Chertoff Holds a News Briefing at National Airport

CQ Transcripts Wire
Friday, August 11, 2006; 6:19 PM

AUGUST 11, 2006




CHERTOFF: Hello, everybody. I thought I would come take a look for myself at what the lines were like at Reagan.

One of the things we've obviously been tracking since we put into effect the measures at the airport that you've seen in the last 36 hours is the impact it's having on the traveling public.

Obviously our principal concern is safety, but we also want to be as friendly as possible to the traveler. We want to make it convenient. We want to make sure people are still comfortable flying.

And so all of this is part of the design and the execution of this particular security enhancement.

What I'm pleased to say is my general tracking of the flow of people at the airports in terms of wait times has been positive. We've been tracking it pretty regularly.

I know there were certainly some long lines early yesterday. My understand is generally it's gotten better during the course of yesterday and today. Here, certainly, today it looks like things are moving well and people seem to be in good spirits.

We understand this is an imposition and an inconvenience. On the other hand, I think everybody understands, and certainly the people I'm speaking to -- let's see. Certainly, the people I've gotten to speak to today walking around the airport seem to be understanding and even appreciative of the measures we're taking to protect them.

I can tell you we are working -- and we started working yesterday -- on refinements we could make in order to somewhat reduce any additional inconvenience.

CHERTOFF: And I think in due course TSA is going to announce some changes. I don't want to suggest that they're going to be earth- shattering, but we're going to move to try to make this as simple and as easy as possible, as quickly as possible.

What we need to do in the somewhat longer term is analyze the nature of the devices in question, look to see how we can calibrate our systems to take account of these developments, and then, with that in mind, try to ultimately come back to a regime of security that will give the maximum amount of freedom to the travelers.

Again, I want to reiterate, flying is safe. It is safe precisely because of the measures we're taking here and are being taken elsewhere in the world. And the commitment of people at TSA is to keep it safe.

And I guess the last comment I would make, what I said to the folks at TSA was this: This has really been a defining test for the organization. It was stood up in the wake of 9/11, and clearly, as with any standup, it's had some big challenges. But this was the first big test. And in a remarkably short period of time -- less than six to eight hours -- we were able to implement and execute very significant changes internationally so they could be in place by the morning, yesterday.

We've been able to do it, I think, in a way that has kept people's spirits up and that is understandable.

So that's a very, very positive step by TSA and a tribute to its leadership. And I want to express my personal thanks to Kip Hawley. We've spent a number of extremely long nights together recently, and he's great to work with.

QUESTION: Have you changed your assessment since yesterday on whether or not there is an Al Qaida connection with this plot or whether or not there is a U.S. connection?

CHERTOFF: With respect to the Al Qaida connection, while I think we do have our own views of this, because it's an ongoing investigation, there's a lot of material to be examined, and also, frankly, because of the rules that govern legal proceedings in Britain, I think we ought to withhold reaching a final conclusion until we've got all the evidence in.

As I said yesterday, and I haven't changed my opinion on this, certainly in terms of the complexity, the sophistication, the international dimension and the number of people involved, this plot has the hallmarks of an Al Qaida-type plot.

CHERTOFF: And it is certainly reminiscent of what was the early 1990s plan to blow up a dozen airliners in the Pacific, which was directed by Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, who was, of course, a senior leader of Al Qaida.

QUESTION: What about the U.S.?

CHERTOFF: Regarding the U.S., as we get material from the investigation, our first priority is to examine it for any connection to people in the United States or the possibility of an event within the United States itself.

Currently, we do not have evidence that there was, as part of this plot, any plan to initiate activity inside the United States or that the plotting was done in the United States.

However, there are other people out there who are terrorists or terrorist sympathizers. So I'm not prepared to let my guard down.

We want to make sure, first of all, that we have fully examined all the evidence. And that may take a little bit of time.

And second, we want to make sure there are no copycats, no one who was inspired by this to think that we're somehow going to have our attention diverted and they're going to try to do something themselves.

