Criticism of the Terrorism Act (2000)

I’d like to add my voice to the rapidly spreading condemnation of the UK border agency’s decision to detain David Miranda for 9 hours at Heathrow Airport.  For those who don’t know, Miranda is the partner of Glenn Greenwald, the journalist who has published leaks made by US whistleblower Edward Snowden.  He was detained whilst en-route from Germany to Brazil, where he and Greenwald live together.  He was interrogated about his intentions and possessions, stripped of his laptop, mobile phone, DVDs and other items and forced to divulge passwords.  He was told that to resist would mean imprisonment.  Speaking to the BBC, he described the way he had been violated as feeling “naked in front of a crowd.”

The legislation that allowed this is Schedule 7 of the Terrorism Act (2000).  It makes legal the temporary detention of a person who:

40 (1)
(a)has committed an offence under any of sections 11, 12, 15 to 18, 54 and 56 to 63, or

(b)is or has been concerned in the commission, preparation or instigation of acts of terrorism.

There’s a whole heap of offences under (a), including being a member of a terrorist organisation, fundraising for one, providing weapons training, and so on.  But my understanding is that Miranda was detained under point (1) section 58, which states:

(a)he* collects or makes a record of information of a kind likely to be useful to a person committing or preparing an act of terrorism, or

(b)he possesses a document or record containing information of that kind.

Now, we don’t know what information Miranda was in possession of at the time.  In theory, this could be legal if he was carrying sensitive information which could be ‘useful’ to terrorists.  Yet, as vague as this is, there’s another safeguard for the law in Schedule 7, paragraph 2:

(4) An examining officer may exercise his powers under this paragraph whether or not he has grounds for suspecting that a person falls within section 40(1)(b).

So even if Miranda wasn’t suspected of possessing such information, he could still legally be detained.

I perceive this case to be an abuse of power by the UK border control, allowed by vagaries in terrorism legislation.  I’m not a lawyer, but I’d advocate two changes which should be made to this law:

  1. Remove (4) of paragraph 2, section 7.  An individual ought to at least be suspected of offences relating to terrorism before they can be detained.
  2. Amend (1) of section 58.  “Information of a kind likely to be useful” is far, far too vague, and liable to be interpreted in a way that could result in an abuse of power such as we’ve seen here.  There should be a finite list of kinds of information which count, and this list should give full protection to journalistic independence.

Unfortunately, I don’t see any indication that this current government will be reforming the Act anytime soon.  Home Secretary Theresa May has defended Miranda’s detention under Schedule 7.  I am pleased to see that Miranda is taking legal action, questioning the legality of his detention, and requesting that the analysis of his confiscated possessions be temporarily halted.  Hopefully the courts will rule in favour.

In other, somewhat related news, Bradley Manning has been imprisoned for 35 years.  While I concede that his actions were illegal, I really think such a harsh sentence is unwarranted, particularly considering that the soldiers who committed the war crimes he leaked have so far walked free.  One day in the future this will be recognised by the US government as a shameful mistake.  The optimist in me even hopes that some future president will grant him a pardon before he finishes his sentence.

As I’ve seen mentioned elsewhere, these stories have made it a worrying time to be a journalist.  I’m glad to see Amnesty International have been consistently criticising these developments.  We mustn’t let our need for protection from terrorism be used to curb our civil liberties.  I’ll finish by quoting a paraphrased but nonetheless pertinent phrase by Benjamin Franklin:

“Any society that would give up a little liberty to gain a little security will deserve neither and lose both.”

Related articles:

*I’m going to let the casual sexism of our legislation pass, for now.

 

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