LONDON – British authorities can search for data harmful to national security on electronic equipment seized from the partner of a whistle-blowing journalist, but they are not allowed to copy, disclose or distribute any of the material, a judge ruled Thursday.
Scotland Yard now has seven days to determine whether a laptop computer, cellphone and other devices belonging to David Miranda contain anything that endangers national security or shows him to be involved in terrorism.
Miranda is the partner of American reporter Glenn Greenwald, whose stories for the Guardian on mass digital surveillance by the U.S. National Security Agency, based on documents leaked by former NSA contractor Edward Snowden, have embarrassed the Obama administration.
Miranda’s equipment was confiscated after he was held and questioned for nine hours Sunday at London’s Heathrow Airport under sweeping anti-terrorist police powers. His detention has become a cause célèbre among civil-liberties and free-speech advocates, who accuse British officials of trying to intimidate and silence Greenwald by harassing his partner.
Miranda, who is Brazilian, asked Britain’s High Court to block Scotland Yard from trolling through his belongings and to order that they be returned to him. In a mixed ruling, the court authorized police to look for data that could undermine national security or implicate Miranda in terrorist activity, but authorities have only a week to do so and cannot copy material or pass it along to other agencies, including the U.S. government, unless lives would be in danger.
“There has to be a genuine threat to national security” and not just “mere assertions” on the police’s part, said Gwendolen Morgan, Miranda’s attorney.
As for any evidence of potential involvement in terrorism, she said that although police invoked an anti-terrorism law to detain and interrogate Miranda, “at no point was our client asked any questions about whether he was a terrorist.”
After his release, Miranda said he was threatened with prison if he refused to cooperate and was prevented from calling a lawyer or even getting a drink of water during most of his time in custody.
He was stopped at Heathrow en route to Rio de Janeiro, his and Greenwald’s home, from Berlin, where he met with an American filmmaker who has worked with Greenwald and the Guardian on issues of U.S. spying. Miranda is not employed by the newspaper, but he has helped Greenwald with his work, was carrying documents for his partner and was traveling at the Guardian’s expense.
Lawyers for Scotland Yard and Britain’s Home Office said in court that officials had already begun sifting through the seized data.
“That which has been inspected contains … highly sensitive material, the disclosure of which would be gravely injurious to public safety,” said attorney Jonathan Laidlaw, adding that “a criminal investigation” had therefore been launched. “There is an absolutely compelling reason to permit this investigation to continue.”
But Morgan said that allowing police to comb through the material would have a “very chilling effect … that journalists worldwide should be very concerned about.”