LONDON – The defection of Edward Snowden, the contractor to the U.S. National Security Agency who has been granted permission to stay in Russia, followed the extensive leaks of confidential and secret U.S. documents organized through WikiLeaks by Julian Assange, the Australian granted asylum in the embassy of Ecuador in London in an attempt to avoid extradition to Sweden on sexual assault charges.
Information provided by Edward Snowden was fed to the left-leaning Guardian newspaper in Britain. This led to officials from Britain’s GCHQ (which, according to its official website, “provides intelligence, protects information and informs relevant U.K. policy to keep our society safe and successful in the Internet age”) overseeing the smashup of newspaper computers that allegedly contained copies of the leaked documents.
The authorities in Britain, presumably with U.S. cooperation, on Aug. 26 temporarily detained at London airport David Miranda, who was traveling from Berlin to Rio. He is the Brazilian partner of Glenn Greenwald, a resident of Rio de Janeiro and correspondent of the Guardian. The detention was made under the Terrorism Act.
Miranda was questioned for nine hours, his computer, mobile phone and memory sticks were confiscated and he was forced to reveal his passwords. The Home Secretary Teresa May justified the detention by pointing to the danger that classified material could fall into the wrong hands and possibly jeopardize lives.
The actions taken to detain Miranda and destroy computers at the Guardian have highlighted the potential threat to basic freedoms posed by apparently high-handed actions by the police and government agents with ministerial approval.
Security cameras have proliferated throughout Britain. They have probably been a factor in the significant decline in crime recorded over the last few years. But they have also raised fears that “a big brother” society is being developed in Britain as foreshadowed in George Orwell’s classic “1984.”
We are not yet anywhere near that state, and Parliament and the media will be certain to question any actions by ministers or officials that seem unjustified. But we all need to be alert to the importance of ensuring that a fair and just balance is maintained between the interests of security and of freedom.
WikiLeaks’ stories were certainly highly embarrassing, especially for some U.S. diplomats and for governments to which they were accredited. Certainly I as a diplomat would not have liked my more candid comments on personalities and policies leaked to the press while I was in post. Nor do I think that advice given by officials to ministers should be published immediately, as to do so could inhibit frankness and undermine trust. But after an appropriate time such papers should be freely available. In Britain it used to be 50 years. This has been reduced to 30 and should soon be 20 years.
The Freedom of Information Act now makes it possible for newspapers and members of the public to force official organizations to make records available if they have not been released under the current rules, although requests can be refused if there are good grounds.
The Official Secrets Act has bound British civil servants who have access to secret and confidential material. The act should, however, be used primarily to protect the identity and activities of those working for the intelligence agencies. This is generally how it works in Britain, although it has also been wrongly used in the past to stifle whistleblowers who want to make public embarrassing facts.
The problems arise at the margins. In the face of terrorist threats, government ministers and officials are prone to push the margins too far, arguing that security should trump journalistic freedoms. The terrorist threat cannot be underestimated, but it should not be used to justify serious infringements of human rights.
The actions taken against the Guardian and its correspondent were certainly at the margin and the legal issues need to be investigated objectively. It must be assumed that the information provided by Edward Snowden is now in the hands of the Russian intelligence agencies.
So what was the purpose of destroying Guardian records and confiscating Miranda’s material?
The suspicion inevitably is that the material might have revealed attempts to penetrate not only the communications of friendly or neutral powers but also those of the Russians and Chinese who are openly inimical to Western interests.
Of course it would be embarrassing for the United States (and Britain) if it were to be revealed that they had been intercepting the communications of EU countries or other friendly powers, but embarrassment is hardly a threat to national security.
We do not know whether such allegations are true or not, but if they are true, we may be sure that other “friendly” powers are probably trying to penetrate our communications.
When many years ago now I held a senior official position, I used to wonder at the waste of time of anyone who might be listening in and how boring it must be for them. I also hoped that the listeners might learn a few home truths!
In the Cold War years, we had to be very careful about any discussions in communist countries and, for necessary conversations, use well-known devices such as safe rooms padded against eavesdropping, or talk with the radio blaring.
The chief intelligence targets of NATO powers and of Japan must be terrorists, their communications and plans. We must also do what we can to protect ourselves against other powers who pose threats to our safety and interests.
We can’t afford to let up in our efforts against such targets, but let us be careful to avoid unnecessary actions that impinge on the freedoms of the press and the individual.
Hugh Cortazzi served as Britain’s ambassador to Japan from 1980-1984.