By Spencer S. Hsu and William Branigin
Washington Post Staff Writers
Friday, March 7, 2008; A04
Islamic extremists have been targeting Europe instead of the United States because the Bush administration has made a domestic attack much more difficult through improvements in U.S. traveler screening and border security, Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff said yesterday.
"We have significantly reduced the risk of a major attack in the short term," Chertoff told a group of Washington Post reporters and editors before meeting with President Bush to mark the fifth anniversary of the Department of Homeland Security's creation.
"One of the reasons we're seeing more attacks in Europe is because they think it's easier," Chertoff said. He noted almost annual attacks since 2004 in Madrid, London and Glasgow and disrupted plots in Denmark, Germany, Italy, France and Portugal.
In a speech commemorating the anniversary, Bush renewed his lobbying for a bill that would provide immunity from lawsuits to telecommunications companies that turned over information on their customers to the federal government after the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks. The bill would extend modifications of a surveillance law that expired last month.
"To stop new attacks on America, we need to know who the terrorists are talking to, what they're saying and what they're planning," Bush told DHS employees at DAR Constitution Hall. For that, the government needs the cooperation of private companies, he said. Some of the companies, however, are being sued for billions of dollars for allegedly violating customers' privacy.
"Allowing these lawsuits to proceed would be unfair," as well as "unwise" and "dangerous," Bush said. Although a bipartisan majority in the Senate passed a "good bill," he said, House Democratic leaders blocked a vote on it last month, saying they needed another 21 days to consider it. That "deadline" arrives Saturday, Bush said.
Listing a number of steps he said his administration has taken to prevent future terrorist attacks, Bush said that "we have made our borders more secure," unified terrorism databases and improved the detection of counterfeit travel documents.
He also pointed to programs to prevent the smuggling of biological, chemical, radiological or nuclear weapons into the nation's cities.
But both he and Chertoff warned against complacency about terrorism. Chertoff, repeating intelligence assessments from last year, said the determination of al-Qaeda and affiliated groups to strike U.S. targets has not diminished. A disrupted plot, based in Britain, to smuggle liquid explosives onto transatlantic airliners in 2006 would have caused deaths on the scale of the Sept. 11 attacks, he said.
While al-Qaeda's capability is "uneven" and less than it was before 2001, it is rebounding somewhat in the frontier areas of Pakistan, he said.
Al-Qaeda-inspired extremists are "continuing to refine themselves and improve themselves. If we don't do more than we're doing, if we stop, eventually that risk is going to start to increase," Chertoff said.
Chertoff said technical challenges delaying the development of a "virtual fence" along the U.S.-Mexico border that would link a system of towers, cameras and surveillance gear with Border Patrol agents would not stop the department from continuing to deploy stand-alone ground radar units, sensors and aerial drones.
"To suggest we have stopped everything for three years is . . . incorrect," Chertoff said, adding that the government needed to deploy new technology as soon as possible and already had increased its capabilities.
He said the idea that building a double-walled fence would be better is "simply a fantasy."