I think it's obvious to any reasonable observer that the UK authorities detained David Miranda, spouse of Guardian journalist Glenn Greenwald, to intimidate journalists and whistleblowers -- to "send a message," as Greenwald put it. But I also think there's something more going on.
Put yourself in the shoes of the National Surveillance State (given the kind of US/UK cooperation involved in Miranda's detention, we could as easily call it the International Surveillance State). In collusion with US telcos, you've succeeded in commandeering the Internet, and are able to monitor at least 75% of American Internet activity. Further such monitoring represents opportunities for improved coverage only at the margins, and because people are now changing their Internet behavior to evade government eavesdropping, you realize you have to turn your attention to emerging attempts at privacy. You will have to focus especially on journalists, the fourth estate: as Guardian editor Alan Rusbridger has observed, "The Guardian's work on the Snowden story has involved many individuals taking a huge number of flights in order to have face-to-face meetings. Not good for the environment, but increasingly the only way to operate. Soon we will be back to pen and paper."
Under these circumstances, if you were the NSA, and you learned -- say, by examining passenger manifests and customs data -- that Glenn Greenwald's spouse was traveling from the couple's home in Rio to Berlin, currently the home of Laura Poitras, Greenwald's collaborator on the blockbuster Snowden revelations, what would you do?
You might reasonably suspect that the spouse, trusted by both parties, was helping Greenwald and Poitras in some fashion with their reporting. If you dug into credit card transactions and learned the Guardian was paying for the spouse's travel, your suspicions would harden. You might decide to place a call to your contacts at Britain's GCHQ, mentioning to them that a certain Brazilian national would soon be transiting Heathrow en route from Berlin to his home in Rio, and recommending ever so artfully that this Brazilian national be detained, all his electronic gear confiscated, his personal passwords revealed to you under the threat of imprisonment (yes, the UK airport authorities really can legally imprison you if you don't tell them your Facebook password. They have to, to keep you safe).
Of course you wouldn't formally direct the UK authorities to do anything; you'd want to maintain the ability to obscure your involvement without outright lying about it if possible. And of course you might not even be sure the spouse would be carrying anything secret at all, but intercepting secret information wasn't really the purpose of the exercise anyway. The purpose was to demonstrate to journalists that what they thought was a secure secondary means of communication -- a courier, possibly to ferry encrypted thumb drives from one air-gapped computer to another -- can be compromised, and thereby to make the journalists' efforts harder and slower.
Does this sort of "deny and disrupt" campaign sound familiar? It should: you've seen it before, deployed against terror networks. That's because part of the value in targeting the electronic communications of actual terrorists is that the terrorists are forced to use far slower means of plotting. The NSA has learned this lesson well, and is now applying it to journalists. I suppose it's fitting that Miranda was held pursuant to a law that is ostensibly limited to anti-terror efforts. The National Surveillance State understands that what works for one can be usefully directed against the other. In fact, it's not clear the National Surveillance State even recognizes a meaningful difference.
The National Surveillance State doesn't want anyone to be able to communicate without the authorities being able to monitor that communication. Think that's too strong a statement? If so, you're not paying attention. There's a reason the government names its programs Total Information Awareness and Boundless Informant and acknowledges it wants to "collect it all" and build its own "haystack" and has redefined the word "relevant" to mean "everything." The desire to spy on everything totally and boundlessly isn't even new; what's changed is just that it's become more feasible of late. You can argue that the NSA's nomenclature isn't (at least not yet) properly descriptive; you can't argue that it isn't at least aspirational.
To achieve the ability to monitor all human communication, broadly speaking the National Surveillance State must do two things: first, button up the primary means of human communication -- today meaning the Internet, telephone, and snail mail; second, clamp down on backup systems, meaning face-to-face communication, which is, after all, all that's left to the population when everything else has been bugged. Miranda's detention was part of the second prong of attack. So, incidentally, was the destruction of Guardian computers containing some of Snowden's leaks. The authorities knew there were copies, so destroying the information itself wasn't the point of the exercise. The point was to make the Guardian spend time and energy developing suboptimal backup options -- that is, to make journalism harder, slower, and less secure.
A heart beset by coronary disease will begin to recruit secondary arteries to carry oxygenated blood. If you're the NSA, you recognize you have to block those developing secondary routes, too, or you'll lose control of the flow you feed on. To the National Surveillance State, therefore, coverage of Miranda's treatment at Heathrow isn't a bug. It's a feature. And why not? The authorities want you to understand they can do it to you, too. Whether they've miscalculated depends on how well they've gauged the passivity of the public.
Barry Eisler blogs at barryeisler.blogspot.com, where this post originally appeared.