FacebookTwitterRedditEmail

The Right to Remain Silent in an Age of Mass Surveillance

Last weekend, British police detained David Miranda, husband of Guardian reporter Glenn Greenwald at Heathrow Airport, seized his computer and thumb drives, and forced him to disclose the passwords. The computer and thumb drives presumably contained information about the U.S. National Security Agency’s intrusions into the private communications of millions of people who are not suspected of any wrongdoing.

The seven interrogators claimed authority under the Terrorism Act of 2002, but their questions had nothing to do with terrorism. They were, simply put, conducting a fishing expedition into Greenwald’s work as a journalist. The police did not charge his husband with any crime; he hadn’t committed one. The interrogation was simply an excuse to seize his computer and thumb drives and, if possible, trick him into saying something incriminating.

Had the NSA asked American policemen to question Miranda in an American airport, he would have had a constitutional right to remain silent. Indeed, American policemen would have to inform him of that right.  Ironically, that notification is part of the “Miranda warnings,” named for the Supreme Court decision that found them to be constitutionally required.

But Britain does not have a constitution, so Greenwald’s Miranda can be compelled to answer questions about terrorism, if a special law – like this particular law governing airport transit lounges — permits it.

Absent such special laws, anyone in Great Britain has a right to know the charges against him, and to be left alone if there aren’t any. Fishing expeditions of the sort inflicted on David Miranda were abolished in the seventeenth century, largely due to the defiant actions of one John Lilburne, England’s first libertarian. As we contemplate the largely complacent response of most Britons and Americans to the interrogation and search of Mr. Miranda, it is worth recalling “Freeborn John’s” story (See Jeffrey St. Clair’s: “What Would Lilburne Do?“).

Lilburne was a 23-year old clerk when he was hauled before the secret national security court of his day – the infamous Star Chamber.  The judges – politicians, really – peppered him with questions, hoping he would say something that might help them proved that he had helped smuggle dissenting religious tracts into the country.  But Lilburne refused to cooperate.  I have a right, he insisted, to know what this inquisition is about before I place my soul at risk by swearing before God to tell the truth in response to any and all irrelevant questions you may ask me.

David Miranda was placed in a similar situation.  If he did not answer every question about anything his seven interrogators chose to ask him, he could be convicted of non-cooperation. Or, if one of his answers was later found to be untruthful, he could also be sent to jail, even though he was never tried for any crime.

Faced with these choices, Lilburne decided to remain silent and was condemned to be fined, whipped, pilloried and imprisoned until he obeyed. In April 1638, he was dragged by his hands, which were lashed to an ox cart, two miles through the streets of London, and whipped every few steps across his bleeding back.  Then Lilburne was clapped into a pillory where, despite his contorted position and great pain, he managed to inflame a large crowd about the injustices inflicted upon him.  In prison he was denied food and kept alive by other prisoners who shared their meager rations with him through the floorboards. But, unlike many prisoners today, Lilburne was able to write against such treatment and smuggle his tracts out to a printer.  Before long, “Freeborn John Lilburne” was the most popular man in Great Britain and an inspiration to American colonists who would make his privilege against self incrimination part of their own laws.

Today, no one remembers Lilburne or what he sacrificed to make us free.  Surprisingly few people value what David Miranda and his partner Glenn Greenwald are doing to publish the NSA documents that Edward Snowden has given to them – documents that show serious constitutional violations.

Meanwhile, officials on both sides of the Atlantic are trying, yet again, to control what can be read by the people and who can be spied upon, intimidated, or forced through secret inquisitions to become the instruments of their own doom. What have we come to when there is so little resistance to such thuggery?

Christopher H. Pyle teaches constitutional law and civil liberties at Mount Holyoke College. He is the author of Military Surveillance of Civilian Politics and Getting Away with Torture. In 1970, he disclosed the U.S. military’s surveillance of civilian politics and worked as a consultant to three Congressional committees, including the Church Committee. 

