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U.K. Officials Discuss Terror Arrests

Courtesy CQ Transcripts Wire
Thursday, August 10, 2006 1:22 PM

SPEAKER: JOHN REID, U.K. HOME SECRETARY

DOUGLAS ALEXANDER, U.K. TRANSPORT SECRETARY

PAUL STEPHENSON, DEPUTY COMMISSIONER, METROPOLITAN POLICE

STEPHEN NELSON, CHIEF EXECUTIVE OF BAA

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(JOINED IN PROGRESS)

REID: ... can I just introduce those on the platform?

To my right is Paul Stephenson, who is the deputy commissioner of the metropolitan police. My left, Douglas Alexander, secretary of state for transport. And then to my far left is Stephen Nelson, who's the chief executive of BAA.

Douglas and I will make a short statement, and we will then throw it open to questions. And I thank you for coming at such short notice.

In holding this press conference this morning and all the other information that we're putting out, we are trying to balance the need to ensure that the public have as much information as we are able to give them, while recognizing that these matters are not only ongoing operationally, but are also likely to be the subject of future criminal proceedings.

You will recognize, therefore, that we do not want to pre-empt either the criminal proceedings or in any way to cut across the ongoing operations. We are, therefore, trying to get a balance in how much information we put out and in what form. Nevertheless, we do want to share as much as possible through you with the British public and for the wider public.

As I said this morning, the police, acting with the security service, MI5, have carried out a major counterterrorism operation overnight to disrupt an alleged plot to bring down a number of aircraft through mid-flight explosions.

Had this plot been carried out, the loss of life to innocent civilians would have been on an unprecedented scale.

The police operation is complex, and it is ongoing. Twenty-one people have been arrested and are currently in custody in relation to this specific operation.

The decision to take action was an operational matter for the police and for the security service. But it was, of course, taken with the full knowledge of the prime minister, the deputy prime minister, the secretary of state for transport, as well as myself.

The prime minister has briefed the president of the United States on the operation, and Douglas and I have been in close contact with the U.S. homeland security secretary and the transportation secretary.

We also have been in touch, of course, with our shadow opposition spokesman, and I have spoken to the leaders of our two main opposition parties, all of whom have offered their support for our endeavors. And, therefore, at this important time we have a completely united body politick, which I think is important.

REID: I have chaired two COBRA meetings.

Just a word of explanation on COBRA. COBRA is a means for ministers and officials, including the police and security services, to take and to ensure that we have taken the up-to-date facts and information and the decisions which are necessary to be taken. It is chaired by the minister responsible; in this case myself, as home secretary.

It met, obviously, last night into the early hours of this morning, through the night with officials, and again in the early hours of this morning, with Douglas and I in attendance.

I would like to explain why the Joint Terrorism Analysis Center, who set the threat level, took the decision to raise the U.K. threat state to its highest level, that of critical.

While the police are confident that the main players have been accounted for, neither have they nor the government are in any way complacent. This is an ongoing, complex operation, and we all believe we have taken the necessary precautionary measures to protect the public, both by the actions we have taken and by the maintenance of that threat level for the time being at the highest possible level.

The police and the security services, together with government officials, are working around the clock to prevent any further terrorist activity.

I would like to take this opportunity to pay tribute to the skill and professionalism of the police and the security services. We owe them all a great debt of gratitude.

The government, the police and the security service will continue to give 100 percent effort. Of that, you can be sure.

We also need you, the British public, to remain ever vigilant as you are our widest, closest and strongest form of surveillance and intelligence. So most of all, I would like to thank the great British public and our many visitors from overseas for their patience and understanding as we implement these necessary security measures.

On that, let me just pass to the secretary of state for transport, say a few words, and then we'll throw it open to everyone.

ALEXANDER: Thank you, John.

And let me begin by echoing those words of gratitude, both for for the forbearance and understanding of the British people, but also, of course, to the security services and, indeed, to the police, here represented with us on the platform today.

Earlier this morning, we issued instructions to U.K. airports and the airlines that operate from them requiring new security measures to be put in place. The seriousness of the threat gave us no choice but to require these stringent measures to be implemented with immediate effect.

This morning, I have been in continual contact with key aviation industry figures, and my department is continuing to work with airports and operators at all levels and in all locations of the United Kingdom.

With us on the platform today, as John mentioned, is Stephen Nelson, the chief executive of BAA, who will be able to answer questions on the operational steps that are being taken in light of the new security measures required.

