Nick Adams '06 Studies Post-9/11 Police Powers in Three Countries

Story posted April 18, 2006

Nick Adams '06
Nick Adams '06

Most Americans have strong opinions about the USA PATRIOT Act. Nick Adams '06 has accomplished what few others, including members of Congress, have managed: He's read it.

"Some of the stuff in the PATRIOT Act surprised me, like how easy it is for the government to get a hold of your information," Adams said. "Conversely, I was surprised how much of it already existed but was extended. Now it's much easier for them."

Adams has spent more than a year immersed in the history, text, and context of U.S. anti-terrorism legislation, in addition to similar legislation in the United Kingdom and Japan. He wanted to compare the different ways these countries have reacted to recent terrorist attacks and the threat of future attacks, not as a way to judge their rate of success but "simply to discover how and why they have developed particular anti-terrorist legislation."

"A lot of people have written about which countries have done what, but no one had looked at what's on the books," Adams said.

His research began during an off-campus study stint in London. A course on individual rights, including a look at the PATRIOT Act, piqued his interest, and he decided to compare laws in the U.S. and the U.K.

"There's a lot of controversy around the PATRIOT Act, what it could and couldn't do," Adams said. "There was a similar debate in the U.K. to a lesser extent."

Comparing American and British laws seemed natural, because he was already in London, and the texts are written in English. He added Japan because it also is a democracy that has dealt with terrorism.

"It's also Henry Laurence's specialty," Adams conceded, referring to the associate professor of government and Asian studies who is his advisor on the project. "But getting translations from Japan proved harder than I thought."

To provide context for the laws, Adams first compared the government structure of the three countries. The United States, for example, has a deeply rooted constitution which lists specific rights and provides for judicial review of laws. The U.K. has a common law system, which is centrally located in Parliament. It has no Bill of Rights and no judicial review comparable to the U.S. Supreme Court. Instead, the House of Lords serves as the high court, and if they find a law to be "incompatible" with common law, they trust Parliament to change it. Japan's government falls somewhere between, with a parliament, a prime minister and a strong constitution.

The United States is the only one of the three that has both federal and state laws. U.S. and British laws attempt to define terrorism; Japanese laws do not.

The three countries' historical experience with terrorism is also important to note.

In the U.K., anti-terrorism laws were drafted to address domestic concerns about the Irish Republican Army in Northern Ireland. At its height in the early 1970s, domestic terrorism in Northern Ireland averaged more than 1,500 bombings a year; and in 1974, there were 41 attacks in England.

"The U.K. has been dealing with terrorism for so long that it has a long list of anti-terrorism acts," Adams said. "People in the U.K. are more willing to make sacrifices to get things done. In Northern Ireland the attitude is, 'Just do what you need to do,' because there was so much violence happening all the time."

Rather than simply piling on more legislation as the threat changes, British Parliament continually reviews and revamps the laws already on the books. This is significant on several levels, Adams said. The laws themselves go beyond mere sunset provisions to mandate independent review boards whose recommendations are taken seriously. Their reviews include extensive statistics to determine where and how often police abuses occur. Adams believes this could be a model for Congress.

"In this respect, U.S. lawmakers may see a way to ease public concerns over individual rights infringement as a result of the PATRIOT Act, although parliamentary sovereignty may make such efforts more feasible in the U.K.," he said. "The [U.S.] Justice Department is not required by law to disclose statistics on its use of newly expanded police powers, and thus has understandably elected to give limited and incomplete data."

Until recently, "Japan had nothing on the books at all," he said. "They regarded terrorism as a public health threat." That is not to say that Japan had no experience with terrorists; Japanese civilians have been targeted in hijackings, kidnappings, and embassy attacks since the 1970s.

"Japan has a very specific constitution," Adams said. "After the sarin gas incidents, they drafted a specific law dealing with that one cult - the Act Regarding the Control of Organizations Which Committed Indiscriminate Mass Murder - which allowed them to tap their phones and monitor them."

Police powers have expanded significantly in all three countries. The September 11th attacks created "a policy window used by the Bush administration to quickly move the [PATRIOT Act] through Congress," Adams said. It became law just 45 days after the attacks.

"Recent legislation in all three countries reflects the increasing concerns over international terrorism," Adams said. "Accompanying this legislation has been related crackdowns on foreigners. Other historical themes common to these three countries have been a reluctance to make permanent changes that tangibly impede individual rights, and an even greater reluctance to single out what in American legal terminology are considered 'suspect classes' (racial, ethnic, and religious groups).

"In each country, laws aimed at thwarting terror limit individual behavior," Adams said. "Information is less private, one's person and effects can be searched more easily, and the ability to transfer assets, speak publicly, or join certain groups without restriction has been curtailed."

These have been eye-opening discoveries for Adams.

"I've learned that governments don't always think super-long-term," he said. "A policy window opens, and things like the PATRIOT Act move swiftly."

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