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Calm Heads vs. Headless Chickens


This weekend, we were riveted by the news out of Britain – a string of terrorist attacks timed to put a macabre mark on the transition of power from Tony Blair to Gordon Brown. These were anxious days, filled with concern for our friends and colleagues across the water. And once again, Britons have given us a reason to be impressed.

But first: what to make of these attacks? Larry Johnson, an old counter-terrorism hand, isn’t much impressed:

the current lot of muslim extremists in the UK had major problems building a reliable, effective incendiary device. Is Al Qaeda on the decline?

An intelligence analyst close to No Comment breaks down the wake of the recent terror attacks in London and Glasgow:

Most notable is the amateurishness of the plans–though the scale of coordination does bear watching. It points to Al Qaeda’s growing ability to inspire disparate and disenfranchised groups of individuals, far more of whom are in Britain and on the [European] continent than in North America. The poorly designed plans suggest the impact of the most likely attacks [will be] smaller (and the attacks themselves can be thwarted)… but the ultimate ability of counterterrorism and homeland security efforts to meet a rising terrorism challenge remains limited. One additional point–should it be determined that any of the individuals involved are Pakistani and traveled to the region for “training”/indoctrination, the United Kingdom will undoubtedly increase its own pressure on a Musharraf government that can ill afford it.

And another significant point that two analysts noted in discussions with us this morning: British officials are becoming steadily more cautious in sharing information concerning their investigations with their American colleagues. Why, I asked?

“On two occasions in the last year, Bush Administration figures went running to the press with highly sensitive information, seriously compromising major operations. In one case they sprang a trap prematurely, causing dangerous targets to escape. They’re still at large. The Brits are convinced that their Bush Administration counterparts are interested in domestic politics first, battling terrorism second. And they’re almost certainly right about that.”

Our analyst friend, and CNN’s Christiane Amanpour, and many others have documented the rise of “home-grown” Islamic radicalism in Britain, noting that a similar trend is lacking among Islamic communities and neighborhoods in the United States. Given the spate of terror attacks Britain has suffered since 9/11, one might look for mounting antagonism between the British society as a whole and Islamic society within the UK. Simple discrimination, racial profiling, the implementation of a different legal system for processing terrorism suspects – none of these are to be condoned, but reasonable observers might expect some of these things to occur in a nation under significant terrorist threat.

Contrast this expectation with a statement by Peter Clarke, head of the 31,000-man strong London Metropolitan Police Service’s Counter Terrorism Command:

It is no exaggeration to at all to say that new information is coming to light hour by hour. It would not be right for me to give a running commentary on the investigation. However, I shall, of course, give more information, when it is right to do so, but I must respect the fact that there are now people in custody, and so due process must take its course.

Due process must take its course. This differs a bit from what we’re used to hearing in back in the United States. For when America detains terrorists, there is precious little talk about due process. Instead there is a stunning rush to judgment, as suspects are branded as dangerous terrorists in breathlessly convened press conferences. Indeed, we’ve seen two such episodes in the New York metropolitan area in the last few months.

New York University’s Center for Law and Security sponsored a comprehensive study of the U.S. Justice Department’s handling of terrorism cases. Its conclusions were an eye-opener. Most of these cases have gone nowhere, and in a very large proportion of them, the wildly hyped accusations at press conferences failed to pan out. The study serves to sustain the caution expressed by British officials: these people seemed more interested in spinning public opinion for political ends than in battling terrorism.

The composure of British law enforcement officials in the face of serious terrorism is an example for Americans to follow. Certainly, many of these Brits are seasoned veterans of terrorist troubles close to home – starting with the crisis in Northern Ireland, the stilling of which is likely to be reckoned Tony Blair’s greatest and most important accomplishment. British law enforcement agencies have remained faithful to the principle of due process in a far more earnest way than their Bush counterparts. The Blair Administration has made a number of controversial proposals to curtail civil liberties. But it has proceeded to do this through open, public process – by submitting its initiatives to parliamentary review and wrestling with the magnificently cantankerous old coots in the House of Lords. They’ve been tough-minded, aggressive, but also faithful to constitutional precepts.

And they’ve consistently demonstrated calm heads in time of crisis. They stand up very well in comparison to the department of headless chickens in Washington.

Evan Magruder contribued to this post.

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