With Congress getting ready to question the scope of the Bush administration's powers in the so-called war on terror, a review certainly is in order. However, Britain shouldn't be held up as a model for the United States. That's because the Labour government of Prime Minister Tony Blair has shown an extraordinary streak of authoritarianism, and it started well before the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks.
In Britain, under the Protection from Harassment Act of 1997, sending more than two unsolicited e-mails to a person constitutes harassment.
In Britain, under the Terrorism Act of 2000, police are allowed to stop and search people in a designated area, which could be set up anywhere without warning.
In Britain, something called an Anti-Social Behaviour Order (ASBO) allows people to be hauled into court and threatened with prison terms of up to five years for offenses as trivial as playing a stereo too loudly or not keeping the front yard tidy. It can also be used to go after people who make remarks the government deems harmful to public order. And once a person is arrested for any offense, from littering to murder, that person must surrender a DNA sample to police, by force if necessary.
In Britain, under the Civil Contingencies Act of 2004, the prime minister has the power to declare a state of emergency and seize assets without compensation, ban public assemblies, forcibly move or detain people from designated areas, and set up special courts. Parliament does not have a say in the matter until seven days after such an emergency is declared.
In Britain, under the Inquiries Act of 2005, if Parliament decided to investigate the actions of a prime minister, the prime minister would have the power to set the terms of the investigation, suppress evidence, close the hearings to the public and even terminate the investigation without explanation.
Britain already has one of the most extensive surveillance camera systems in the world, but the Blair government is also pushing for a national ID card. The daily use of that card would be connected to a central government database that would effectively track and log the details of every person's life. Those details can be inspected at will by any law enforcement agency.
If Chertoff's model for the United States is Britain, we should all be concerned.
Under the guise of preserving social order, the Blair government has created a legal system where due process and the presumption of innocence no longer exists, where the standards of evidence are lowered to allow rumor and hearsay, where people can be punished even if no law was broken. His Britain is a place where total surveillance is becoming commonplace and individual rights come second to the needs and desires of the state.
Unfortunately, the British model looks mighty attractive to an administration that is more interested in preserving its power than in preserving the Constitution and has zero respect for civil liberties and the rule of law.
Is this the sort of nation we want to live in? Are we willing to allow our civil liberties to be taken away in the name of safety and security?
A free society always has to balance freedom and security, but it must always err on the side of freedom. But in fearful times, as Ben Franklin long ago observed, people are all too willing to sacrifice freedom for security. In the end, they end up with neither.