Elements of the U.S. government were given a “heads-up” before the British government detained David Miranda, the Brazilian partner of Glenn Greenwald, for nine hours over the weekend, White House Deputy Press Secretary Josh Earnest said Monday. He also declined to condemn the action.
“There was a heads-up that was provided by the British government,” he told reporters in the midst of a spirited exchange with reporters. “So this — again, this is something that we had an indication was likely to occur, but it’s not something that we requested. And it’s something that was done specifically by the British law-enforcement officials there.”
Earnest said there were “classified, confidential conversations” around the detention, but would not state whether the U.S. government expressed displeasure with the action. He would not say why the British informed the American government before the detention.
Miranda was detained for nine hours under that country’s Terrorism Act while transiting through Heathrow Airport, and had a range of electronic devices confiscated. He was traveling home from Germany, where he had stayed for a time with Laura Poitras, an American documentary filmmaker who has worked with Greenwald on stories about the National Security Agency. Greenwald is the author of a series of articles about the U.S.’s intelligence efforts at home and abroad based on information given to him by Edward Snowden, a former U.S. intelligence contractor.
Earnest would not say whether U.S. intelligence services have reviewed any documents obtained from Miranda’s devices. “I’m just not in a position to talk to you about the conversations between British law-enforcement officials and American law-enforcement officials,” he said.
Earnest denied that the U.S. government was involved in the decision to detain Miranda. “What you’re referring to is a law-enforcement action that was taken by the British government,” Earnest said. “The United States was not involved in that decision or in that action.”
Earnest would not state whether Miranda is on any U.S.-government operated travel watch-lists.
A selection of the exchange with reporters Monday:
Q: Thanks, Josh. Can you state with authority that the U.S. government has not obtained material from the laptop that British authorities confiscated from Glenn Greenwald’s partner or from any of his personal devices they also confiscated?
EARNEST: I’m just not in a position to talk to you about the conversations between British law-enforcement officials and American law-enforcement officials.
Q: So you can’t rule out that the U.S. hasn’t [changed its?] material?
EARNEST: I’m not in a position to do that right now, no.
Q: You also didn’t condemn — the White House didn’t condemn the detention. Is the President pleased that he was condemned — or that he was — I’m sorry, is the President pleased that he was detained?
EARNEST: Well, again, this is a — this is a law-enforcement action that was taken by the British government, and this is something that they did independent of our direction, as you would expect, that the British government’s going to make law-enforcement decisions that they determine are in the best interests of their country.
Q: Was the White House consulted or given a heads-up in advance?
EARNEST: There was a — there was a — there was a heads-up that was provided by the British government. So this — again, this is something that we had an indication was likely to occur, but it’s not something that we requested. And it’s something that was done specifically by the — by the — by the British law-enforcement officials there.
Q: Is it at all concerning to the President, the — sort of a nine-hour detention?
EARNEST: Well, again, this is a — this is [an] independent British law-enforcement decision that was made. I know the suggestion has been raised by some that this is an effort to intimidate journalists and we’ve — with all of you, have been undergoing a pretty rigorous debate on a range of issues related to an independent media, an independent journalist covering the application of national security rules, questions about national-security leaks and other classified or confidential information and policy.
The President, I think, in the course of that debate, has made pretty clear his support for independent journalists, the important role that independent journalists have to play in a vibrant, democratic society like ours.
He’s also talked about the responsibility of the government to protect the right of independent journalists to do their job. So that’s something that the President feels strongly about and has spoken candidly about in the past.
But again, if you have specific questions about this law-enforcement decision that was made by the British government, you should direct your questions to my friends over there.
Q: Why was the United States given a heads-up by the British government on this detention?
EARNEST: Again, that heads-up was provided by the British government. So you’d direct that question to them.
Q: Right, but in — was this heads-up given before he was detained or before it went public that –
EARNEST: Probably it wouldn’t be a heads-up if they’d have told us about it after they’d detained him.
Q: So it’s fair to say they told you they were going to do this when they saw that he was on a manifest?
EARNEST: I think that is an accurate interpretation of what a heads-up is.
Q: Is this — is this gentleman on some sort of watch list for the United States on TSA? Can you look that up?
EARNEST: You’d have to check with the TSA, because they maintain the watch list. And I don’t know if they’d tell you or not, but you can ask them.
Q: Would — if he’s on a watch list for the U.K., would it be safe to assume then that he’s been put on a watch list for the United States?
EARNEST: I’d — the level of coordination between counterterrorism and law-enforcement officials in the U.K. and counterterrorism and law-enforcement officials in the United States is very good, but in terms of who is on different watch lists and how our actions and their actions are coordinated is not something I’m in a position to talk about from this [stand?].
Q: Did the United States government — when given the heads-up, did the United States government express any hesitancy about the U.K. doing this, about the U.K. government doing this?
EARNEST: Well, again, this is — this is the — this is the British government making a decision based on British law on British soil about a British law-enforcement action. So they gave us the heads-up –
Q: Did the United — when given the heads-up, just said –
EARNEST: — they gave us the heads-up — they gave us the heads-up, and this is something that they did not do at our direction, is not something that we were involved with, this is a decision that they made on their own.
Q: Did the United States discourage the action?
EARNEST: I’m not going to characterize the conversations, you know, between law-enforcement officials in this country and law-enforcement officials there, other than to say that those conversations occurred, but — and to point out the fact that this was a decision that they made on their own.
Q: But the — is it fair to say that if the United States had discouraged it, you’d tell us?
EARNEST: No, because I think it’s fair for you to determine that those kinds of law-enforcement conversations are not ones that we’re going to talk about in public.