We greatly value the cooperation that has been shown so far both by industry and by passengers.

I recognize that these measures are already affecting many families and individuals seeking to travel at this busy time of year. I would assure you, however, that every effort is being made to address the operational challenges being confronted by our airlines and our airports.

While this work is under way, I would urge all passengers to show understanding in the inevitably difficult circumstances that they will face.

Thank you.

REID: OK, thank you, Douglas.

We'll throw it open to some questions now, if we can.

QUESTION: Secretary of State, you have said the main players have been accounted for, but in no way could you remain complacent. Could you give us some sense of how many alleged plotters are still out there, what their number is, and to what extent they're on your radar screen, and to what extent they can operate outside what one might call the main cell which you have allegedly rounded up?

REID: Well, I think as a general statement, the price of securing protection for the whole country is constant and eternal vigilance, and I said so before this operation and I will repeat it after the operation.

As regard to the specific plot, I've already indicated we think that the main players are in custody. But we should always err on the side of caution, which is one of the reasons that we kept the threat level at its highest and critical level.

Perhaps I could pass to Paul to ask him to make any comments on the specific nature of your questions regarding this particular alleged conspiracy.

STEPHENSON: Thank you, Home Secretary.

I'd echo the home secretary's words here. The Metropolitan Police perspective when it comes to terrorist operation and our colleagues across the country, we are satisfied with what is essentially the first phase of a very significant and sophisticated investigation.

But I think, again, I would echo the words you just heard. It would be entirely wrong to be complacent. And I think we've got to do is not speculate on where that investigation might take us.

And, of course, this sits within the wider threat that we're already aware of and that the country has already been very much made aware of, not least by the home secretary in recent times.

QUESTION: Home Secretary, can I ask you, you made a speech yesterday in which you said this country faces as big a threat to civilians since World War II? Would you say now that the people of this country should be prepared, that we are at war with an extreme cell (inaudible)?

And would you say that there are other, many more, hundreds more, dozens more similar plots under way that you know of?

And, thirdly, do you think that the heads of the Muslim communities are doing enough a year from 7/7 to crack down on this extreme cell?

REID: As I said yesterday, we are involved in a long, wide and deep struggle against very evil people. This is not a case of one civilization against another, one religion against another. It is a case, in general terms, of terrorists who wish to use evil methods against the rest.

And, therefore, there is common cause in this country among all the people of this country, from whatever background, religion or ethnic dimension, because the threat is common to us all.

And, indeed, internationally, most of the people who have been massacred are actually Muslims, and in many cases Muslim men, women and children in places far from here.

So this is a common threat to the British people, and it will be met best by the common unity of purpose and opposition to terrorist methods by all of the British people.

And that is a general statement I made yesterday. That I stand by.

As regards the specific nature of any investigations on the operation that is ongoing, I'm not going to make any comment on that, because the operations are for the police and the investigations will eventually be for the judiciary judge.

Now I'm going to take one over here.

QUESTION: (OFF-MIKE)

REID: Douglas, and then Paul.

ALEXANDER: Well, the very reason that we have taken the security measures that I described early this morning was to secure flights from Britain's airports.

We have been determined to send a signal that, notwithstanding the challenges that we do face putting in place that new safety regime, that we will continue to operate the British airports with planes coming in and leaving the United kingdom. But we believe that the steps that we have taken are the basis on which people can feel secure when traveling to or from the United kingdom.

REID: Paul, do you want to step in?

STEPHENSON: Just a brief comment, Home Secretary.

REID: Yes.

STEPHENSON: I think our actions last night were quite clearly about reducing and mitigating (inaudible) our public. We think we've done that by acting on intelligence.

In doing that (OFF-MIKE) to go about their business. Our plea would be for the public to remain calm, remain vigilant, but do go about their business so that we are not defeated in this way. And I that echoes exactly what the commissioner and the home secretary just said.

QUESTION: (OFF-MIKE)

REID: We have raised the threat to the maximum of critical and will maintain it there as a precautionary measure, primarily.

Although we -- by which I mean the police and the security services -- think we have the main players in this particular conspiracy, you can never let this stage be certain, and we, therefore, want to make sure that alongside the operational interventions we have made, that we have maintained a very high level of vigilance and some of the necessary restrictions in the aviation sector, which Douglas has set out this morning.