 
More articles by:

Christopher H. Pyle teaches constitutional law and civil liberties at Mount Holyoke College. He is the author of Military Surveillance of Civilian Politics and Getting Away with Torture. He  is currently writing a book about money in politics.In 1970, he disclosed the U.S. military’s surveillance of civilian politics and worked as a consultant to three Congressional committees, including the Church Committee.   

bernie-the-sandernistas-cover-344x550
February 26, 2020
Matthew Hoh
Heaven Protect Us From Men Who Live the Illusion of Danger: Pete Buttigieg and the US Military
Jefferson Morley
How the US Intelligence Community is Interfering in the 2020 Elections
Patrick Cockburn
With Wikileaks, Julian Assange Did What All Journalists Should Do
Manuel García, Jr.
Climate Change and Voting 2020
Kollibri terre Sonnenblume
Russiagate: The Toxic Gift That Keeps on Giving
Andrew Bacevich
Going Off-Script in the Age of Trump
Jeremy Kuzmarov
Anti-Russian Xenophobia Reaches Ridiculous Levels
Ted Rall
Don’t Worry, Centrists. Bernie Isn’t Radical.
George Wuerthner
Whatever Happened to the Greater Yellowstone Coalition?
Scott Tucker
Democratic Socialism in the Twenty-First Century
Jonah Raskin
The Call of the Wild (2020): A Cinematic Fairy Tale for the Age of Environmental Disaster
George Ochenski
Why We Shouldn’t Run Government Like a Business
Binoy Kampmark
Julian Assange and the Imperium’s Face: Day One of the Extradition Hearings
Nozomi Hayase
Assange’s Extradition Hearing Reveals Trump’s War on Free Press Is Targeting WikiLeaks Publisher
Peter Harrison
Is It as Impossible to Build Jerusalem as It is to Escape Babylon? (Part Two)
Max Moran
Meet Brad Karp, the Top Lawyer Bankrolling the Democrats
David Swanson
Nonviolent Action for Peace
Ed Sanders
The Ex-Terr GooGoo Eyes “The Russkies Did it!” Plot
February 25, 2020
Michael Hudson
The Democrats’ Quandary: In a Struggle Between Oligarchy and Democracy, Something Must Give
Paul Street
The “Liberal” Media’s Propaganda War on Bernie Sanders
Sheldon Richman
The Non-Intervention Principle
Nicholas Levis
The Real Meaning of Red Scare 3.0
John Feffer
Cleaning Up Trump’s Global Mess
David Swanson
How Are We Going to Pay for Saving Trillions of Dollars?
Ralph Nader
Three Major News Stories That Need To Be Exposed
John Eskow
What Will You Do If the Democrats Steal It from Sanders?
Dean Baker
What If Buttigieg Said That He Doesn’t Accept the “Fashionable” View That Climate Change is a Problem?
Jack Rasmus
The Nevada Caucus and the Desperation of Democrat Elites
Howard Lisnoff
The Powerful Are Going After Jane Fonda Again
Binoy Kampmark
Viral Losses: Australian Universities, Coronavirus and Greed
John W. Whitehead
Gun-Toting Cops Endanger Students and Turn Schools into Prisons
Marshall Sahlins
David Brooks, Public Intellectual
February 24, 2020
Stephen Corry
New Deal for Nature: Paying the Emperor to Fence the Wind
M. K. Bhadrakumar
How India’s Modi is Playing on Trump’s Ego to His Advantage
Jennifer Matsui
Tycoon Battle-Bots Battle Bernie
Robert Fisk
There’s Little Chance for Change in Lebanon, Except for More Suffering
Rob Wallace
Connecting the Coronavirus to Agriculture
Bill Spence
Burning the Future: the Growing Anger of Young Australians
Eleanor Eagan
As the Primary Race Heats Up, Candidates Forget Principled Campaign Finance Stands
Binoy Kampmark
The Priorities of General Motors: Ditching Holden
George Wuerthner
Trojan Horse Timber Sales on the Bitterroot
Rick Meis
Public Lands “Collaboration” is Lousy Management
David Swanson
Bloomberg Has Spent Enough to Give a Nickel to Every Person Whose Life He’s Ever Damaged
Peter Cohen
What Tomorrow May Bring: Politics of the People
Peter Harrison
Is It as Impossible to Build Jerusalem as It is to Escape Babylon?
FacebookTwitterRedditEmail