Less than 24 hours after taking office in June, British Home Secretary Jacqui Smith was facing a terrorist plot. Two car bombs were found by police in Central London. The next day, two men crashed a Jeep into Glasgow airport, raising Britain's terror alert to "critical." At the time critics applauded Smith for her cool composure in resolving the crisis. Since then Smith has endured her share of criticism, particularly after she judged the streets of London "unsafe" to walk around after dark. As Britain's Home secretary (and the first woman to hold the post), she is responsible for national security, immigration and tackling crime. On Sunday, she flies to Washington to meet with U.S. Secretary for Homeland Security Michael Chertoff and U.S. Attorney General Michael Mukasey to discuss terrorism and the U.K.'s controversial new terror proposals. NEWSWEEK'S Jessica Au spoke with Smith at the Home Office in London on the eve of her trip. Excerpts:
NEWSWEEK: You will be meeting with Secretary Chertoff and Attorney General Mukasey. In what ways do the U.K.'s policies on combating extremism differ from that of the U.S. government's?
Jacqui Smith: Well, we haven't fallen out about anything yet! In fact, I see Secretary Chertoff and the U.S. as one of our closest partners in terms of the work that we do in countering terror, and our security agencies work very closely together to share information. I think that we have strongly shared values, and we have a strong condemnation of terrorism.
Will there ever be a need for a Department of Homeland Security in the U.K.?
Not perhaps in the same way as in the U.S. But don't forget that less than a year ago we reorganized our government so that now within the Home Office we have an Office of Security and Counter-Terrorism that coordinates across the government our response to terrorism, in particular, as well as across broader issues related to security. We did that because we wanted the focus in one department to strategically lead across government.
Your government recently announced that it was issuing civil servants with a new counterterrorism phrasebook, which effectively avoids a lot of the "War on Terror" language used by the current U.S. administration. Why was it deemed necessary to introduce a new lexicon on terrorism?
We need to be very strong in the resources that we give to both our policing and our security services in order to counteract the immediate threat. But if we are to counteract the long-term threat from terrorism in this country, we need to prevent young people from being radicalized and turning to terrorism. We can't do that on our own as government. We need to enlist the support of communities in the U.K., who might have a Muslim faith, but who share our values, believe in the rule of law and recognize the threat from terrorism. I want to build a strong alliance in doing that, and, therefore, sometimes in the past some of the communities have said that some of the language that has been used, if it implies that what divides us as communities in the U.K. more than what joins us, might have prevented that from happening.
How do you think a new U.S. administration next year, regardless of party, will change their approach on the so-called War on Terror?
That will be one of the things that will be interesting to consider when I am in the U.S. I would expect that whoever becomes the new administration in the U.S. will, firstly, maintain their very strong and very important links with the U.K.; secondly, their very strong commitment to countering terror; and, thirdly, the recognition that this needs to be done in a way that recognizes international partners and democracies. It will be very important for us to engage early with the new administration to continue the very good relations that we have had up until now. I am optimistic that that will happen.
This January marked the sixth year of America's use of its base at Guantánamo Bay, Cuba, for detaining terror suspects. Would you be interested in working with a new U.S. administration to close the camp?
The U.K. government has been clear that we want to see the closure of Guantánamo. And we have made that clear to President Bush, as well. We have certainly tried to play our part in helping to take back, for example, U.K. citizens and U.K. residents who have been in Guantánamo, to support the action that would be necessary to empty the camp. We have taken a practical approach to supporting our political objective, which is to see the eventual closure of Guantánamo Bay.
Yet there are still three U.K. residents who remain detained at Guantánamo--including Binyam Mohammed, Shaker Aamer and Ahmed Belbacha. What is your government doing to securing their release, considering that no other country is likely to claim them?
We took back those people who were U.K. nationals. We then went further and took back people who were not U.K. nationals but who had a clear period of residence here in the U.K. I think it is less clear that others have a strong link with the U.K. and a right to be here. Legally, they aren't [residents] and they haven't been. I do, incidentally, think that there are other international partners who haven't done as much as we've done in order to take people back.
Guantánamo has been called a human-rights scandal. Do you think the camp will leave a huge tarnish on Bush's legacy?
I think that's for people in the U.S. to judge. In the U.K., we have wanted to take a slightly different approach. The approach for tackling terrorism has not just been a military approach but also through our criminal-justice system. What I don't doubt is the shared commitment in tackling terrorism that there is between our countries.
You are currently seeking to push through controversial new counterterror measures that seeks to raise the limit terror suspects can be detained without charge from 28 days to 42 days. Why is this necessary?
There is a risk in the future--given that terrorist plots are becoming more complicated and interrelated--where we might face a situation where 28 days isn't enough time to complete an investigation and to bring people to charge. We haven't needed longer than that up until now. What we are proposing is not to legislate to extend that time period but to legislate now to bring in a reserve power that if it were necessary could be triggered for a very short period of time, only two months, which would then allow for individual applications to a judge to allow us to hold somebody for longer. We've moved a very long way from where we started in our proposals on this. We're doing it in a way that is precautionary but also very proportionate.
A recent survey of Labour M.P.s suggests that enough of them might vote against the government to defeat the bill in the House of Commons. Why press ahead in the face of so much opposition?
Because I am the Home secretary, and my responsibility is the security of this country and its people. So I think the mature thing to do now is to legislate something now, which will never come into force unless it is needed in the future.
It sounds like you are proposing legislation to deal with a hypothetical situation.
No, it is recognizing that risk exists. It is recognizing that we face a severe threat from terrorism. And the scale and nature of that is, as of this moment, continuing to grow. There are many cases in legislation where you legislate for an eventuality under the basis that it may very well occur. In these circumstances, we're saying that all we're intending to do is to take a reserve power that wouldn't even come into force unless that eventuality happens. If I'm wrong, if we never need it in the future or if we are successful in the other ways that we have in countering terrorism, it will never come into force. Nothing lost. If I am right, or if we aren't as successful as we need to be in all the other methods and we do need it in the future, it is there at the time that we need it.
In an interview last month with The Sunday Times, you were asked if you would feel safe walking the streets of London after dark, and you replied: "Well, I wouldn't walk around at midnight, and I'm fortunate that I don't have to do that." Would you feel more safe walking the streets of New York or Paris after dark?
I would feel very safe walking around the streets of London. That was not the question that I was asked, incidentally. If you look at the transcript, it goes on to say that I would feel safe, and that I have walked around the streets of London and, in fact, around the area where I live, in Redditch. From everything that I hear about New York, it is increasingly safe. I was in Paris recently, and I walked around there. But my responsibility is crime reduction in the U.K., and I feel safer walking around the streets of London now than before this government came to power.