By Josh White
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, August 14, 2006
There is no evidence that terrorists were working within the United States as part of a plot to detonate explosives on airliners, but U.S. officials remain on guard after last week's arrests in Britain and Pakistan, Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff said yesterday.
As his department last night reduced the threat level for commercial flights departing Britain for the United States from red to orange, Chertoff reiterated that viewpoint.
"We are remaining vigilant for any signs of planning within the U.S. or directed at Americans," he said in a statement.
The threat-level announcement came after Chertoff had appeared on several Sunday-morning television talk shows, warning that enemies of the United States "still want to carry out spectacular plots" and have been developing innovative ways to skirt security.
"As we speak right now, we have not found any indication of active planning in the U.S. or plans to conduct operations within the U.S.," Chertoff said on CBS's "Face the Nation."
As he spoke about the plot, foiled by British authorities, to use liquid explosives on airplanes headed to U.S. cities, he said there is a concern about copycats.
"I think we have to be concerned about other groups that may seek to exploit the opportunities to do their own activities or their own operations because they believe we are distracted," Chertoff said. "And the message here is we are not distracted."
Much of the televised discussion yesterday concerned the investigative tools available in Britain that U.S. officials credit with allowing authorities to get ahead of the plot before it proved catastrophic. Chertoff said the ability to monitor monetary transactions and communications and to arrest suspects for a period of 28 days on an emergency basis made a significant difference in the case.
Although Chertoff did not suggest any specific changes in U.S. law to allow such flexibility, he alluded to the controversial Bush administration programs of secretly wiretapping suspects and of monitoring financial records.
He said on ABC's "This Week" that "we cannot afford to leave those weapons on the table." On "Fox News Sunday," he said, "The ability to be as nimble as possible with our surveillance is very important."
Sen. Pat Roberts (R-Kan.), chairman of the Senate intelligence committee, said on "Face the Nation" that the British government has "better tools" in its intelligence toolbox and that those tools helped British investigators speed along their efforts to stop the potential airline bombings.
Democrats, still critical of the Bush administration efforts to expand executive power to fight terrorism, said those tools are important but must be lawful and in accord with the Constitution.
"I support wiretapping of terrorists," Sen. Russell Feingold (D-Wis.) said on "This Week." "I just think it should be done within the law. . . . I just want the White House to stop making up their own laws."
Ned Lamont, the Democrat who defeated Sen. Joseph I. Lieberman in last week's Connecticut Senate primary, said on "Fox News Sunday" that the terror plot exposed how the United States is distracted by the war in Iraq.
"I think that we've taken our eye off the ball there a little bit, and I think it's time to focus," he said.
Chertoff said it is unclear whether al-Qaeda leaders were involved in the plot but said the attacks, as planned, bore all the hallmarks of the group's prior work.
On NBC's "Meet the Press," he remarked that it has been five years since a major plot like this targeted U.S. citizens, and that the time gap indicates a weakening of the network.
"What that tells us is we actually have done a lot to degrade them," Chertoff said. "We've destroyed their training camps, we've killed a lot of the leaders, we've gathered a lot of intelligence, but they are still out there, they're trying to adapt their tactics, and they are a very constant presence."
The Department of Homeland Security's downgrade of the threat level came in conjunction with a similar move yesterday by British authorities, just as DHS's elevation to red on Thursday conformed with a British alert.
The threat level for all other commercial flights in or headed toward the United States remains at orange, the department announced, and a ban on liquids and gels in carry-on baggage remained in effect.