WASHINGTON, Aug. 14 — Attorney General Alberto R. Gonzalez on Monday ordered a side-by-side review of American and British counterterrorism laws as a first step toward determining whether further changes in American law are warranted.
The plot to blow up airliners bound from Britain to the United States has highlighted differences in legal policies between the two allies, with American officials suggesting that their British counterparts have greater flexibility to prevent attacks.
Newly revised British counterterrorism laws, for instance, allow the authorities to hold a suspect for 28 days without charges, where American law generally requires that a suspect held in the civilian court system be charged or released within 48 hours.
Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff said in appearances on the Sunday morning news programs that he thought bringing American laws more closely into line with Britain’s, particularly regarding the detention of terror suspects without charges, could help deter threats at home.
“I think certainly making sure that we have the ability to be as nimble as possible with our surveillance, it’s very important,” Mr. Chertoff said on “Fox News Sunday.”
“And frankly,” Mr. Chertoff added, “their ability to hold people for a period of time gives them a tremendous advantage.”
Mr. Gonzales echoed those remarks Monday in an appearance before a veterans group in Chicago. Asked about Britain’s 28-day policy, he said, “That may be something we want to look at,” according to an account by The Associated Press. But he also said: “Is it consistent with our Constitution? We have to look at that.”
Gonzales and Chertoff struggle mightily to overlook their own well-documented, years-long and chargeless imprisonment, rendition and torture of — although many hardly deserve this description — terrorism suspects, foreign and domestic, as well as the illegal tapping of phones and investigation of finances enabled by presidential “signing statements” or merely national ignorance. We’ve held Jose Padilla and dozens, if not hundreds, of others in our prisons at length without charges, and it’s unlikely to the point of impossibility that some terrorist somewhere has overlooked this; so which would dissuade this theoretical terrorist more — being held without charges for 28 days by the Brits, or disappearing for several years into some nameless black hole of waterboarding and beatings run by the Americans?
Talking about what “American law generally requires” in this context is like noting that the Ten Commandments says “Thou shalt not kill.” This being the case, it’s not a little offensive watching Gonzales’ and Chertoff’s attempts at innocence via earnest yearning to adopt British techniques that might stem terrorism. It probably confuses the British, too.