Miranda Detention 'Blatant Attack on Press Freedom'

The detention of David Miranda -- partner of the Guardian journalist involved in the NSA revelations -- and the destruction of hard drives in the British newspaper's basement reveal one thing: Governments do not want their citizens to be informed when it comes to the topic of surveillance.

Laura Poitras, an American documentary film maker, has been instrumental in exposing NSA surveillance programs.
Olaf Blecker/ The New York Times Syndicate

Laura Poitras, an American documentary film maker, has been instrumental in exposing NSA surveillance programs.

A Commentary by Laura Poitras

I woke up last Sunday in Berlin to an email from Glenn Greenwald with only one sentence: "I need to talk to you ASAP."

For the past three months, Glenn and I have been reporting on the NSA disclosures revealed to us by Edward Snowden.

I went online to the encrypted channel that Glenn and I use to communicate. He told me that he had just received a call telling him that his partner David Miranda was being detained at London's Heathrow airport under the Terrorism Act. David was traveling from Berlin where he had come to work with me. For the next six hours I was online with Glenn as he tried to find out what was happening to the person he loves most in the world.

Glenn's reporting on the NSA story is made possible by the love and courage of David. When Glenn and I traveled to Hong Kong to meet Edward Snowden, Glenn and David spoke daily. Reporting on the most secret abuses of governments does not come without moments of fear. There was a turning point in Hong Kong before Glenn published the first story about the Verizon court order that exposed the NSA's spying on Americans. It was David who told Glenn: "You need to do this. If you don't do this, you will never be able to live with yourself."

As Glenn and I exchanged messages between Rio and Berlin, David was being interrogated in London about our NSA reporting. Glenn said several times: "I actually cannot believe they are doing this." I kept thinking I wish it were me. Having documented and reported on abuses of government power post 9/11, we both thought we'd reached a point where nothing would shock us. We were wrong -- using pernicious terrorism laws to target the people we love and work with, this shocked us.

Attack on Press Freedom

Reporting on this story means some things can only be said in person, and still it is hard to know you can escape surveillance. David was traveling to meet me on behalf of the Guardian newspaper, which has taken the lead on publishing the NSA stories. We now know that David's detention was ordered at the highest levels of the British government, including the Prime Minister. We also know the US government was given advance warning that David would be detained and interrogated.

The NSA has special relationships with the spy agencies from the so-called "Five-Eyes" nations, which include Britain's GCHQ. Weeks before David was detained, agents from GCHQ entered the offices of the Guardian newspaper and oversaw the destruction of several hard drives which contained disclosures made by Snowden. This action was also authorized at the highest levels of the UK government. Included on those drives were documents detailing GCHQ's massive domestic spying program called "Tempora."

This program deploys NSA's XKeyscore "DeepDive" internet buffer technology which slows down the internet to allow GCHQ to spy on global communications, including those of UK citizens. Tempora relies on the "corporate partnership" of UK telecoms, including British Telecommunications and Vodafone. Revealing the secret partnerships between spy agencies and telecoms entrusted with the private communications of citizens is journalism, not terrorism.

The UK government's destruction of material provided by a source to a news organization will surely be remembered as of the most blatant government attacks on press freedom.

Border Interrogations

As the hours went by on Sunday, Guardian lawyers searched to find where David was being held; the Brazilian ambassador in London could get no information; and Glenn struggled with whether he should go public or work behind the scenes to make sure David would be released and not arrested. I have never been through a hostage negotiation, but this certainly felt like one. David was finally released after nine hours. He was forced to hand over all electronics.

Using border crossings to target journalism is not new to me. I experienced it for the first time in 2006 in Vienna, when I was traveling from the Sarajevo Film Festival back to New York. I was put in a van and driven to a security room, searched, and interrogated. The Austrian security agents told me I was stopped at the request of the US government. When I landed in New York I was again searched and interrogated.

Since then I have lost count of how many times I have been interrogated at the US border all because of my reporting on post 9/11 issues. I've had electronics seized, notebooks photocopied, and have been threatened with handcuffs for taking notes. I moved to Berlin to edit my next film because I do not feel I can keep source material safe in my own country.

At the moment I live in what used to be East Berlin. It feels strange to come to the former home of the Stasi to expose the dangers of government surveillance, but being here gives me hope. There is a deep historical memory among Germans of what happens to societies when its government targets and spies on its own citizens. The public outcry in Germany to the NSA disclosures has been enormous.

Threat To Democracy

Because of the disclosures made by Edward Snowden, we have for the first time an international debate on the scope of government surveillance. Almost daily for the past three months citizens learn of new unlawful surveillance programs being secretly run by their governments. All of our reporting has been in the public interest, and none has caused harm.

David's detention and the destruction of the hard drives in the Guardian's basement reveal one thing: Our governments do not want citizens to be informed when it comes to the topic of surveillance. The governments of the United States, Britain, Germany, and others would like this debate to go away. It won't.

Glenn and I, with the full support of David and others, will continue to work on the disclosures made by Snowden, as will the Guardian, SPIEGEL, the Washington Post, their reporters and their loved ones, and many other news organizations who believe vast unchecked secret government surveillance powers are a threat to democracy.


Discuss this issue with other readers!
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annie 08/26/2013
1. British Police claims
Laura, can you confirm that anything David was carrying was so well encrypted that British police claims about "tens of thousands of secret documents" are nothing but speculation and lies?
rob.greitens 08/26/2013
2. Ordinary People Really Screwed
If internationally famous journalists get shoved around and harassed like this what chance do normal citizens have? A person could disappear to Guantanamo and never be seen again. All in the name of security.
audi44 08/26/2013
3. Danke - Thankk you
As a German living in NZ I find it unbelievable how the Americans misuse the law to intimidate whole nations and I'm upset at how indifferent and ignorant most people are - please don't give up. It is our life and not the playground of psychotic politicians.
spon-facebook-698237933 08/26/2013
4. Thank you!
Laura, I have been following this story almost since day one and you, Mr Greenwald and Mr Snowden have my deepest respect. You have made it possible for us, the people under surveillance, to have an open debate about what we want to be done in our name and in the name of our so-called protection. A lot of people are saying that these leaks are potentially harmful to the US, the UK or other governments. They use this to justify the current crackdown and their violations of law and the constitutions. For all the reading I have done, I yet have to see evidence of this. By contrast, I have seen enough evidence to understand that governments are acting unlawfully. Their reaction to the disclosures and Mr Snowden's asylum requests has shocked and deeply upset me, as has David Miranda's detention and your own accounts of detention and questioning at the hands of government and immigration officials. In light of all of that, allow me to express my deepest admiration and gratitude for the work you have done and continue to be doing. Let us hope that the debate it has started will not go away again. I thank you all for your courage and good judgement!
Robb Montgomery 08/26/2013
I too am an American journalist living in the former East Berlin and am following Laura's efforts to do her work. The destruction of journalistic equipment at The Guardian's offices in the U.K. back in July does make me question the wisdom of connecting via Heathrow. A simple Kayak search shows more than 20 other airports where David could have connected twixt Berlin and Rio. Why do you send him to a U.K. airport in light of what happened in London?
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