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.
But starting about two weeks ago, authorities in London and Washington grappled with a succession of three major developments that shifted the investigation into a higher gear and led to last week's hurried raids and arrests. First was clear evidence of plans to target the United States; then came plans by the British to shut down the plot; and finally a frantic rush to execute the arrests earlier than expected to avoid losing suspects or allowing an attack to occur, according to intelligence and law enforcement officials.
In late July, the British became "exceptionally concerned about where the specifics of the investigation were leading them -- it was getting more from conception to completion," one official said. Chertoff publicly described this as the moment "that the investigation revealed that this planning was taking the direction of targeting the United States."
Within days, the FBI was hunting down names provided by British intelligence and police, seeking to identify any domestic tentacles of the suspected plot. FBI Director Robert S. Mueller III, who took over the bureau just days before the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks, cleared most of his schedule to concentrate on the probe around this time, aides said.
More than 200 FBI agents and scores of analysts and other personnel would be assigned to the operation in late July and early August, mounting dozens of clandestine surveillance and search operations on individuals with possible links to the London plotters, officials said. Among the individuals were people who had been called or e-mailed by suspects or their relatives and acquaintances, as the FBI combed through layers of the group's "social network" inside the United States.
The case included labor-intensive 24-hour surveillance, which can require several dozen people to watch a single target, one official said. Those conducting the surveillance generally had no idea why the subject was being watched, the official said.
The volume of surveillance was such that it produced a noticeable surge in applications for clandestine warrants from the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court, which oversees most intelligence surveillance inside the country, according to law enforcement officials.
By Friday, Aug. 4, "the real countdown started," one U.S. counterterrorism official said, as British authorities finalized plans to proceed with arrests. U.S. officials were given a rough schedule that broke down the planned "timing and the conduct of the takedown," Jackson said.
Senior government intelligence officials, along with leaders of the Defense, Homeland Security and Justice departments, began preparing for the possibility of attacks on jetliners over the Atlantic, with options including destruction of one or more aircraft, a disrupted attack, and the capture of all suspects.
On Aug. 5, President Bush was given briefings at his Crawford, Tex., ranch about the government response in case an attack materialized, officials said. Hawley, the TSA chief, was called back from a trip to participate. Information was limited to "a small handful of individuals," Jackson said.
One U.S. official said the circle initially excluded staff aides at the National Security Council, the Homeland Security Council and the Counterterrorism Security Group, all of which are usually deeply involved in sensitive terrorism cases.
The arrests on Thursday occurred at least two days earlier than planned, according to several U.S. officials. Among other things, sources have said, the suspects stepped up their Internet searches for possible U.S.-bound flights, made plans for an imminent "dry run" to test security, and moved to purchase global-positioning satellite devices and other materials. British authorities were also concerned because they had lost contact with one or two of the suspects who had traveled to Pakistan, some officials said.
Given a schedule from London, senior U.S. and British government officials consulted Wednesday between 6 p.m. and midnight Washington time. It soon became clear that all the suspects could not be located immediately, raising concerns about a potential attack.
"As things headed south," one official said, Chertoff "flipped the switch" to gain approval for raising the threat level. Late Wednesday and into Thursday, DHS leaders held a series of conference calls with governors' offices, airlines, airline security specialists, labor unions, and airport security directors across the country to share information and plans.
Chertoff joined the 8 p.m. call with the security directors, saying this moment was the reason they did their jobs. Shortly afterward, TSA issued its official "security directive" banning all liquids and gels from carry-on luggage, giving airports and airlines about four hours on the East Coast to prepare more trash bins, print fliers and call in reinforcements.
Consultations with key members of Congress were held that night, bulletins were sent to law enforcement officials, and state and local homeland security officials were briefed at about 1 a.m. At 2:38 a.m., the department released a statement by Chertoff announcing a change to the threat level for the aviation sector, taking effect at airports at 4 a.m.
Knowledge of the British probe varied among local and state governments. D.C. Mayor Anthony A. Williams (D) did not know about the investigation until he was notified of the arrests. Baltimore Mayor Martin O'Malley (D) got the telephone call at 3 a.m. from the Baltimore Police Department's intelligence division.
Senior officials at the Virginia State Police already knew about the British investigation, according to police spokeswoman Corinne Geller, though she declined to elaborate. Robert P. Crouch, Virginia's top homeland security adviser, was roused by cellphone at 12:30 a.m., alerting him to a 1 a.m. conference call about the arrests with senior DHS officials and his state security counterparts.
In New York, officials said they learned about the British probe several weeks ago and were told early last week -- by British contacts -- that arrests were imminent. The city police department has an extensive intelligence operation, including officers assigned to Scotland Yard and other locations overseas.
The arrests were carried out as Bush was taking a working vacation at his ranch in Texas. Aides said he and Vice President Cheney had been kept closely informed of developments starting Aug. 4, and were regularly briefed in the days leading to the arrests.
Bush spoke with British Prime Minister Tony Blair in a 47-minute videoconference last Sunday, a conversation that the White House at the time described as being about the Middle East. The two leaders spoke again by telephone on Wednesday.
Officials said Bush's homeland security adviser, Frances Fragos Townsend, called the president late Wednesday afternoon to tell him that British authorities were poised to begin making arrests. The two stayed in touch through several phone conversations for the rest of the day, as suspects were being rounded up.
Later that evening, Bush approved the plan to elevate the nation's threat level. He retired for the night as the arrests were continuing, officials said.
Staff writers Sara Kehaulani Goo and Del Quentin Wilber in Washington, Michael A. Fletcher in Crawford, Tex., Michael Powell in New York, Michael D. Shear in Richmond and researcher Julie Tate contributed to this report.