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Not quite anything goes

Antiterrorist laws cannot be used as a wild card for protecting secrets of state

Far from fading out of sight, the Snowden case is still causing episodes that are as grave as they are unusual. The latest of these, on Sunday, was the nine-hour detention at London's Heathrow airport of David Miranda, a Brazilian citizen and partner of the blogger Glenn Greenwald, who has been publishing in The Guardiannewspaper the American hacker's leaks concerning the web of espionage operated by the National Security Agency (NSA).

Miranda was returning to Rio de Janeiro from Berlin, and the British police took advantage of his stopover in London to make use of the country's antiterrorist law, holding him for nine hours (the maximum allowed under this emergency law) and confiscating the electronic devices he was carrying, including a computer, several memory sticks and DVDs, before allowing him to leave.

Greenwald has termed the airport detention episode an act of intimidation, and no doubt this was part of the intention. But there is more: Miranda had travelled to Berlin as a messenger, to exchange with another journalist a number of documents proceeding from Snowden's leaks. The journey had been paid for by The Guardian, as the newspaper has itself confirmed. And those documents, encrypted in portable memory devices, were confiscated at the airport. Now Greenwald has promised to even the score with further revelatory publications.

The game of cat and mouse forms part of the murky world of espionage. The British police claim that their action complied strictly with the law. The question is whether the law was used on the right person. Miranda was not suspected of terrorism, and in fact at no time was he interrogated on that question. In spite of this, they applied to him a law that denies the detainee the right to a lawyer, and treats any refusal to cooperate as a crime.

Everything suggests that the security forces have used the antiterrorist law as a subterfuge to seize the documents the Brazilian was carrying. The British authorities may argue that this was confidential information previously stolen from an allied country, but this does not justify their action.

The abuse of laws, especially when they are of an emergency nature, is not acceptable in a democratic state. The British government has tried to settle the controversy with the claim that these are normal border security procedures. But it will be unable to avoid giving the explanations that several members of parliament have begun to demand.

Even as the eternal debate on security and privacy goes on, many citizens believed they could place reasonable trust in their public authorities, but the facts are demonstrating the contrary. We have lately been informed that, in its global trawl of telephone calls and internet, the NSA has repeatedly violated the laws of privacy, in many cases due to mere errors. To cover up its excesses and control damage enters into the logic of governments on the defensive. But not quite anything goes in the struggle against leaks.

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