So I don't think people should be panicked by that, but I hope they will be reassured by that, that even when we think we find a successful intervention at this stage, that we are not willing to be complacent, but are maintaining it at a higher level.

Paul, do you want to say anything about that?

STEPHENSON: Only perhaps to say that you asked, "Should the public be frightened?" No. What the public should be is calm and vigilant.

STEPHENSON: We go back to what we've said on many times previously: It is the community (inaudible) and it is our citizens that (inaudible) terrorism.

We need our citizens to be vigilant, but also need them to keep this in some sort of perspective, and we do need to go about our daily business. Otherwise we lose and the people (inaudible) win.

QUESTION: (OFF-MIKE) that there are (OFF-MIKE) trying to get Muslims to cooperate in a much better way with authorities in terms of (OFF-MIKE) of terror and at the same time to encourage Muslims to come forward in terms of passing the information about possible terrorists.

How much we can say that you have succeeded on this front? And then (OFF-MIKE) this operation?

REID: Well, I don't want to comment specifically about this operation for reasons that will be perfectly obvious, both operationally and judicially. But as I said at the beginning, all of the people of this country, from every religious background and every ethnic background, have a common threat against them from terrorism.

Terrorists will not distinguish between those of different religions or men or women, or combatants or civilians, or children or adults. In general, terrorists will massacre or murder anyone who stands in their way.

So in the face of that common threat and on the basis of the common values of the British people and the commitment to democracy, I'm sure we'll get a common populous to assist the police in any inquiries that they have to make at any stage into any of these conspiracies.

QUESTION: (OFF-MIKE)

REID: I'm going to ask, on the specifics, Paul here. I would just make one general statement, which Douglas and I will know only too well.

It is a difficult judgment for people to make -- our security service and our police, in particular -- as to the timing of any intervention in a given operation.

Move too early, you may not know the full scope of who are involved, and you may provoke those you don't know into taking the very action you want to avoid. And move too early and not have immediate success, and you stand to be criticized by everyone. Don't move, and you run the risk of terrible consequences, and you will then be more condemned by everyone.

So I hope that everyone in Britain who is with great fortitude suffering the inconveniences they got today, will -- as I know they will, in all of these occasions -- be very quick to understand the difficulty of those judgments being made by our police service, and a lot slower than some commentators to condemn them when it doesn't result in 100 percent success.

REID: So we don't treat any of these with any degree of complacency.

On this occasion, I'll ask Paul if he wants to comment on the specifics of the timing of that judgment. I suspect not, but...

STEPHENSON: You suspect right, Home Secretary.

We are in the very early stages of a complex investigation. And I'll remind you of the words of Deputy Assistant Commissioner Peter Clarke, who I know has just briefed you, who, as you are aware, is leading this investigation.

I think it did reach a critical point last night when the decision was made to take urgent action to disrupt what we believed was being planned. The prime motivation for that action was, as always, public safety. We thought it was absolutely essential to take that action last night.

REID: Douglas?

ALEXANDER: I would just echo the sentiments John has communicated in the sense of the need for us to work and to stand together in the hours and days ahead. If you look at the arrivals gate at Heathrow Airport at any day of the week, you see people of every race, religion, creed and color. Terrorists do not seek to discriminate.

And in that sense, I would hope and believe that just as out of the horror of 7/7 it was a matter of immense pride the extent to which Britain pulled together, that in these challenging eras and days ahead we will see the same sentiment and the same forbearance and stoicism being showed by all the people of Britain.

REID: And I would just point out that the deputy prime minister, who I've spoken to last night and this morning again, is engaged in contacting some of the parliamentary representatives of the communities, both of the ethnic groups and of those areas where the arrests have been made. So the DPM's already engaged on that as well.

QUESTION: (OFF-MIKE)

REID: I actually wouldn't like to comment on any of the details of those who have been arrested.

Paul?

PAUL: I'd like to echo exactly those words. The reality is, as I've said already, this is a very early stage of the investigation, and I wouldn't want to answer that question at all.

QUESTION: Do you have any evidence of foreign involvement?

STEPHENSON: We are certainly cooperating with foreign agencies.

QUESTION: (OFF-MIKE)

STEPHENSON: I'm not going to comment further on that.

QUESTION: (OFF-MIKE)

STEPHENSON: I think it would be entirely inappropriate to make those comparisons.

