3:50 p.m. August 19, 2013

"They'll Be Laughing in Moscow and Beijing." A Former British Defence Minister Writes...

It was Aldous Huxley who said that "technological progress has merely provided us with more efficient means for going backwards." And the Snowden affair reminds us of that, as the ravenous and secret data crunching machinery of our "free" liberal democracies is laid bare.

Snowden was a brave man to take on the military industrial complex over at least two continents, but it took a particular kind of journalist to chop and dice his stolen PowerPoint files into the global story of the year. Step forward Glenn Greenwald: a pugnacious campaigner who has managed to find a living humiliating the world's security services.

And what was the response of the UK to the revelation that GCHQ are hoovering up our emails and Skype calls? We arrested Greenwald's boyfriend.

Are you serious?

We still don't know the full circumstances surrounding David Miranda’s detention at Heathrow airport but I think we probably know enough to conclude that: a) he is not a terrorist and b) it is not a coincidence that he is Glenn Greenwald's partner.

I think that we can also usefully assume that the spooks did not find enough to detain David Miranda under any UK law and that Greenwald and The Guardian are not dumb enough to forget to make copies of the files that prove illegal state surveillance.

The spooks are not going to get the NSA files back; that genie is well and truly out of the bottle. So why do it? The conclusion must be, as Greenwald speculates, that we were just roughing up his boyfriend in order to psyche him out. I am no Carrie Mathieson but I think the wrong case officer is in charge of this investigation if they think this will shut Greenwald up. He thrives on this stuff. The UK intelligence services have created a global audience for the spectacle of him beating them with a big stick of indignant rebuke.

And they have horrified people across Westminster who know the "inside". As a former defence minister I have authorised special forces to conduct hostage rescues, covert military entry to foil terrorist plots, as well as approved nuclear submarines to travel to places you do not want to know. So I think I can assess an ill-conceived plan when I see one. And this was a howler.

Let us assume that the defence put forward by the government will be that the spooks had reason to believe that David Miranda was acting as a courier of physical data files between Greenwald and Poitras (if you were Greenwald would you ever trust email again, after all?) Even if this were the case, why would you lift the data stick mule? The cat is out of the bag. We know what the NSA and GCHQ are up to and we are not going to forget. The forces of scrutiny are unleashed. It might take a little longer but whatever Greenwald and Poitras wanted to share with each other is going to get out eventually. The only possible outcome of David Miranda’s detention was negative publicity for the government.

The President has been embarrassed by his intelligence services over the Snowden affair. And now the UK’s PM will have to account for the behavior of our own anti-terrorist forces. Our Prevention of Terrorism Act allows detention for any suspicion of terrorist activity. The broad interpretation of "suspicion" in this case will inevitably lead to a discussion about whether safeguards should supplement the clause in the PTA that allows this kind of detention.

So well done officer 203654 – you have united journalists from far left to far right. Questions will be asked in Parliament. You've embarrassed the PM. And Glenn Greenwald leads the global news again.

They'll be laughing in Moscow and Beijing.


Update: An earlier version of this story incorrectly referred to Greenwald as an "ex-wikileaker."