US impressed by Britain's 28-day detention law

PUBLISHED : Wednesday, 16 August, 2006, 12:00am
UPDATED : Wednesday, 16 August, 2006, 12:00am

Attorney-General Alberto Gonzales has ordered a side-by-side review of American and British counterterrorism laws as a first step towards determining whether further changes in the US are warranted.

The alleged plot to blow up airliners bound from Britain to the US has highlighted differences in legal policies between the two allies, with American officials suggesting that their 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 charge, where American law generally requires that a suspect held in the civilian court system be charged or released within 48 hours.

Secretary of Homeland Security Michael Chertoff said on television on Sunday that he believed bringing American laws more closely into line with those of Britain, particularly regarding the detention of terror suspects without charge, could help deter threats in the US. 'I think certainly making sure that we have the ability to be as nimble as possible with our surveillance, it's very important,' he said on Fox News Sunday. 'And frankly, their ability to hold people for a period of time gives them a tremendous advantage.'

Mr Gonzales echoed those remarks on 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.' But he also said: 'Is it consistent with our constitution? We have to look at that.'

The Justice Department said later that he was directing its officials to study the issue by comparing the two countries' laws. 'The attorney-general has committed to a review to evaluate and compare the terrorism laws in the United Kingdom with those in the US,' said spokesman Brian Roehrkasse.

'Any changes to our existing terrorism laws would only be considered after extensive review and discussion to ensure that such a change would be necessary, appropriate and constitutional.'

The review could set up another fierce debate in US Congress over the extent of the executive branch's anti-terrorism powers.

Meanwhile, the FBI is reviewing evidence seized in the British investigation of the air terror plot, US law enforcement officials said.

No links to any Americans had surfaced, they said.

In the days leading up to the announcement last week that Britain had foiled the alleged plot, the FBI deployed several hundred agents to identify any American connections, the officials said.

The Justice Department sought double or triple the usual rate of court-approved wiretaps to monitor the communications of American suspects, they added.

A senior US law enforcement official, speaking on condition of anonymity because the investigation is ongoing, said on Monday that 'we're satisfied at the moment that there's no direct connection' between the British plot and anyone inside the US.

Several episodes within the US in recent days stirred speculation in the news media about a possible terrorism link. They included a search for 11 Egyptian students who had failed to report for an academic programme in Montana, and the arrest of three Texas men found in Michigan with about 1,000 cellphones in their van.

All the Egyptian students have since been arrested on immigration charges, and law enforcement officials said on Monday that they were confident that neither the Egyptian students nor the cellphone suspects arrested in Michigan had any ties to terrorism.