Notice May’s substitution of a single, significant letter. Under her interpretation of the Terrorism Act, police can detain you and confiscate your belongings if they think your information could (not just would) “help terrorists.” The fact that your information, from a civil libertarian standpoint, would help everyone is beside the point. You’re forbidden to disclose it — and police are authorized to detain you and confiscate it — because some of the people it could help are terrorists. They might learn how to circumvent surveillance, thereby leading eventually to a loss of life.
May repeated this formula five more times in a BBC interview on Aug. 21. She used it to justify not just Miranda’s detention but also the government’s enforced destruction of a Guardian laptop containing similar files. The issue at stake, she explained, was “information that could be of benefit to terrorists.” Sir Malcolm Rifkind, the chairman of the U.K.’s Intelligence and Security Committee, elaborated:
“The documents which Snowden stole from the National Security Agency are documents, some of which deal with how the intelligence agencies get access to terrorist information through interception of mail or phone messages and so forth. That is something potentially relevant to terrorism. . . . I’m not saying that every leak of every bit of information held by an intelligence agency will help terrorists. . . . What I am saying is that neither Mr. Snowden nor the editor of the Guardian nor the editor or any other newspaper is in a position to necessarily judge whether the release of top secret information may have a significant relevance in the battle against terrorism. . . . That’s simply a question of your inability to judge if you are a newspaper editor or a journalist, as opposed to somebody involved in the intelligence work . . .”
In other words, only intelligence agencies can decide which secrets justify the use of the Terrorism Act’s detention and confiscation provisions.
Thursday, Scotland Yard announced that its initial scan of Miranda’s devices “has identified highly sensitive material, the disclosure of which could put lives at risk. As a result the Counter Terrorism Command (SO15) has today begun a criminal investigation.” The U.K.’s High Court ruled that the government could inspect, copy, and distribute Miranda’s files “for the purpose of the protection of national security” as well as for “investigating whether Mr. Miranda is a person who is or has been concerned in the commission, preparation or instigation of acts of terrorism.”
Most political movements that begin with good grounds and good intentions eventually overextend and discredit themselves. It happened to socialism. It happened to anti-communism. At various times, it has happened to liberalism, conservatism, and libertarianism. Now it’s happening to anti-terrorism. The last people to recognize the abuse and destruction are the abusers themselves. Just ask David Miranda.
William Saletan covers science, technology and politics for Slate.