A British court ruled yesterday that if national security issues are at stake, the UK government may look through items seized from the partner of a journalist who has written stories about documents leaked by former National Security Agency contractor Edward Snowden.
It was not clear who gets to decide whether national security is an issue.
Lawyers for David Miranda, the partner of Guardian reporter Glenn Greenwald, said the items seized from Miranda last weekend when British authorities detained him at Heathrow Airport contain confidential information. It asked the High Court to prevent the government from "inspecting, copying or sharing" the data.
Instead, the court decided to allow the government to view the items on the condition the material was being examined on "national security" grounds. The injunction runs until August 30.
Miranda's lawyer, Gwendolen Morgan of the Bindmans law firm, claimed a partial victory in the ruling, arguing the government now has seven days to "prove there is a genuine threat to national security."
"Confidentiality, once lost, can clearly never be restored," Morgan had argued at the hearing. "If interim relief is not granted, then the claimant is likely to suffer irremediable prejudice, as are the other journalistic sources whose confidential information is contained in the material seized."
Greenwald has written about NSA programmes in the United States using files disclosed by Snowden, who now has temporary asylum in Russia. The Obama administration wants Snowden to face trial in the United States for the leaks.
The attorney representing British police at the hearing, Jonathan Laidlaw, made clear yesterday that police were already scanning through the tens of thousands of pages of digital material they had seized from Miranda - and were only partway through it. He insisted the material was of significant concern to national security.
"That which has been inspected contains in the view of the police highly sensitive material, the disclosure of which would be gravely injurious to public safety and thus the police have now initiated a criminal investigation," he said. "There is an absolutely compelling reason to permit this investigation to continue."
London police have argued that Miranda's detention was "legally and procedurally sound."