So we're going to be, obviously, very, very interested in tracking any possible U.S. leads. But at this point, my prior statement, which is that we did not see any U.S. internal activity in this plot, remains still accurate.

QUESTION: (OFF-MIKE) specifically about the (inaudible), saying as Al Qaida ties, can you comment on that, sir?

CHERTOFF: You know, one of the commitments we made to the British, because they have court rules that are even more stringent than ours, was not to say anything that might be a grounds for having a legal problem with the prosecution of their cases.

And so anything about arrests, investigations, the specifics of the investigation from, I guess, the prosecution standpoint, is something that I'm going to stay away from.

CHERTOFF: I'm not going to comment on any of that.

What I want to focus on is that information which really affects our decision-making here about how we are going to be adjusting our own internal standards.

QUESTION: Several governors have called up the National Guard. And I'm just wondering if that means -- is that a sign that there aren't enough TSOs, enough screeners out there, to go through and do all the things that you want them to do?

CHERTOFF: I think there was an initial concern about making sure there were enough people there to manage any possible crowd issues or any issues with respect to clogging.

I think the experience in the last 24 hours has showed that TSA has managed to deal with its workload and its workflow quite effectively.

Now, there are some additional measures beyond screening. When we go to orange, that has some impacts in terms of security around the airport itself, including security in the areas where you come into the terminal.

And so we anticipate that state and local officials will be taking appropriate measures generally to raise security on the airport perimeter, wholly apart from what we're doing with the screening.

QUESTION: So the National Guard aren't being used at all for the screening?

CHERTOFF: I don't know whether there was a point in time they were using the National Guard initially to do some of the screening at the gates. I don't know.

HAWLEY: On a limited basis and, for instance, Boston's Logan Airport, we did use Massachusetts National Guard for that.

And we do accept help because, as the secretary mentioned, there are a lot of different things we want to do. And they came forward and stepped forward.

We are evaluating all of that on an ongoing basis, but I think the secretary's point that TSA is staffed to manage the checkpoint and the gate random inspections as well.

QUESTION: Mr. Hawley, why do we go through double examinations? They have to go one at the checkpoint and then they have to go through another at the gate. After they go through initial security, why can't they get their water and their hair spray or whatever they need?

HAWLEY: Our security process involves random inspection at the gate area, partially because this is a new process and partially because we are not prohibiting the sale of liquids and beverages in the secure area.

HAWLEY: So it is an additional security measure, and it is one that will be variable across the country.

QUESTION: Secretary Chertoff, you stated that it's safe to fly. But at the same time, you've acknowledged a heightened concern about copycats; the Brits have told the U.S. government they haven't caught everybody they're looking for.

How do you reconcile those?

CHERTOFF: I reconcile it by putting into effect the measures we've put into effect.

The reason we are doing the things we're doing -- the going to Code Orange, the prohibition against liquids, the additional searches, and some other measures which are less visible -- is precisely to address and resolve that issue, to keep it safe to fly, and to eliminate the danger of copycats or any loose ends of the plot.

That is, in fact, the reason we have created a Transportation Security Administration and the reason we're taking the steps we are taking now: to keep it safe to fly. And it is safe to fly.

QUESTION: How did the DHS help catch these people in the first place?

CHERTOFF: I'm not going to get into discussion of what the intelligence-sharing activity was or what the specific investigative activity is.

That's, A, something that British court rules are very strict about. And it's, B, something that could potentially compromise what we're doing in an ongoing basis and what the British are doing in an ongoing basis.

But we have been traditionally -- and certainly with respect to this matter -- 110 percent cooperative and joined at the hip with the British and, of course, with all of the U.S. agencies.

I mean, for those who remember the issues with intelligence- sharing five years ago, I can tell you, this was a tribute to a lot of hard work in the intelligence community to have a great deal of sharing and openness and really a unification of all of the intelligence assets and resources to produce a single product which is designed to help protect the American people.

QUESTION: When did the TSA know about the liquid explosives? And when did it tell the airlines?


QUESTION: When did the TSA know that the plot involved liquid explosives? And when did it tell the airlines?

