Glenn Greenwald’s Case Shows Why Government Can’t Be Trusted With Overbroad Anti-Terror Powers

"If you have nothing to hide, why are you worried?" Now we know the answer.

As evidence has mounted over the last decade that the U.S. government was reaching ever-further into our private lives—first via warrantless wiretapping, then through the various National Security Administration programs that hoover up all of your online movements—defenders have often offered the same know-nothing appraisal:

“If you have nothing to hide, why are you so worried?”

Now we have an answer.

Glenn Greenwald, the Guardian journalist who first brought Edward Snowden’s NSA revelations to the world, reported on Sunday that his partner, David Miranda, had been detained by British authorities at London’s Heathrow Airport “under Schedule 7 of the Terrorism Act of 2000.” The purpose of the law is to give airport authorities the power to stop and question airline passengers “to determine whether that person is or has been involved in the commission, preparation or instigation of acts of terrorism.”

Greenwald writes:

But they obviously had zero suspicion that David was associated with a terrorist organization or involved in any terrorist plot. Instead, they spent their time interrogating him about the NSA reporting which Laura Poitras, the Guardian and I are doing, as well the content of the electronic products he was carrying. … Before letting him go, they seized numerous possessions of his, including his laptop, his cellphone, various video game consoles, DVDs, USB sticks, and other materials. They did not say when they would return any of it, or if they would.

Miranda was detained a total of nine hours before his release. The incident happened the same day that the New York Times Magazine profiled Poitras, Greenwald’s reporting partner on the NSA revelations, documenting the number of times she has been detained at American airports, questioned, and had her electronic equipment inspected and seized.

The Times reported an incident at Newark Liberty International Airport—an airport occasionally used by Philadelphians seeking a cheap air fare and willing to endure a New Jersey train ride to get it:

Poitras endured the airport searches for years with little public complaint, lest her protests generate more suspicion and hostility from the government, but last year she reached a breaking point. While being interrogated at Newark after a flight from Britain, she was told she could not take notes. On the advice of lawyers, Poitras always recorded the names of border agents and the questions they asked and the material they copied or seized. But at Newark, an agent threatened to handcuff her if she continued writing. She was told that she was being barred from writing anything down because she might use her pen as a weapon.

“Then I asked for crayons,” Poitras recalled, “and he said no to crayons.”

Understand, there’s no reason to believe that Miranda or Poitras are suspected of terrorism. But authorities have used their terrorism-related powers to detain and harass them because Greenwald and Poitras have informed American citizens about invasive programs.

“If you have nothing to hide, why are you so worried?”

Understand: The same governments that use their terrorism-fighting powers to harass journalists—and their families, for God’s sake—don’t change character when it comes to electronic eavesdropping. And the evidence we have now is that you don’t have to be a terrorist, or even suspected of terrorism, to suffer from the abuse of the government’s anti-terror powers. So why should we trust the NSA with the ability to comb our electronic lives at the most minute level? Can the increased safety from terrorism be worth it? Are there any civil liberties lines we won’t cross in the name of security?

Greenwald writes: “They completely abused their own terrorism law for reasons having nothing whatsoever to do with terrorism: a potent reminder of how often governments lie when they claim that they need powers to stop ‘the terrorists’, and how dangerous it is to vest unchecked power with political officials in its name.”

So what can you do?

You can refuse to give your vote to any federal official who supports the NSA programs as they stand, for one thing. That includes members of Congress: The Amash Amendment to stop the NSA’s mass surveillance came very close to passage in the House recently. (Pennsylvania Reps. Bob Brady, Chaka Fattah, Scott Perry, Glenn Thompson, Michael Fitzpatrick, Keith Rofus, Mike Doyle, and Matthew Cartwright—a nicely bipartisan group—all voted for the amendment. If your representative isn’t on that list—Allyson Schwartz, I’m looking at you in particular—you should call up and ask why.

You can give your money to the ACLU and the Electronic Frontier Foundation instead of donating it to Democrats or Republicans. Those groups can apply pressure on the courts and Congress to change the law and limit government power.

If you have nothing to hide, why are you so worried? Because a government that treats whistleblowers and truth-tellers this way cannot be trusted with the power to mine your life for every bit of content. George W. Bush didn’t deserve that power. Neither does Barack Obama. But they won’t give it back unless we demand it. It’s time to make the demand.