By Mary Jordan
Washington Post Foreign Service
Saturday, September 30, 2006
LONDON, Sept. 29 -- Charles Falconer, one of the highest-ranking justice officials in Britain, said Friday that there is a "great divergence" in how Britain and the United States are handling the fight against terrorists, describing the U.S. approach as a willingness "to do things beyond the law."
Falconer said in an interview that the practices of holding terrorism suspects without charge at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, and interrogating them in secret CIA prisons have made it "harder to identify to the world what your values are."
Holding the posts of lord chancellor and secretary of state for constitutional affairs, Falconer is widely seen as a spokesman for the British government, the closest U.S. ally in the war in Iraq. He is scheduled to visit Washington next week, where he will meet with Attorney General Alberto R. Gonzales and Chief Justice John G. Roberts Jr. and deliver a speech at Georgetown University.
His visit will come shortly after Congress approved legislation to establish new policies for dealing with terrorism suspects and set rules for their legal rights. The U.S. Supreme Court in June struck down the Bush administration's program for trying suspects before military commissions.
Falconer recently called Guantanamo Bay "an affront to the principles of democracy." In a lengthy interview Friday, he said Britain had learned hard lessons in the 1970s when it pursued a hard-line course in response to the bombing campaign of the Irish Republican Army. Police got new leeway in interrogation, while suspects' civil protections were reduced. In multiple cases, innocent people were convicted and sentenced.
"We suffered badly in the '70s and '80s," Falconer said, adding that the United States was among those criticizing the British approach at the time. He also noted that IRA fundraising "shot up" during this period.
Among the examples of miscarriages of justice that he mentioned were the Guildford Four, four men wrongly convicted in 1975 for a pub bombing that killed five people. They were imprisoned for 15 years before being exonerated; they said at their trial that they had been tortured by police into signing false confessions.
Prime Minister Tony Blair has since apologized for this and other legal cases.
"Keep your justice system as pure as you can," Falconer said. "This is advice to a friend from the experience we have had."
Falconer has gone further in his criticism than his close friend Blair, who has called Guantanamo Bay an "anomaly that has to end."
Blair has been faulted by critics here for not using his closeness with President Bush to urge the United States to shut down Guantanamo Bay right away and end extrajudicial methods in terrorism cases.
Anthony King, a professor of government at Essex University, said it is "very hard to read" whether Falconer in his statements is carrying a message for Blair. But King said, "My impression is the British government would like to separate itself for those particular ways the U.S. government is fighting the war on terror."
Falconer said both countries value democracy and rule of law. But some U.S. practices are "undercutting the very values both countries adhere to," he said.
Asked whether these practices had hurt U.S. prestige in the world, Falconer said, "it is something that is raised a lot."