LONDON, UK — Sometime before a plane from Berlin touched down at Heathrow Airport on Sunday morning, the British authorities placed a call to Washington to report that they would be detaining one of the passengers.
David Miranda, 28, is not a US citizen. However, he is the partner of a person of great interest to both the United States and UK: Glenn Greenwald, the journalist reporting on revelations about both countries’ surveillance programs from the former NSA contractor Edward Snowden.
Snowden is now in Russia, where he’s been granted temporary asylum.
Britain’s “heads-up,” as a White House spokesman called it, has raised questions about an issue that’s been floating at the edges of the widening debate over the secret information Snowden has disclosed.
When it comes to national security, just how close is the “special relationship” between the US and the UK?
Alan Rusbridger, editor of Greenwald’s employer, The Guardian, on Monday disclosed that the British government had ordered the newspaper to destroy computer hard drives containing digital copies of the Snowden documents. Jeremy Heywood, Britain’s most senior civil servant, approached the Guardian at the direction of Prime Minister David Cameron, reports said.
More from GlobalPost: UK spy agency made us smash our hard drives, Guardian editor says
Home Secretary Teresa May defended Miranda’s detention on Tuesday.
"I think that it's absolutely right that if the police believe that somebody is in possession of highly sensitive stolen information that could help terrorists, that could risk lives, or lead to a potential loss of life, that the police are able to act, and that's what the law enables them to do," she told the BBC.
Such a move would be virtually unthinkable in the United States, where the First Amendment offers far greater protection of the press than British journalists enjoy. White House officials distanced themselves Tuesday from the UK’s treatment of the Guardian.
"That's very difficult to imagine a scenario in which that would be appropriate,” spokesman Josh Earnest said at a press briefing when asked if the US government would ever force a private media company to destroy files.
Greenwald, however, derisively referred to the UK as a “good little poodle” — a choice of phrase in a Twitter exchange about the incident that left little doubt as to whose lap the dog might be sitting on.
Britain and America have enjoyed a remarkably close political partnership in the decades since World War II.
Like any union, theirs has endured its share of strains and fissures. However, a number of revelations this year — not only from Snowden’s trove of documents — have painted a picture of a relationship so close it’s making many uncomfortable.
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Earlier this month, The Guardian disclosed that the United States paid Britain’s top spy agency $150 million in the last three years for work on its behalf, possibly including actions that would be illegal on US territory.
Britain actively encouraged that role, noting in one classified document the need to exploit “to the full our unique selling points of geography, partnerships [and] the UK's legal regime.”
Such back-scratching may not have been one-sided.
In February, the London-based Bureau of Investigative Journalism uncovered an anti-terror program that quietly stripped a dozen dual citizens of their British nationality. Two were killed overseas in US drone strokes very soon after.
A third, a young former London community worker named Mahdi Hashi, surfaced in a US detention center in Djibouti before being transferred to a federal court in New York on terrorism charges.
The speed with which Washington took action against those individuals once the UK disavowed them has raised suspicions.
“It’s a very disingenuous way [for the British government] of wiping their hands clean,” says Asim Qureshi of CagePrisoners, a London-based group that works with those affected by the war on terror.
“It is acquiescing to actions by the American government that it itself would consider illegal,” Qureshi said in an earlier conversation with GlobalPost.
More from GlobalPost: The curious case of Mahdi Hashi
The degree to which the two countries are outsourcing to each other work that would be unlawful under their own laws can’t be fully known. Like any relationship, it’s impossible for an outsider to know exactly what goes on in the most confidential discussions.
“The only answer I can give is the catch 22 — I’m not in the intelligence world, so I don’t know what the evidence is, and if I was in the intelligence world, we wouldn’t be having this conversation,” said Paul Cornish, professor of strategic studies at the University of Exeter.
“It would be naive to say that there haven’t been shortcuts and pragmatic decisions in the past 70 years of the US-UK relationship,” Cornish added. “It would seem to be unlikely that two countries in such a close relationship for so long would not have done that.”
The question has come to a head in the British government’s recent clash with The Guardian over its reporting on the NSA and GCHQ surveillance programs.
David Miranda has said he will take legal action to challenge his detention at Heathrow and prevent the police from examining the information they seized from his mobile phone, computer, hard drives and other electronics.
In an interview with The Guardian, he expressed his personal belief that he was held at the request of the US authorities.
White House spokesman Josh Earnest denied the claim, but refused to confirm whether the United States had been given copies of any materials from Miranda’s confiscated items.