U.S. Responded to Plot With Speed, Secrecy

DHS chief Michael Chertoff, left, and Attorney General Alberto R. Gonzales at a briefing.
DHS chief Michael Chertoff, left, and Attorney General Alberto R. Gonzales at a briefing. (By Ron Edmonds -- Associated Press)
By Dan Eggen and Spencer S. Hsu
Washington Post Staff Writers
Sunday, August 13, 2006

It was the last week of July, heading into the lazy dog days of official Washington, but Michael Chertoff was suddenly busy.

The homeland security secretary discreetly asked subordinates about plans developed months or even years ago, focused on aviation safety, threat levels and other minutiae. In briefings, he quizzed staffers about responses to an aviation threat: What was the default plan for going to "orange alert"? What items can we ban from airplanes if we need to?

Those taking the questions -- including many of Chertoff's closest aides -- had no idea what was really going on, two senior counterterrorism officials said.

Chertoff's stealthy information-gathering was just one example of the U.S. government's secretive response to an emerging terrorist plot, in which at least 41 suspects were arrested in Britain and Pakistan in connection with alleged plans to blow up jetliners as they flew from London to the United States.

Until the last hours, details of the British probe were confined to a limited coterie of U.S. Cabinet members and senior officials, according to interviews with more than a dozen people who were involved or have since been briefed. The approach ensured that no advance word of the operation leaked out -- but also meant that airlines, airports and even the Transportation Security Administration had only a few hours to ramp up sweeping new measures after being alerted to the threat late Wednesday night.

"Operational security was the paramount concern on our part and on the part of the Brits," one senior U.S. law enforcement official said. "We had a very small number of people who were actually read in on it and operating with full knowledge."

At the FBI, several hundred agents and analysts had been assigned to the case beginning in late July, yet only a handful knew about the overall plot or other significant details, according to several law enforcement officials. Many knew nothing about the targets they were watching or investigating, officials said.

At the TSA, the agency responsible for safety at U.S. airports, changes that would usually take four weeks to execute occurred in four hours in the middle of the night Wednesday, according to Assistant Secretary Kip Hawley. "This was a surprise to many of us," Hawley said at a news conference.

Even now, three days after British authorities arrested 24 suspects -- and two days after most of the suspects have been publicly named -- U.S. officials are tight-lipped about the most rudimentary details of the case, citing strict British secrecy laws and a desire to avoid the strained relations that followed U.S. leaks about the 2005 subway bombings.

The FBI has found no links to the plot inside the United States so far, but is still pursuing leads generated by the arrests, interrogations and seizure of evidence in Britain and Pakistan, according to U.S. officials. There is no evidence any of the suspects had traveled here, officials said.

Several sources suggested last week that the extensive secrecy irritated some officials who were kept out of the loop at intelligence and law enforcement agencies, but declined to discuss the tensions in detail. Michael P. Jackson, Homeland Security's deputy secretary, said the secrecy "wasn't controversial. It was operational security."

The British probe began modestly last year, in the aftermath of the London subway bombings, when a concerned citizen within London's large Muslim community tipped authorities to a suspicious acquaintance, sources have said.

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