Thursday, August 22, 2013

Why the British Government stopped Greenwald's partner and destroyed The Guardian's hard drives

I'll be writing on the latest developments in Syria over the next few days. In the interim, I want to jump back to the Greenwald detention story.

In short, I want to offer my thoughts on how the detention of David Miranda (Glenn Greenwald's partner) speaks to the methodology of the UK security establishment. I covered elements of this debate during my Huff Post Live discussion on Monday.

For a start, the detention represents an under-reported example of how successive British governments have sought to deal with perceived security threats. Essentially, by applying quiet but substantial pressure (in ways designed to preclude reporting in the headlines). Where US law enforcement's ability to pressure media outlets is inherently limited by the first amendment - and rightly raises a firestorm when pursued, the British Government holds far greater power over media action. Take, for example, the pressuring of national security reporters (see here and here) to withdraw their evidently public interest focused publications. More generally, the British Government is unashamed in its pursuit of prior restraint.

Again, though this reality may seem surprising to Americans, the UK approach to intelligence gathering is different to that of the US. For one example, the UK's domestic intelligence service, MI5, holds files on many thousands of British citizens (search 'MI5' on page). In addition, the UK's pervasive counter-terrorism operations  involve the monitoring of around 2000 suspected terrorists at any particular time. The key is this- while much of the UK's intelligence operations take place covertly, they inform the strategy that we've just witnessed against Miranda - a kind of 'we're on to you' mentality; a willingness to take audacious action under the surface of public awareness.

Unfortunately for the UK government, with increasing scrutiny and the inability to restrict foreign reporting, pressuring journalists will cost politically serious blowback - attracting negative attention rather than discouraging undesired activities. It's worth considering how the UK's increasingly restrictive approach on freedom of speech combines with this consideration. Ultimately, it's my opinion that pressure operations are increasingly redundant in the 21st century.

For my thoughts on the US-UK intelligence relationship, click here.

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