Does Britain Leave Doors Open for Terrorism?

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Britain is one of the most open societies in the West. But some think its openness has made the country vulnerable to attacks by homegrown terrorists. British Home Secretary Jacqui Smith talks about the terrorist threat.


Whatever happens with the Muslim world's engagement with the West, Britain may get there first. It is one of the most open societies. It has been the scene of attacks by homegrown terrorists, and its government is straining to integrate its substantial Muslim population. Dealing with all this is the job of our next guest. Jacqui Smith is Britain's home secretary. She oversees everything from police to immigration, and she's been visiting the United States this week. We found her in New York. Welcome to the program.

Secretary JACQUI SMITH (Home Secretary, Britain): Good morning.

INSKEEP: I want to ask about a proposed change to British law that perhaps underlines the stakes here in dealing with terrorism. Your government wants to change British law to allow suspects to be held for up to 42 days without charge, which is far longer than people are ordinarily held in the United States. Why make that change?

Sec. SMITH: Well, what we actually want to do is to make sure that given what is a serious and substantial threat from terrorism in the U.K., our police, our law enforcement agencies have actually got the tools that they need in order to investigate that. And actually, there's pretty broad agreement that, given our system, sometimes, you know, there are certainly circumstances in the future where we might need to investigate for longer than 28 days in order to be able to bring a charge against somebody in order that they can then go on to be convicted. And I'm very keen that we should do this now with the sort of discussion and consultation we've had, rather than having to respond to an emergency in the future.

INSKEEP: And one reason I wanted to begin with that is because, of course, Britain's government is dealing to a greater extent than America's government -or perhaps many other governments - with its own citizens, and concerns about its own citizens. Can you describe for us how grave you believe the homegrown terror threat is in your country right now?

Sec. SMITH: Well, we do believe that we've got a serious and sustained threat from terror. That's why our country threat level is currently at severe, only the second highest level that there is. The direct general of our security services recently described the situation in the U.K. with our security services monitoring 2,000 individuals, 200 networks, 30 plots being actively prepared now. But what we've also recognized is the response to this cannot be solely about arresting our way out of the problem. It has to be about looking at over the longer term how we prevent people in the U.K. from turning to violent extremism, from supporting terrorism. And that's why a very important element of the work that we're now doing in the U.K. is precisely about how we can prevent that radicalization, how we can work in communities in the sorts of spaces and institutions where this radicalization might happen, in order to prevent it.

INSKEEP: And there are many parts of that we can discuss, but let me ask about this. You are trying to get immigrants and the children of immigrants and the grandchildren of immigrants to embrace British values as you see them, in a different way. Is part of the problem that it's difficult to define at this moment in history what it means to be British?

Sec. SMITH: Well, yes it is. And it's a lively discussion that we're having in Britain at the moment in a whole range of areas of government. But I'm pretty clear that, you know, those values include a respect for the rule of law. They include, you know, principles of fairness, of freedom of speech, of the right to be able to follow your religion - all of those things are important. And, of course, the way in which we counter terror and build our communities have to represent those values. The terrorist threat is successful if we let it impact on, you know, I think the quite considerable cohesion and strong sense of community and strong sense of values that we share in the U.K. across very many communities.

INSKEEP: You know, we were taking with a colleague who's a British national, and he said that in many people's minds what defined Britain at one time was the empire, the monarchy and the Church of England. One of them is gone, one of them is weakened, and as for the Church of England, the archbishop of Canterbury was excoriated in recent days for suggesting that it's unavoidable that Muslim law, sharia law, might end up being enforced in some ways in Britain.

Sec. SMITH: And I disagree with him, as I think did most political parties in the U.K. I disagree with him about that. I think, actually, a fundamental part of what it is to be British is to recognize the rule of law that is determined democratically and through the systems that we have, you know, the secular systems that we have in the U.K. So, you know, I think I've been clear about what I think British values actually are.

INSKEEP: Although, let's look at his statement a little more closely. When he says it's unavoidable that Sharia law will be applied, is there some sense in which this is informally already true? In some neighborhoods, among some people in some communities, you have Muslin women who accept restrictions on themselves, which would be in accordance with their religion. You have many other examples you could give.

Sec. SMITH: Well, I think there are very many countries, actually, across the world where that may be the case. The argument is not whether or not there are people who look to elements of that. The argument is whether or not, as the archbishop said, it is unavoidable that that should become part of our system of law. My argument is that it is avoidable, that, actually, it's quite important that we make a strong argument that the rule of law in Britain is actually based on that law that is determined democratically, precisely because that's what binds us together. It's what gives us an element of cohesion which sort of enables people to integrate on a fair basis within British society, which is at the heart, of course, of what I'm wanting to achieve.

INSKEEP: And let me come back to the question that we're dealing here with British citizens. We're dealing with Europeans, European nationals. Given that you've said there are a couple thousand, at least, people of serious concern inside Britain, is the American Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff right to suggest, as he recently did, that it might be advisable to have greater security checks on Europeans when they fly to the United States?

Sec. SMITH: Michael Chertoff and I have had a very good relationship, actually, over the time that I've been in this job. I've been able to meet him whilst I've been in the U.S. I was very clear with him about the value that we place on people being able to travel freely backwards and forwards. You know, I think that we can work together very positively in order to make sure that we reduce that risk.

INSKEEP: Are you saying please don't impose broad restrictions, but we'll try very hard to help you track individuals?

Sec. SMITH: I think that's probably a fair summary of what I am saying. And actually, I think that's very much where Secretary Chertoff was coming from in terms of his discussions with me yesterday.

INSKEEP: So you haven't won your point, but you feel like he's listening?

Sec. SMITH: Well, I - the relationship that I have with Secretary Chertoff is not one about who's winning or losing. You know, we're both very, very clear about what our objectives are. And we're also very clear that the citizens of both the U.S. and the U.K. are safer because of the close relationship and good working relationship between our two countries.

INSKEEP: Jacqui Smith is Britain's home secretary in charge of security, immigration and much more. Thank you very much.

Sec. SMITH: Thank you.

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