British System Pays Off Against Terror
The New York Times explains key differences between the U.S. and the British legal systems.
The differences in counterterrorism strategy reflect an important distinction between the legal systems of the United States and Britain and their definitions of civil liberties, with MI5 and British police agencies given far greater authority in general than their American counterparts to conduct domestic surveillance and detain terrorism suspects.The net effect of these differences is that the British are more likely to watch a plot develop, perhaps expand to include more plotters, who are given time to engage in acts that make a conviction likely.
Britain’s newly revised terrorism laws permit the detention of suspects for 28 days without charge. Prime Minister Tony Blair’s government had been pressing for 90 days, but Parliament blocked the proposal. In the United States, suspects must be brought before a judge as soon as possible, which courts have interpreted to mean within 48 hours. Law enforcement officials have detained some terrorism suspects designated material witnesses for far longer. (The United States has also taken into custody overseas several hundred people suspected of terrorist activity and detained them at Guantánamo Bay, Cuba, as enemy combatants.)
At the same time, Britain has far stricter contempt-of-court laws intended to prevent the prejudicing of trials. Anything that is said or reported about the suspects rounded up this week could, the police contend, prejudice their trial and prevent their prosecution.
Andrew C. McCarthy, a former terrorism prosecutor at the Justice Department, said he believed that British authorities were willing to allow terrorist plots to progress further because, if an attack appeared imminent, they could immediately round up the suspects, even without formal criminal charges.
“They have this fail-safe,” he said. “They can arrest people without charging them with a crime, which would make a big difference in how long you’d be willing to let things run.” He said F.B.I. agents, who are required to bring criminal charges if they wanted to arrest a suspect, had a justifiable fear that they might be unable to short-circuit an attack at the last minute.
This in contrast to American officials who will break up a plot as early as possible -- and perhaps prematurely.
McBride notices the bizarre irony of finding this story appearing in the New York Times, a newspaper that has been staunch in its opposition to giving law enforcement more tools to deal with terrorism.