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An NSA Drama Goes Crackpot

A Commentary By Froma Harrop

Friday, August 23, 2013

Journalist Glenn Greenwald's partner was detained at London's Heathrow Airport for nine hours -- no waterboarding or electric shocks, just pointed questions and confiscation of David Michael Miranda's computer gear. That prompted Greenwald to threaten Britain with more of his writings.

"I think they'll regret what they've done," he said. Miranda, meanwhile, accused British authorities of "psychological violence."

Greenwald has enthralled paranoids on the right and the left with torrid tales of government perfidy. He's a skilled enough communicator to leave the impression of revealing, or being about to reveal, appalling truths without actually delivering the goods.

But at some point even his ardent fan base will have to step back, take a look at the sweaty denunciations, the self-dramatization and the "opera buffa" plot, and conclude that this story is ripe for rapid deflation. Some critics call the style "outrage porn."

Miranda's experience was unpleasant, no doubt. But these inconveniences can happen when you're a mule carrying stolen national security documents, as Miranda was doing. In reporting the detention, the Guardian newspaper, Greenwald's employer, neglected to note that Miranda had just visited a filmmaker holding a trove of classified information provided by leaker Edward Snowden -- until The New York Times did.

Greenwald describes his ordeal: "We spent all day -- as every hour passed -- worried that he would be arrested and charged under a terrorism statute." In the bloody annals of civil disobedience, has anyone suffered so, as has Greenwald and his mate?

At first reading a Guardian headline, "Glenn Greenwald: a failed attempt at intimidation," I thought it referred to Greenwald's comical efforts to intimidate the British government. In reading on, it was Greenwald's vow to stand strong against inquisitive security personnel.

One is struck by the unapologetic wall of unity displayed by the American and British authorities in this case. There are frightening threats out there, and no sane government is going to stop trying to find them. Grown-ups here and in Europe understand the seriousness of Snowden's stealing of classified intelligence.

Currently a guest of the Russian government, and previously China's, Snowden insists, "I never gave any information to either government, and they never took anything from my laptop." His host, former KGB official Vladimir Putin, would never do that. (How Snowden was ever allowed within 1,000 miles of classified information never ceases to amaze.)

Now one can't ignore the possibility of abuse or overreach in our surveillance programs. That they must be secretive by their very nature adds to frustration in the public's understanding. But the wildest of the accusations against them thus far have withered to old complaints or minor ones, when important details were brought in.

For instance, why this great shock over the government's collection of telephone records? The Supreme Court ruled 34 years ago that Americans have no expectation of privacy regarding the numbers they call. The phone company has them!

On the right, Sen. Rand Paul, R-Ky., is flailing arms over rumors of an alleged vast National Security Agency conspiracy against privacy. It is vast to those who don't count.

A 12-month NSA audit found only 2,776 incidents out of about 240 million queries a year. Also, well over half of them involved foreigners visiting the U.S. and talking on their foreign cellphones. Law permits the monitoring of communications in other countries.

A theater critic once said that every play has a self-condemning line. Greenwald recently offered two, both joining the alleged police state with high romance: "To start detaining the family members and loved ones of journalists is simply despotic." And, "Abusive government thugs bent on destroying the press detained my poor partner just because we're together!"

Psychological violence, indeed.

Follow Froma Harrop on Twitter @fromaharrop. To find out more about Froma Harrop, and read features by other Creators writers and cartoonists, visit the Creators webpage at www.creators.com.

COPYRIGHT 2013 THE PROVIDENCE JOURNAL CO.

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