British authorities Sunday used a provision of the British Terrorism Act to detain a man no one thinks is a terrorist: David Miranda, a Brazilian citizen and partner of American journalist Glenn Greenwald, who has received leaked National Security Agency documents from Edward Snowden. It’s unclear whether the United States was behind the detention of Miranda — who was held for nine hours at Heathrow Airport, denied access to an attorney, and had his electronics confiscated — but Congress should investigate. Unless there is clear reason to suspect a serious breach of US intelligence, with the potential for imminent harm, the United States should not be interfering with a journalist’s dissemination of information.
Greenwald’s subsequent protestations that Miranda should be spared scrutiny because he isn’t a journalist fall flat — Miranda was traveling to assist Greenwald’s reporting of the Snowden leaks and the British newspaper the Guardian had funded his travel. Nor did Greenwald help his cause by making thinly veiled threats of retaliating by releasing documents that could embarrass Britain. But if the United States was involved in any way, Congress should investigate whether there was reasonable suspicion of a crime. Otherwise, the US government shouldn’t solicit the help of allies with less-protective free-speech laws in seeking to prevent reporters from publishing potentially unflattering information.
In addition, the United States, Great Britain, and other nations shouldn’t be using statutes meant to prevent terrorist acts to retaliate against those who publish information that embarrasses their intelligence agencies. If the US or British authorities had reason to suspect that Miranda was carrying information leaked by Snowden that could lead to the deaths of US or British citizens, extraordinary measures may have been justified. Otherwise, this detention appears to have been a misuse of terrorism laws.