LONDON — Britain’s High Court on Wednesday endorsed the decision by police to hold journalist Glenn Greenwald’s partner at a London airport on terrorism grounds last summer. The ruling sent chills through free expression advocates and media groups.
The panel of three judges said London’s Metropolitan Police officers acted properly when they invoked Britain’s Terrorism Act to stop David Miranda at Heathrow Airport on Aug. 18, seizing encrypted devices and questioning him for nearly nine hours. Writing on the panel’s behalf, Lord Justice John Laws said that the devices contained a large number of files stolen by former National Security Agency contractor Edward Snowden, including nearly 60,000 “highly classified UK intelligence documents.”
The detention “was a proportionate measure in the circumstances,” Laws said. He said the objective — finding out whether there was anything in the files which might be a boon to terrorists — “was not only legitimate, but very pressing.”
Both sides acknowledge that Miranda was carrying intelligence documents at the time when he was detained on his way from Germany back to Brazil. But defenders of the 28-year-old student argue that the documents amounted to raw material for Greenwald’s reporting on the National Security Agency, which has rattled the intelligence establishment and sparked a broad-based movement to rein in or at least reform the agency’s domestic surveillance programs.
The government, they say, wasn’t trying to determine whether there was anything in Miranda’s files which could somehow help terrorists. Rather, it arbitrarily tarred him as a terror suspect in order to seize his files and intimidate his colleagues.
The use of terror legislation in this case has drawn widespread criticism.
Rosie Brighouse, a legal officer with London-based Liberty, said the law had been used in a “blatantly abusive way,” while Paris-based Reporters Without Borders demoted the U.K. three ranks in its World Press Freedom Index following the incident.
Others accused the government of trying to put investigative reporters in the same bag as nihilistic killers.
“It is only in the U.K. where our journalism is considered not just criminal but ’terrorism,”’ Greenwald said Wednesday in a statement carried by The Intercept, his new media venture.
Some legal commentators said that was taking things too far.
“It’s pushing the judgment to say that it equates journalism to terrorism,” said Carl Gardner, a former government lawyer and legal blogger.
David Lowe, a former counterterrorism officer who teaches law at Liverpool John Moores University, said the quantity and the sensitivity of Miranda’s material made him an exception.
“This is not just ordinary, everyday journalism we’re talking about,” said Lowe, explaining that journalistic privilege had to be balanced against national security. “It’s about the greater good, and the greater good is keeping us safe.”
Government officials welcomed the ruling.
Home Secretary Theresa May said the judgment “overwhelmingly supports” action taken to protect national security, while the Metropolitan Police described it as a “clear vindication” of the force’s conduct.
Miranda said he would appeal.