David Miranda (left) and Glenn Greenwald (right) testifying in October before Brazilian parliamentary committee (Creative Commons-licensed photo from Agência Senado)

Security services in the United Kingdom have accused David Miranda, the husband of journalist Glenn Greenwald, of being “involved in espionage activity” when he traveled from Berlin to Heathrow Airport on his way back to Brazil, where he lives with Greenwald.

The security services, Scotland Yard and MI5, decided this “espionage activity” could have potentially been an “act against the interests of UK national security.” They decided he was “knowingly carrying material the release of which would endanger people’s lives,” and, “Additionally, the disclosure, or threat of disclosure, is designed to influence a government and is made for the purpose of promoting a political or ideological cause. This therefore falls within the definition of terrorism.”

On August 18, Miranda was detained by British authorities at Heathrow Airport under a provision of a UK terrorism law known as Schedule 7  for nearly nine hours, which is the maximum period under the law that one can be held without charge. British authorities detained him to gain access to documents from former NSA contractor and whistleblower Edward Snowden.

The authorities seized electronic devices he had including a mobile phone, laptop, camera, memory sticks, DVDs and gaming consoles.” He was returning from Berlin, having met with journalist Laura Poitras, who provided him with some highly encrypted documents possibly from Snowden that he could take back to Brazil.

At the time of travel, Greenwald was working for The Guardian and Miranda’s travel was to be paid for by The Guardian.

Miranda filed a lawsuit to get his seized property returned and to challenge the justification for his detention. In late August, a high court in the UK ruled that police would be ”allowed to examine the material to investigate whether a crime of “communication of material to an enemy” has been committed as well as possible crimes of communication of material about members of the military and intelligence services that could be useful to terrorists.”

The most alarming aspect of this is not simply that British authorities are equating an act of journalism with an act of terrorism. Worse, the authorities are suggesting that Miranda was not traveling with the documents to help Greenwald engage in a legitimate act of journalism that the authorities would be willing to recognize and allow. They appear to believe Greenwald and The Guardian were reporting on documents from Snowden for “political” or “ideological” purposes, and, since UK’s security service contend The Guardian’s reporting has damaged national security, this act by Miranda was an act of terrorism, not journalism.

With this authoritarian logic, Miranda’s case has become an example of how a state can repress journalism by deciding that a journalist or media organization has political or ideological motives and, therefore, does not have a right to report on certain material the state does not want the public to debate and discuss, such as the contents of documents from UK’s spy agency, GCHQ. It shows that labels can matter and, if the state can convince a public that a journalist is really an activist, that can be useful in controlling information.

The Terrorism Law in the UK has a broad definition of “terrorism.” it is a “use or threat” that is “designed to influence the government [or an international governmental organization or to intimidate the public or a section of the public]” or a “use or threat” that is “made for the purpose of advancing a political, religious, [racial] or ideological cause.” It also qualifies if it “endangers a person’s life, other than that of the person committing the action” and “creates a serious risk to the health or safety of the public or a section of the public.”

This is the exact language that UK security services are using to justify targeting and detaining Miranda. The security services obviously believe the language gives them license to determine whether a journalist is properly securing material from a source or not and use “national security” to seize material for news stories from reporters.

The argument is more chilling than arguments the US military advanced against Private Chelsea Manning, which they claimed Manning’s release of documents to WikiLeaks had “aided the enemy.” If this argument is successful, it would expand the British government’s power to target and stop journalists or media employees that rely on confidential news sources to do their reporting, and they could seize equipment to obtain copies of material by arguing they were stopping “terrorism.”

The UK security services have a history of repressing journalism in service to the US national security state. The Council of Europe Center for Freedom of the Media detailed in a 2012 report:

Concerns were raised over official barriers placed in the way of reporting on state involvement in unlawful renditions by the American CIA, and allegations of torture of terrorism suspects in US custody in third countries.

Several TV channels unsuccessfully contested demands by police to hand over unused video footage of scenes during the violent rioting and looting that took place in several UK cities in August 2011. The companies argued that if they consented to do so camera crews and reporters would in future be seen as informants on behalf of the police, which might make them targets of hostility or violence in future. The authorities argued that public interest required all available evidence to be gathered.

This is what British authorities would like to be able to do, but The Guardian has had the US division of its media organization hold the bulk of the Snowden documents so they could not be seized. (However, that did not stop security service agents from standing over Guardian staff as they made certain they smashed The Guardian’s equipment to intimidate and discourage The Guardian from covering documents from Snowden.)

The MI5 chief, Andrew Parker, declared in a speech in October, “It causes enormous damage to make public the reach and limits of GCHQ techniques. Such information hands the advantage to the terrorists. It is the gift they need to evade us and strike at will. Unfashionable as it might seem, that is why we must keep secrets secret, and why not doing so causes such harm.”

The message was clear: If a terrorist attack happened today, The Guardian would have to accept some of the blame.

British prime minister David Cameron has publicly supported a parliamentary investigation into the “damage” caused by journalism on the NSA and GCHQ. He also threatened the press with suppressive measures if they continue to report on documents from Snowden. And multiple media organizations have gone along with this government campaign to isolate The Guardian for daring to engage in real journalism that might help hold powerful people accountable.

Miranda faces no charges, however, he has been criminalized as if he was going to commit terrorism.

In conclusion, a climate of fear has successfully been created by UK security services. Supportive, complicit or timid members of the political or media class in the UK have aided the security services in their campaign to stop the news gathering process.

The criminalization of Miranda is a gift to the United States and its security services, one that probably brings great pleasure to NSA director Gen. Keith Alexander, who said ”we ought to come up with a way of stopping” reporting on the documents. It undoubtedly reinforces the decisions of Greenwald and Poitras to remain in Brazil and Germany and not travel to the US. It has also convinced WikiLeaks’ Sarah Harrison that she should stay with Snowden in Russia and not go back to the UK yet.