By Spencer S. Hsu and Sara Kehaulani Goo
Washington Post Staff Writers
Friday, August 11, 2006
The domestic response to yesterday's arrests in Britain drew cautious praise for the Bush administration's often beleaguered Department of Homeland Security.
Secretary Michael Chertoff yesterday emerged as the undisputed public face and voice of the U.S. government response in Washington, outlining a "well-planned and well-advanced plot" in carefully choreographed statements that began before dawn and continued with television interviews into the night.
U.S. authorities detailed dramatic new security measures for airline passengers and, for the first time, elevated the color-based threat warning system to red -- its highest position -- for commercial flights from the United Kingdom to the United States -- indicating a "severe" risk of terrorist attacks.
The actions drew few complaints yesterday, compared with other terrorism alerts since 2003, which often provoked conflicting or critical remarks from authorities such as the attorney general, the mayor of New York City and congressional committee chairmen.
And where Homeland Security officials in the past have received widespread ridicule for issuing vague, nationwide terrorism alerts that put the public and state and local governments unduly on edge, the department yesterday calibrated its advisories to focus on what Chertoff said was a "precaution against any members of the plot who may still be at large" and on preventing "any would-be copycats."
"By all accounts and measures, [the warning system] seems to have worked well this time. . . . It's a big step away from the early stages of the system," said Donald F. Kettl, director of the University of Pennsylvania's Fels Institute of Government, echoing comments by industry, state and local officials. "Here's a case where the dots seem to be connected very well and very carefully," Kettl said.
An aviation industry official who has been critical of past airport security efforts called yesterday's coordination "impressive" and better than at any time since the 2001 attacks. The official, who spoke on the condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to discuss the government briefings that began Wednesday night, said contingency plans enabled airports to add bomb-sniffing dogs, personnel and public information measures by dawn.
State and local officials and members of Congress -- including New York City Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg (R), D.C. Mayor Anthony A. Williams (D) and Sen. Joseph I. Lieberman (Conn.), the ranking Democrat on the Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee -- credited the department's work and notification procedures.
To be sure, in coordinating the response among a host of government agencies, private airlines and airports, the Homeland Security Department faced a narrower set of problems than the catastrophic operational challenges posed by Hurricane Katrina.
Former Clinton and Bush counterterrorism czar Richard A. Clarke; Rand Beers, national security adviser to the 2004 presidential campaign of Sen. John F. Kerry (D-Mass.); and former Virginia governor James S. Gilmore III (R), who chaired a congressional task force on terrorism, noted that the apparent disruption of the plot does not obscure continued weaknesses in local and state preparedness, information-sharing, and aviation security, particularly in explosives-detection technology.
"Catching potential terrorist attacks at the last minute should not be a point of pride, but rather a point of departure," Beers said.
Clarke said the near miss of an attack potentially more lethal than those of Sept. 11, 2001, "reminds us of the failure of the Bush administration to improve our homeland security, including aviation security."
A Homeland Security official acknowledged that concern over improvised explosives has grown while research has lagged.
The Transportation Security Administration installed more than 90 walk-through explosives-detection machines at checkpoints over the last year. But the so-called "puffer" machines cannot detect well-packaged liquid explosives, nor were they designed to identify common bombmaking components such as acetone or hydrogen peroxide, said the official, who spoke on the condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to discuss details publicly.
"The essence of the issue comes back to: Do we have the technical capabilities of detecting those particular elements, and are our procedures adequate to prevent those elements from getting onto the plane? In both of those answers, no," the official said. "The only course of action we have is to abolish those liquids and gels."