The one after next

The detention of David Miranda at Heathrow airport under the Terrorism Act is beyond disturbing. As David Allen Green writes, he was detained under schedule 7 of the act, which allows for such detention only to determine whether someone “is or has been concerned in the commission, preparation or instigation of acts of terrorism”.

Officials are not allowed to detain anyone for a fishing expedition. But they are allowed to detain someone even if they have no reasonable suspicion. And since the people they detain usually don’t have an intimate knowledge of the law — and the law doesn’t give those detained the right to legal representation — the net effect is surely that officials detain whoever they want to detain, for whichever reasons.

The Home Office says schedule 7 “forms an essential part of the UK’s security arrangements”. Of course it does: an empire doesn’t give up hard-won powers without a pitched battle and the stink of revolution.

Whitehall also says, almost apologetically, “the powers should not be used arbitrarily”. In 2012-13, schedule 7 was used on 61,145 people, 12% down on 2011-12. Good news! But of those 70,000-odd detentions in 2011-12, there were just 24 terrorism-related arrests: 0.03% of people stopped (source).

That is overreach. That is arbitrary use of powers.

And of course, officials can steal the computers, phones, etc, of these detainees whether they go on to arrest them or not.

The reality of life at the UK Border: you have no rights to person or property.

If David Miranda had posed a terrorist threat you can be sure the details would have been leaked gleefully to the papers by now, probably to the spook-friendly Daily Mail, and ministers would be queuing up to appear on TV condemning him before trial and pronouncing Glenn Greenwald guilty by association. Since there has been no leak and our servants in government are apparently unavailable for comment, I therefore conclude from my self-elected position as armchair judge, jury and executioner, that Miranda did not pose such a threat.

His detention wasn’t arbitrary: it was capricious and most likely unlawful. He wasn’t detained in case he was a terrorist, but for “travelling while in the process of committing journalism that might embarrass the state”, or perhaps “travelling while being the partner of an irritating journalist”.

Naturally Scotland Yard says Miranda’s detention was “legally sound”. This is the Scotland Yard with such a strong record in matters of law: the one that claimed the unarmed, entirely innocent bystander Jean-Charles De Menezes was a terrorist; the one that took four years to admit one of its officers used “excessive and unlawful force” and killed Ian Tomlinson; the one deeply enmired in the phone hacking scandal. We’re close to being able to state confidently that whatever Scotland Yard says, the opposite is the truth.

I’ve said this many times, and it’s truer than ever. The test of any proposed new law should not be how it is intended to be used today, nor how the next government or the next set of police commissioners might decide to interpret it. It’s about the government and the police that come after them. The ones we cannot know, living in a world we cannot know, with pressures and technologies and enemies and realities we cannot know.

Arbitrary and capricious detention at the border. Spooks tapping internet traffic without proper oversight. A push to impose censorship on internet connections on spurious grounds. Destruction of hard drives by security services at newspaper offices.

Who will be prime minister on August 20, 2023? Cameron? Miliband? The other Miliband? Johnson? Farage? Griffin?

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