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.


Edward Snowden: Around The World in 80 Headlines

Life must be rather dramatic right now for the former CIA contractor Edward Snowden.  Accused of breaking one of the biggest intelligent breaches in history after making public the USA’s National Security Agency (NSA)’s methods of surveillance, he’s spent the last few weeks hiding in Hong Kong.  Through some complex legal matter which I don’t fully understand – it seems China might have wanted to avoid a drawn-out legal battle – he yesterday boarded a plane to Moscow.  My first thought was “Oh no, you’re not running to Putin too?” but it seems he’s merely using Russia as a stepping stone for his next destination.  Which could be Iceland but is more probably a South American state like Venezuela or Ecuador.  It’s speculated he would go through Cuba to get to these countries.  Few of these places have a particularly decent reputation for press freedom but, you know…

This is an immensely complicated issue and I find it really hard to decide where I stand on it all.  I do find the concept of governments having the capability to monitor almost all communications we make as being completely abhorrent, yet this revelation didn’t really shock or surprise me.  Part of me wants to say, “No, nothing to do with me – not my place to pass judgement,” but, when you realise the central issue of this drama is the relationship between the state and its citizens, it is absolutely our place to pass judgement.  Our leaders rule with our consent and by our invitation; we have a right to judge their actions.  Therefore, we have a right to know their actions.  Of course, there’s the counter argument which states we have the right to security as well.  The government would claim that we should willingly accept monitoring in such a way to guarantee our security, but I’m not convinced.  It’s endlessly quoted these days, but I think Benjamin Franklin had it precisely correct when he wrote:

“They who can give up essential liberty to obtain a little temporary safety, deserve neither liberty nor safety.”

It’s probably the wrong priority, but what I’m finding much more interesting (and easy to follow) is the resultant spy thriller headlines we’re seeing.  “Is he on this plane?” “Is the ambassador here to meet him?” “No, it’s a ruse!” “He’s off to Ecuador!” “No, it’s Venezuela!”  Imagine having a life like that.  I don’t envy the fear he must be living under bit its certainly more drama than most of us could expect to see in our entire lives.  And he’s doing a better job of creating headlines than Julian Assange; “Still holed up in embassy” doesn’t quite sell papers.  Also, it’s quite revealing just how many countries are willing to take in and protect this man the US government is hunting.  It’s times like this the USA must realise just how many countries and governments they’ve alienated over the years.

To clarify, while I most definitely oppose the almost worldwide spying that the NSA has been conducting, I don’t really know enough to say I either support or oppose Snowden’s actions.  I almost feel that if I were to publicly or privately support Snowden, or Assange, or Wikileaks (all of whom I’m glad exist to challenge authority even if I might disapprove of their actions) I may find police knocking down my door at 3am.  No, that’s ridiculous.  But that’s the thing – after these revelations, I’m beginning to wonder how ridiculous that idea actually is.