CHERTOFF: We communicated with the airlines shortly before the measures were put into effect -- as the operation was going down -- and indicated what our operational plan would be.

CHERTOFF: They were extremely cooperative and understood exactly what we were trying to do. And we obviously needed their cooperation. And they've been extraordinary partners. And obviously they have as great an interest as anybody in making sure that the airways remain safe and secure.

QUESTION: But when did you know that a liquid explosive was involved in the plot?

CHERTOFF: Well, I mean, obviously we've been working with the British to gather intelligence about the nature of the plot for a period of time. And particularly in the last week there was a lot of intense work being done with respect to getting our arms around the dimensions of the plot.

But we've always kept in mind that safety is the paramount issue. And so as soon as there was -- so the number one thing we've always been monitoring is do we think this is on the verge of happening. And all the decision-making in both countries about when to bring this down was driven, first and foremost, by the need to make sure that we did not allow this to go forward without intercepting it. And the result is as you've seen.

QUESTION: Do we know what flight routes had been selected by the plotters? And if so, to which American cities?

CHERTOFF: All I'm going to say publicly about this is that they were searching scheduling routes and flight schedules and had appeared to have homed in on at least some of those for purposes of going forward.

QUESTION: To what cities?

CHERTOFF: I don't think I'm going to get into more detail than that.

QUESTION: Given the fact that you knew Al Qaida had been experimenting with liquid explosives in the mid-'90s, why weren't there protective measures in place before this plot was uncovered?

CHERTOFF: Well, the answer is there are protective measures in place. We've spent about three-quarters of a billion dollars in research on emerging types of technologies and explosives. And we are constantly monitoring the world for developments that occur in the field of improvised explosive devices, precisely so we can start to work on countermeasures.

So we do have screening capabilities with respect to liquids.

CHERTOFF: However, what was particularly challenging with respect to this plot was the great effort to which these plotters appear to have gone in order to disguise the components and to disguise the liquids so they would appear to be innocuous in packaging.

The challenge that we face is this: A lot of the components of explosives, and in some cases explosive themselves, can be manufactured using very common chemicals and products. And so it's not enough to be able to detect the product and the chemical. We have to make sure we don't have a system in place where we're getting a lot of false positives, where things that everybody carries on them are alerting or alarming the city. Otherwise, the lines would be 50 times as long as they are.

So we're always balancing the need, not only to be able to detect, but to be able to detect with accuracy and with a minimum of false positives.

So what we're doing now is we're going to reengineer what they've done. We're going to see how that differs from things we've known about and how it's the same and what are the attributes of this, that we can use as a basis for modifying our own procedures to be sure that we can catch even the components of a bomb if they are being smuggled into an airport.

QUESTION: At what point has this level of alertness started to cause financial strains on the airlines? And is it can causing financial strains on the TSA and DHS budget? How long can you keep going on it? And how long can the airlines keep going on it?

CHERTOFF: I can't speak for the airlines. They have to speak for themselves.

We are built to be able to do this. We are built to be able to surge. And as we keep adjusting the measures in place and refining them, obviously that will give us a little bit of relief.

We want to not only give relief to the travelers, we want to give relief, obviously, to the folks who are working hard.

And part of the design of the measures we use is to be as easy to implement as possible and to be, in some senses, as convenient and as efficient as possible. And so, that's going to help alleviate the problem to some extent.

But you can expect to see, in the short run and in the medium run, continued adjustments and changes designed to make sure we're smoothing things out and making them easier without compromising what we need to do in terms of security.

QUESTION: But no complaints from the airlines?

HAWLEY: Have a good day.

CHERTOFF: I can't speak for the airlines. They've been very cooperative with us.

The airlines understand as well as everybody else that safety is the number one objective. We've got the airways safe. The airlines want to keep it safe. They have been very cooperative with us. Of course, we want to work with them to make this as efficient as possible.

Thank you.

HAWLEY: Thanks, guys.



Aug 11, 2006 15:45 ET .EOF

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