressing danger, particularly given that the extent of the leaked information is uncertain. It is even clearer that these leaks are damaging to British foreign policy.
The motivations of The Guardian are principally pure, a genuine concern for personal liberty mixing with the pursuit of profit and publicity, and driven by a few significant egos. But while purity of intention confers morality on our deeds, it does not grant us special insight. Snowden betrayed the US security apparatus thanks to a schoolboy’s understanding of civil liberties; the result of his efforts to evade American justice was his courting of nations with a significant disregard for the individual freedoms and liberties. That The Guardian might through damaging the British and American states bolster opponents of liberty abroad is a clear danger. The Guardian has acted unilaterally, and judging by Greenwald’s latest outburst, driven by motives as crude as the desire to ‘stick it to the man’.
The risks of this media project are significant, and disregarded far too readily by those involved. The necessity of secrecy in intelligence work combined with the need for oversight means, as I have argued in these pages before, that we should trust in the Intelligence and Security Committee’s judgement or even perhaps seek to further bolster its powers. What is clear is that newspapers and private individuals are not more qualified to decide what is in the interest of the United Kingdom. Those involved in this media saga flippantly undertake actions with grave potential consequences. The media companies and individual ‘leakers’ involved might feel that they have a responsibility to champion civil liberties and inform the public about our security apparatuses. However, they also have a significant responsibility to consider the real repercussions of their actions in terms of the national interest, and to think more carefully before they act.
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