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British spooks seize tech from Snowden journo's boyfriend at airport

Outrage as special police grab mobe, laptop, even game console

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The Brazilian partner of Guardian journalist Glenn Greenwald – Edward Snowden's go-to reporter for the dissemination of sensitive papers about the NSA's dragnet surveillance programmes – has been released from custody. The 28-year-old was held for almost nine hours for questioning by Metropolitan Police officers when he passed through London's Heathrow Airport en route to Brazil on Sunday night.

David Michael Miranda was stopped and questioned under the Terrorism Act 2000. He was held for nine hours, the maximum allowed before police are obliged to arrest someone under that legislation.

Miranda was released without charge but investigators seized his mobile phone, laptop, memory sticks, DVDs and a game console.

The 28-year-old had spent the previous week in Berlin, where he stayed with Laura Poitras, the US filmmaker who has worked with Greenwald on the Snowden files. Miranda was detained on his way back home to Rio de Janeiro. The Guardian has admitted that it paid for his flights, so it would be reasonable to speculate that Miranda's trip was concerned with Greenwald and Poitras' work with the paper on Snowden's revelations.

The legal grounds for his detention are currently being disputed by Labour MP Keith Vaz, among others, who told Radio 4 he was concerned about the apparent use of "terrorism legislation for something that does not appear to relate to terrorism".

The chances are, however, that terrorism legislation was used simply because the police officers concerned came from what is now known as the Counter Terrorism Command (SO15) of the Metropolitan Police. This organisation absorbed the former Special Branch (SO12) on being formed in 2006.

One of the functions of Special Branch was (and still is under the CTC) to employ police powers in support of the British intelligence and security services. As the spooks have no power of arrest, detention or seizure themselves, when they need such things done the CTC (or, occasionally, Special Branch officers from regional forces) handle the matter. Miranda might have been stopped and his kit seized using a variety of different legislation, but CTC coppers these days are probably most familiar with the Terrorism Act.

Vaz added that he was not aware that personal property could be confiscated under the laws. Schedule 7 of the Terrorism Act 2000 does provide for the search of goods and for their seizure (11.1) but only if the individual being searched fulfils the identified criteria for a "terrorist" under section 40 of the Terrorism Act 2000.

Under the law, Miranda should get his kit back within seven days unless it is used as evidence in criminal proceedings, but Tor project developer Jacob Appelbaum was not so lucky. When US Immigration and Customs Enforcement officials seized his electronic kit back in 2010 – purportedly due to his involvement with WikiLeaks – it was never returned. Many other people have had kit containing data likely to be of interest to intelligence agencies seized at airports (or elsewhere) by Special Branch cops or their overseas equivalents over the years. This is a routine hazard for people of interest to spooks or serious police investigations, and it could be seen as a little odd that Greenwald, Miranda and Poitras didn't anticipate it.

Greenwald described the detention of his partner as a "failed attempt at intimidation".

"To detain my partner for a full nine hours while denying him a lawyer, and then seize large amounts of his possessions, is clearly intended to send a message of intimidation to those of us who have been reporting on the NSA and GCHQ," Greenwald told The Guardian.

In fact, however, it seems more likely that the spooks were primarily interested in any information they may be able to harvest from Miranda's gadgetry, which might give them a better picture of what yet-to-be-published information Snowden has passed to Greenwald and/or Poitras. It's known that Snowden has held back a lot of what he has - but not exactly what. The British spooks and their colleagues in the USA will be very interested in just what further revelations are (and are not) to be expected, far more than in the limited amount of deterrent effect one could achieve against the world's journalists with the example of a 9-hour interrogation at Heathrow.

The Brazilian foreign ministry issued a statement criticising Miranda's "unjustified" detention. "The Brazilian government expresses grave concern about the episode that happened today in London, where a Brazilian citizen was held without communication at Heathrow airport for 9 hours, in an action based in the British anti-terrorism legislation," it said.

"This measure is without justification since it involves an individual against whom there are no charges that can legitimate the use of that legislation. The Brazilian government expects that incidents such as the one that happened to the Brazilian citizen today [are] not repeat[ed]." ®

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