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Jon Schwarz

Jon Schwarz is editor of MichaelMoore.com and was research producer for 'Capitalism: A Love Story.' He's also contributed to the New Yorker, New York Times, Atlantic, Wall Street Journal, Slate, Saturday Night Live and NPR.

November 23rd, 2013 8:09 AM

FYI: The Case of David Miranda Shows Everything We Say About Supporting Free Speech Is Garbage

I've always loved the First Amendment, it's my favorite constitutional amendment of them all. (Close behind is the Third, which forbids the government from quartering soldiers in our homes.)

So it makes me feel great when top U.S. officials talk about how much America supports free speech. As Obama told the whole world at the UN last year, true democracy "depends on the freedom of citizens to speak their minds … efforts to restrict speech can become a tool to silence critics."

And who's going to stop the bad guys? We are, because as Obama's also said, "standing up for our values at home is only part of our work. Around the world, we stand up for values that are universal." I sincerely love that, hearing it makes me a little verklempt about being American.

So ever since I heard about the UK's treatment of David Miranda, I've been waiting for the U.S. to bring the hammer down. Miranda is the husband of journalist Glenn Greenwald, and was carrying encrypted NSA documents from Laura Poitras in Berlin back to Greenwald in Brazil – when he was stopped and held at London's Heathrow airport for nine hours.

According to the British government, what Miranda did "falls within the definition of terrorism." And he was held at Heathrow under the UK Terrorism Act of 2000.

I guess some would say the British could have questioned him under some other law. But claiming that journalism = terrorism? It's hard to square that with the popular image of Great Britain – those people on Dowtown Abbey all seem so nice. No matter what your perspective is on Edward Snowden, everyone should be able to agree this was an ominous sign. It's what the worst countries on earth do.

But don't just take my word for it. According to Under Secretary of State Tara Sonenshine last April, many awful governments "misuse terrorism laws to prosecute and imprison journalists." And then Tara told us we all have to fight back:

The United States of America was built on freedom of expression. It was one of our first breaths of life as a nation – and remains an indispensible and enduring element of who we are.

And it is a fundamental freedom for all people, enshrined in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights...

We urge all people – members of news organizations, civil society and think tank institutions; political leaders, scholars, and citizens of every faith and ethnicity – to call for accountability. To demand that governments enforce human rights that protect journalists and this fundamental freedom. To shine a light on long-standing and emerging repressive restrictions on, and threats to, freedom of expression whether they are through traditional media or online.

I heard this and I was raring to go. I thought the first person who could help with the Miranda situation would be Tara herself – she's left the State Department and is now totally free to speak her mind. So I got in touch and waited for her to get back to me. Was she just going to issue a statement ripping the Brits a new one? My guess was no – clearly this is something she feels so strongly about she's going to insist on leading the demonstration at the British Embassy herself.

Then I waited.

And I waited.

After about two weeks, I got some email from her: "On travel and out of range."

Okay, cynical people might say Tara was imitating Henry Kissinger, who would also say he was "traveling" and unavailable when he didn't want to answer questions about his various wars. Cynical people might also note Tara's IP address indicated she was writing from the Washington, D.C. suburbs. But I prefer to believe that she's somewhere where the technology only allows her to send one, one-sentence email per month. Maybe she's on Mars, or a secret time travel mission to 1993.

Anyway, I thought, that's okay – I'll get Alec Ross on this. Until recently Alec was "Senior Advisor for Innovation" for Hillary Clinton. His job was to push the possibilities of using twitter, Facebook, everything online, to get people worldwide involved in political change. I knew he'd care because as he traveled the world he'd heard from young, online journalist-activists about their governments using terrorism laws against them.

Alec didn't even bother to tell me he was traveling. Though he really was, I could follow him on his Facebook page. It turns out he's been having an awesome time in England, with no troubles at Heathrow. (By the way, Alec would like you to know that "When in doubt, choose freedom.")

I gave it one last shot with someone whose job it still is to answer these kinds of questions: Marie Harf, Deputy Spokesman at the State Department. She'd already been asked about the Miranda situation by a reporter at the Guardian, but all she'd say was "I'd refer you to the UK Government. This is their matter to discuss." So what I wanted to know from Marie was, why? The State Department has specifically criticized this kind of press crackdown in Ethiopia, Burundi and elsewhere. We were perfectly happy sticking our noses in there. Why, when it comes to the UK, is it suddenly only their business?

Marie has not gotten back to me.

 

What can we say about all this? Just that we're like every other government on earth. All our big talk about our abiding love for freedom isn't a unique beacon to the rest of the world. It's standard operating procedure for all countries, and in all countries it's just talk. Every government loves to loudly, publicly oppose bad things…in countries they don't like.

So Iran's former president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad was always getting upset about how badly we're treating prisoners at Guantanamo. The Saudi government is so mad about Israel's oppression of Palestinians, even as King Abdullah was named the 4th worst dictator on earth. And of course, after World War II, the Soviet Union never shut up about how much it "cared" about civil rights for African Americans.

To us, their hypocrisy is obvious and hilarious. But somehow we take the same garbage seriously when it's coming from our own government. We shouldn't. As a top U.S. official (anonymously) explained, when it comes to violating these great universal rights, "The countries that cooperate with us get at least a free pass. Whereas other countries that don’t cooperate, we ream them as best we can."

The rest of the world can see this, and gets as hypocritically mad about our hypocrisy as we do about theirs. As the New York Times recently reported, neither Russia nor China "views American democracy promotion as reflecting any genuine commitment to freedom; instead, both perceive it as a selective crusade to undermine governments that are hostile to the United States." (Or as a U.S. official wrote during the Cold War, the Soviet focus on America's "Negro problem" "serves political ends desired by the Soviet Union and has nothing whatsoever to do with any desire to better the Negro's position.")

So when it comes to us supporting David Miranda as he's being persecuted by the UK, he's out of luck. I doubt we'll say anything even if the British start quartering soldiers in his house.

P.S. Like Agent Mulder, I still want to believe! Tara, Alec, Marie – if any of you want to say anything, I'd love to update this. You know how to reach me.

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