LONDON – British counterterrorism police launched a criminal investigation Thursday into documents seized from the Brazilian assistant of a journalist working to publish secrets from U.S. intelligence leaker Edward Snowden.
The development came after Britain’s High Court ruled that material seized from David Miranda, the assistant and partner of The Guardian journalist Glenn Greenwald, can only be partially examined by police.
London’s Metropolitan Police said publication of the “highly sensitive” data seized from 28-year-old Miranda during his detention under anti-terrorism laws at Heathrow Airport on Sunday could cause a risk to life.
“Initial examination of material seized has identified highly sensitive material, the disclosure of which could put lives at risk,” Scotland Yard said in a statement. “As a result, the Counter-terrorism Command has today begun a criminal investigation.”
A new report Thursday, citing the latest leaked documents obtained by Snowden, said Britain is running a secret Internet surveillance station in the Middle East.
The Independent newspaper said that, while it is not disclosing the country where the British base is located, the facility can intercept emails, telephone calls and web traffic for the United States and other intelligence agencies. The base taps into underwater fiber-optic cables in the region, the newspaper said, and Britain shares the information with the U.S. National Security Agency.
The Independent did not say how it obtained the details from the Snowden files.
Miranda’s nine-hour detention has outraged campaigners for press freedom, who have called for an inquiry into why laws designed to stop terrorists were used to interrogate a journalist’s assistant.
Miranda was stopped as he changed planes on his way home to Rio de Janeiro on Sunday. Officials confiscated his laptop, phone, memory cards and other electronic equipment.
Snowden, a former NSA contractor, enraged the U.S. by leaking information on mass surveillance programs by the agency as well as Britain’s electronic eavesdropping agency, GCHQ.
The Guardian has published a series of reports based on files provided by Snowden, who has been granted temporary asylum in Russia as he bids to escape prosecution in the United States.
Britain’s High Court ruled Thursday that police and the Interior Ministry could partially examine the files seized from Miranda for national security purposes, following a legal bid by the Brazilian to stop them.
The Metropolitan Police welcomed the decision, saying it had obtained “thousands of classified intelligence documents” from Miranda’s seized equipment and that examining them will allow it to “protect life and national security.”
Miranda’s lawyer, Gwendolen Morgan, said the ruling was a partial victory because it prohibited British authorities from sharing the information with any foreign government, “save for the purposes of protection of national security.”
The British Home Office and Scotland Yard now have seven days to prove that the documents raised a genuine threat to Britain’s security, Morgan told reporters outside the court.
Home Secretary Theresa May said before the hearing that the police were right to act if they thought Miranda was carrying material for Greenwald that could be useful to terrorists.
A Home Office spokesman said afterward, “We are pleased the court has agreed that the police can examine the material as part of their criminal investigation insofar as it falls within the purposes of the original Schedule 7 examination, and in order to protect national security.”
Separately, David Anderson, Britain’s independent reviewer of anti-terrorism legislation, announced Thursday that he is launching an investigation into whether the laws used to detain Miranda were applied “lawfully, appropriately and humanely.”
The Guardian’s editor, Alan Rusbridger, said of Miranda’s detention, “It seems to me a clear misuse of a law.” Speaking at the Edinburgh International Book Festival on Thursday, Rusbridger said it was becoming “impossible” for journalists to have confidential sources.