July 14, 2005

July 14, 2005 | Commentary on

London off Guard

Last week's subway bombings in London have been an awful reminder that vigilance against terrorism must be the order of the day in the long haul. This is why the measures we take against terrorists, and the laws we put in place to give our law enforcement agencies the right tools are so vital. For Americans, it is surely an appropriate time to feel grateful for the much-maligned Patriot Act, the renewal of which today is being marked up in the House Judiciary Committee.

The British government has tragically and belatedly realized that the country's investigators and police have not had all the tools they need. Monday Prime Minister TonyBlair staple barn door after the horse has fled. Even so, it is clearly needed.    

The British approach to terrorism that prevailed after September 11 has failed to sift the wheat from the chaff, i.e. law abiding Muslims from terrorists. While there are no definite answers yet in the London bombings, there is wide agreement among investigators that by their precision and sophistication, the bombings bear Al Qaeda's imprint. 

A chilling three-part series in the London Sunday Times, based on leaked government documents, indicates that secret terrorist recruiting is proceeding vigorously on British university campuses, particularly among disaffected second-generation immigrants. Those with technical and engineering skills are particularly sought after. The report suggests that one percent of Britain's Muslim population may be potential terrorists - that is 16,000 individuals out of a population of 1.6 million - that 10,000 have attended terrorist conferences and that 3,000 have visited Osama bin Laden's training camps in Afghanistan. 

Now, British common law is the legal tradition from which American constitutional and legal traditions have flowed. It has a strong emphasis on privacy and on individual rights vis-a-vis the state, i.e. freedom of expression, freedom of assembly, etc. Indeed, we can all be grateful for this tradition, which has kept Anglo-Saxon countries safe from the abuses and terrors that have been visited on the citizens of Continental Europe in the name of the state. The British bristle at the thought of identity cards, and have not traditionally even been obliged to carry their drivers licenses when operating a car.

Anti-terrorism laws previously aimed at the Irish Republican Army, the primary perpetrators of terror in Britain in the past, were harsh and gave the British government the power of detention without trial. But policy has recently veered in the opposite direction. The dedication to freedom of expression and assembly have gotten in the way of cracking down onterrorist networks and on the vicious inflammatory rhetoric of certain Muslim clerics, who incite hatred and violence from mosques in the heart of London and other cities. 

In other words, Britain's fairly weak Prevention of Terrorism Act has not been enough, and Blair is now asking parliament to grant the government greater preemptive powers. Under the current British presidency of the European Union, he plans to ask thesame of his EU partners. Here Europeans could look to the United States for a more effective model.   

Before the House of Representatives today is a reauthorization of the Patriot Act. (The Senate has already passed its version of the bill.) The act's sunset provisions were put in place to allow Congress to review potential abuses of the civil rights of American citizens under the expanded investigative powers given the FBI and other federal agencies. Despite much fear mongering on both sides of the political spectrum - though mostly from the left and the American Civil Liberties Union - no official abuses of the Act have been documented. No librarians, for instance, have been sent to jail for refusing to divulge the reading matter of bibliophiles. Accordingly, the reauthorization process ought to proceed expeditiously.


The Patriot Act allows us to stop the bad guys before they can strike, including by enhanced intelligence sharing among agencies that before September 11 were hoarding their information. (This was the single greatest problem identified by the 9/11 Commission report.) It also allows counterterrorism experts to use tools employed in other criminal investigations. And it includes surveillance techniques that can capture Internet and cell phone use. Ordinary, innocent citizens have absolutely nothing to fear from it.

 

The lesson of London is that we still need the Patriot Act - and will for years to come. Maybe Europeans will now realize that they need something like it, too.

Helle Dale is director of the Douglas and Sarah Allison Center for Foreign Policy Studies of the Heritage Foundation. 

About the Author

Helle C. Dale Senior Fellow for Public Diplomacy
The Margaret Thatcher Center for Freedom

First appeared in The Washington Times