Secrets and lies

Detention of Miranda at Heathrow is Britain’s faux pas

By Mahir Ali (Counter Point)

  • Follow us on
  • google-news
  • whatsapp
  • telegram

Published: Wed 21 Aug 2013, 8:29 PM

Last updated: Tue 7 Apr 2015, 7:11 PM

IT can perhaps best be described as a failure of British intelligence. At more than one level.

On Sunday morning, a 28-year-old Brazilian, David Miranda, was detained for almost nine hours and interrogated at Heathrow while transiting on his way from Germany to Rio de Janeiro. He was held under schedule-7 of the Terrorism Act 2000, and all his electronic devices, from mobile phone to memory sticks, were confiscated.

There was no reason whatsoever to suspect him of terrorism-related activity. The key factor was that he happens to be the partner of Glenn Greenwald, the Guardian journalist instrumental in publicising the secrets that Edward Snowden was keen to reveal.

Not surprisingly, the episode has raised a bit of a stink in London, with the opposition Labour Party as well as lawyers and human rights agencies demanding answers from the authorities.

The Brazilian government made its displeasure known in no uncertain terms. Among the thoughts that crossed its collective mind may have been the memory of Jean Charles de Menezes, the Brazilian electrician who was shot dead by the police shortly after the July 7, 2005, terrorist attacks on the London Underground, despite the absence of any logically viable indication of violent intent.

In Miranda’s case, the unjustifiable harassment could only have been predicated by the United States-led efforts to curb further revelations about the shadowy activities of its National Security Agency (NSA) in the wake of the initial embarrassment caused by Snowden’s revelations.

The US has stated it was given a “heads-up” about Miranda’s impending detention but the decision was taken “independent of our direction”. The precision of that statement may be questionable, but it is not unusual for America’s allies to go out of their way to please Uncle Sam, and it’s hardly a secret that the latter has been mightily miffed by the beans Snowden has spilled.

The extent of Washington’s umbrage can be gauged by the cancellation of Barack Obama’s summit with Vladimir Putin on the sidelines of the G-20 talks in St Petersburg next month, following Russia’s decision to grant temporary asylum to Snowden.

In a fit of pique, Obama publicly wondered whether Moscow was receding into a Cold War mentality, and sought to irritate Russia by deriding its attitude towards gays.

That’s far from the only problem with Putin’s Russia on the human rights front — all too often there’s a sticky situation in store for anyone who openly challenges the Kremlin. Putin has an incredibly thin skin when it comes to domestic opposition, and democratic impulses are simply not a part of his DNA.

But then, consistency is hardly a virtue among political leaders anywhere in the world. Obama himself, as a presidential candidate, empathised with whistleblowers. Now he’s happy to designate them traitors. He’s still hedging his bets, though, by buying in to the debate over the NSA’s reach — a debate that would not have been launched but for Snowden’s act of defiance.

In Europe, meanwhile, there was seemingly considerable consternation over the spying activities highlighted via Snowden’s endeavours, yet several nations colluded with the US in denying overflight rights to Bolivia’s presidential plane, which was forced to land in Austria last month on its way from Moscow, and searched in case Snowden was aboard.

It’s plausible to assume that Putin has extended a helping hand to Snowden primarily as a means of discomfiting the US rather than out of any concern for human rights, which are regularly violated in Russia. It’s a defensible decision nonetheless, notwithstanding the condition that the whistleblower is not permitted to blow any more whistles.

Snowden was apparently reluctant, on those very grounds, to accept the Russian offer, but after being holed up at Sheremetyevo airport for about six weeks, he evidently decided it was the best interim option. He has well-meant offers of asylum from Nicaragua, Bolivia and Venezuela — but is probably correct in assuming that those are countries whose sovereignty the US would have few qualms about violating, whereas it would surely think twice about crossing Russia in the same manner.

On the other hand, what are the chances that an authentic Russian whistleblower would not have found refuge in the US?

When Obama and his colleagues play the Cold War card, it doesn’t quite ring true. The “peace dividend” attached to the demise of the Soviet Union proved ephemeral. Instead, the US was immediately on the lookout for other enemies that could, at a stretch, continue to justify the existence of its military-industrial complex. In that context, the horrific events of 9/11 proved to be a godsend.

They brought relief to Putin, too, by permitting him to pursue his vendetta against Chechnya under the “war on terror” rubric. The former Soviet Union assisted in the recolonisation of Afghanistan, but opposed the invasion of Iraq on reasonably solid grounds.

Its refusal to see eye-to-eye with the US won’t bring back the Soviet-era balance of power, but Washington’s irritation over recent events suggests it has not entirely lost its global value.

Russian resistance to US hegemony is thus far feeble, but the Americans are convinced their storyline will endure.

That may be so for the time being, but it’s an increasingly tattered tale that’s unlikely, at this stage, to receive any credence from a renewed Cold War.

In the wake of the Miranda episode, The Guardian’s editor, Alan Rusbridger, wrote about efforts by the British state — tied to American coattails for nigh on 70 years — to curb the newspaper’s coverage of the NSA saga.

In all too many respects, hope for the future lies the ultimate failure of the US and its allies — as well, it must be said, of some of their foes, from Putin to Al Qaeda and the Taleban.

Mahir Ali is a journalist based in Sydney

More news from