Who's Better at Fighting Terror?

The U.S. or the U.K.? The conviction of 3 would-be airplane bombers in Britain has commentators debating which country is more secure.

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If anyone needed a reminder that the "liquids ban" at airports was rooted in something extremely scary, look no further than the three British men who were convicted on Monday of a plot to blow up transcontinental flights with liquid explosives. After praising British intelligence workers, commentators from both sides of the pond debated the relative effectiveness of differing counter-terror approaches in the U.K. and the U.S. While the early takes favored the Isles, enthusiasm faded over the next few days. The question remains which, if either, of the two countries can be viewed as entirely successful at combating extremist violence in the post 9/11 era.

Hail Britannia!
  • MI5 Trumps the CIA figures Crispin Black in the Guardian. He calls out the former U.S. Administration for ignoring British rule-of-law in favor of extralegal American expediency: "The suspicion is that Bush and Cheney had little interest in bringing terrorists to trial because they preferred other methods. Why bother with a court room when you can use covert action or Camp X-Ray?"
  • Warrants Trump Warrantless Glenn Greenwald's vindication comes in his response to a question about the validity of NSA. surveillance that was posted, then removed in disgrace from the New York Times Lede. Affirming the superiority of the British way, he writes: "So here -- with this British Terrorist conviction -- we have the perfect template for how Terrorism can be effectively combated within the rule of law. Authorities learned of the plot through legal investigations involving warrants and FISA court supervision."
  • No Problem boasts Andy Hayman, former head of anti-terror operations for the Metropolitan Police, in The Times. He recollects increasing, unhelpful anxiety and impulsiveness on the part Washington as British intelligence officers calmly and methodically surveilled the suspects for months in 2006. Hayman is even brazen enough to admit taking a vacation in the middle of the operation: "But four days into the holiday, on August 9, we were sitting down to dinner, the cork just out of the wine bottle, when that phone rang," with news of the first suspect's arrest.
  • Cheney's Error?  Reacting to Hayman's piece, Scott Horton wonders if the difference between British and American responses to the case can chalked up to one person's miscalculations... "If so, it would be another demonstration of Dick Cheney’s one percent theory, which was constantly at loggerheads with law enforcement authorities advising a prudent, careful investigation that would both build a case to support convictions and take the terrorist operations out by their deepest roots.
Not So Fast...
  • Actually, The Yanks Have It in at least one area, contends Britain's foremost source of opinion, the Economist. The editors point out that British law prevents the use of wiretapped phone conversations as evidence in court, which could have led to a speedier, and cheaper conviction of the suspects in this case. "Pressure is growing within Britain to change the rules of evidence to permit this."
  • The Enemy Within  The Telegraph's Philip Johnston isn't convinced that the attack shows Britain is any better at preventing terror than the U.S., at least when it comes to stemming its sources. On the contrary, he notes that the convicted terrorists were homegrown. Putting it succinctly: "However uncomfortable it might be to confront, the fact remains that the greatest threat to security both here and in America is based in Britain ...The 9/11 attacks in America came from outside; our enemy is within."
  • Court Reform  Melanie Phillips uses her column in the Spectator to condemn the British legal system, particularly the courts, for their unwillingness to pass tougher, more specialized laws governing evidence and the status of terror-suspects. She even comes perilously close to calling for the kind of military-style tribunals that the Bush administration found itself in hot water over: "Can we defend ourselves against such an unparalleled threat by what is in effect a legal game? Is this not a category error? Do we not need to devise new structures, such as inqusitorial trials, to cope with a phenomenon which fits neither the conventional definitions of terrorism nor war?"
This article is from the archive of our partner The Wire.