What we're dealing with is a specific incident, a specific plot based on our intelligence, and we've acted on that. This stands alone. I think such comparisons would be inappropriate and perhaps even (inaudible).

QUESTION: (OFF-MIKE)

STEPHENSON: Intelligence of 9/11 -- I am tasked with the responsibility of policing London and with the national responsibility working to the commissioner. As far as we're concerned in the U.K., in the U.K. context, this is unprecedented.

QUESTION: (OFF-MIKE) There was a plot that was broken up in I think 2000 to simultaneously blow up a number of airlines over the Pacific. Ramzi Yousef, the head guy, was captured later.

And I wondered, do you consider this to be right out of that same playbook for copycat plot or (inaudible) a more direct connection between (inaudible) and now?

REID: I don't want to comment on the derivation of it, or any copycat nature or any comparison, and you'll understand why we avoid that.

But we have made it plain this morning that we thought this was a significant and substantial threat to life in considerable numbers through a wave of attacks on airplanes in mid-flight.

Now, I don't really want to go beyond what we said this morning on that, for all of the reasons I've explained earlier.

But we are aware of the history of things that have been tried in the past.

QUESTION: (OFF-MIKE)

STEPHENSON: It was a little bit unclear (ph), but I think you're asking about the origins of those that are in custody. I think it would be entirely proper at this stage in the investigation to comment on that, but simply identity is part of the early stages of the investigation.

QUESTION: (OFF-MIKE)

STEPHENSON: If I may, Home Secretary, I'm using the phrase "unprecedented," and I think it's proper to do that in terms of this operation. I didn't refer to the surveillance operation; I'm referring to the totality of this and the threat it posed to the public.

REID: OK, I'm going to just ask on one point, which is the action that's being taken in the aviation sector; if, Douglas, at this stage, or indeed, Stephen, want to say anything about that before we go to the last question.

ALEXANDER: Sure.

I would simply echo one of the remarks I made at the outset, that notwithstanding the reality of the inconvenience and difficulty being encountered by passengers at airports across the United Kingdom at the moment, I can assure you that efforts are being made at every level to try and expedite the way forward.

I think it might be helpful for Stephen to run through some of the principle airports, just to give you a sense of the extent to which, notwithstanding the new security regime that has been put in place, there are considerable efforts being made to make sure that planes are both taking off and landing.

NELSON: And let me just (inaudible).

It's worth mentioning that this is the first time the aviation industry and the airport industry in the U.K. has faced a security mandate of this scale and severity. But this is an industry that's very familiar with working in close cooperation with government in pursuit of what both the secretaries of state (inaudible) common purpose and determined vigilance.

So what that means today is that we've had some very severe delays at all of our airports. But to give you a sense of where some of the major airports represented by BAA are, all our airports are open for business, but travelers, regrettably, are facing very severe congestion at points at the airport and clearly upon departure.

Heathrow is not taking inbound shorter flights, principally from Europe. We've put a timing on that of 3 p.m., which may be up for review. But flights are leaving from Heathrow and we're working flat out against very carefully controlled processes to ensure that we clear the capacity.

Stansted and Gatwick are both very congested and we're facing the same problems on the runway, where, in effect, we have planes which are parked up and backed up. But the job is not closing the airport, but actually reducing the congestion. And therefore, we need to unite in the same (ph) to customers, which is, please, can you work with us, and we ask for your forbearance at these very tricky times, while we're working to resolve the backup.

REID: OK, and one last one.

QUESTION: (OFF-MIKE) Do you have any plans to review security at British airports, perhaps invest in new and improved kinds of security, particularly with regard to handbagging?

ALEXANDER: Well, obviously, the immediate challenge that we faced was responding to the circumstances we confronted last night. And that's being reflected in the advice we've provided not just to the airlines, but also to the operators of which Stephen has spoken.

That remains our immediate priority, and you'll understand why given the threat level that is being described to you today.

Of course, in tandem and in parallel with that work addressing the immediate threat level, consideration is being given as to the longer-term response that will be necessary. But I think it would be inappropriate at this stage for the focus to be on anything other than the immediate response being provided by the airlines and the airports on the basis of which Stephen has spoken.

REID: Ladies and gentlemen, thank you for your attendance here. And through you can we just finally thank again, the British public and all the many visitors here for the toleration of what are very inconvenient, but absolutely essential, measures to protect the public? Thank you.

END

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