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National Security and Intelligence

Dana Priest
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, August 10, 2006 12:30 PM

Washington Post intelligence reporter Dana Priest will be online Thursday, Aug. 10, at 12:30 p.m. ET to discuss the thwarted terror plot to attack planes flying between the U.S. and Britain.

Britain Thwarts Airline Terror Plot , ( Aug. 10, 2006 )

Dana Priest covers intelligence and wrote " The Mission: Waging War and Keeping Peace With America's Military " (W.W. Norton). The book chronicles the increasing frequency with which the military is called upon to solve political and economic problems.

Submit your questions and comments before or during today's discussion.

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Boston, Mass.: Do you think there is a link between the 11th of every month and al-Qaeda's planning schedule? The train bombin in India occured on the 11th. Today is the 10th and we are hearing about this the day before August 11th. Thanks.

Dana Priest: Hello everyone! Lots to talk about. As for the first question---no, no and no. Everyone government counterterrorism person I've spoken to over the last two years has made the point that they do not believe Al Qaeda or other groups plan around any certain dates. their plans are executed when it is possible to execute them.

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Arlington, Va.: Shouldn't a "elevation in the U.S. threat level for commercial aviation" have occured from homeland security weeks ago?

Dana Priest: Not necessarily. sounds like they were watching and confident they had the plot under surveillance. i'd think that something in particular triggered the announcement today and, of course, we're working to figure that out.

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Conover, N.C.: Do you think that the timing of the arrests of the London airline terrorists is related to the news of Lamont's victory in Conn.?

Dana Priest: Call me naive, but no. It was a British call. Don't think Tony Blair is following the election results from his vacation villa in the Caribbean.

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Dhahran, Saudi Arabia: Any word on the nationalities of the 21 people arrested in the U.K. in connection with the plot?

Dana Priest: Not clear but early reports say British citizens, but nothing on whether they are naturalized. Of course we're trying to figure out much more about them. Pakistan press is reporting arrests in Pakistan connected to this, so that's a hint (if true).

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Washington, D.C.: How long do you think these restrictions will be in place? I have an overseas business trip coming up and the idea of a. wearing contacts for a 16 hour flight or b. trusting an airline not to lose my luggage and my contacts scares me more than terrorist threats.

Dana Priest: You're obviously not alone. I'd polish off the ole' glasses if I were you, and don't pack anything you really care about losing. Good luck.

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Washington, D.C.: Are these arrests the result of investigations conducted by British officials? Im sure that our government "may" have had knowledge of the threat(as they usually do), but it still seems like the Feds are not as in tune to intelligence and terrorist plots as they suggest.

Dana Priest: Mostly British but I'd bet they brought some US officials in as soon as possible, probably CIA and FBI. I know they felt burned during the London Bombing about some of the things that leaked out here earlier (that bottle full of nails bomb, for example), but the two countries' services are very tight. Also, the CIA could help them with the worldwide contacts that are invaluable at a time like this.

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Rockville, Md.: Wag the wag?

I suppose people have to address an event on the level of thei interest and capacity, but I am getting tired of all the paranoid conclusions. If the President were that well organized, do they think we would be in the problems we are in?

Dana Priest: I agree.

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Bethesda, Md.: It appears that the terrorists were going to blow up planes in flight. That doesn't strike me as the grand increased magnitude type attack that we've been lead to believe al Qaeda central command is after. Is this evidence that this attack wasn't planned by Osama or his close advisors?

Dana Priest: no evidence at all, or even hints of it. not yet, at least and i would greatly doubt it.

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Washington, D.C.: Hi Dana, one thing I've seen missing in the "terror plot" discussion earlier today is a discussion of the difference between U.S. and U.K. muslim populations. The US muslim population is relatively small, and well integrated into American society. In contrast, the U.K. (and European) muslim populations are much larger and relatively segregated (see the French muslim riots from earlier this year). The 7/7 bombers were home grown. The 9/11 terrorists were imported.

Dana Priest: yes, i agree and these factors have led counterterrrorism experts (hitherto CT) to conclude that the threat is much greater in Europe than in the US, partly for the reasons you state and partly because of hugely stepped up US security measures.

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Washington, D.C.: How much detailed evidence do the government officials have of this plot? Had the individuals bought airline tickets already? In other words, can we be assured that this was a very credible plot, rather than, say, the more dreamy plot of those arrested recently in Miami? Should we be skeptical of the government trumpeting its ability to thwart this plot shortly before an election?

Dana Priest: Skepticism is always healthy. Sounds, though, like a big difference between Miami (the plot was a thought, and the thought was actually planted by an FBI-paid informant) and this incident. From the press conference, we're told they actually assembled liquid explosive ingredients---maybe acquired and maybe actually put them together. also, arrests in pakistan suggest a much wider network. i don't think they would push this to code red -- with all its huge economic implication -- if it were not serious. besides, we;d find out sooner or later because such a trick would have made lots of dedicated, apolitical law enforcement types very angry.

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Marblehead, Mass.: We did have a marked rise in threats in the run up to the 2004 election, and hardly any since, so politics should not be far from anyone's mind when the threat level is raised by this administration -just common sense. My question: If the arrests have been made, and the plans thwarted, as per headlines, then why the elevated threat level and super precautions on toothpaste? Are there other unapprehended co-conspirators that they know of related to this particular plot? Or are these just new, permanent bans on the airlines given this latest attempt?

Dana Priest: We don't know yet (and I bet the authorities don't either) whether to make these permanent. As for threat elevation, yes, they don't know for certain they have have id'd all the conspirators.

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Alexandria, Va.: I heard that the Pakistani Government was very cooperative in the arrest and that some participating were home grown British Pakistani citizens. Doesn't this suggest that the relationship between U.S.-British and Pakistan is more solid than many think?

Dana Priest: It's very good on one level. If there are specific people targeted, the Paks are pretty good. It's when the request is for more general things--like clamping down on the border region, or trying to find unspecified Al Qaeda there--that they aren't so great. In part because there's always political blowback to unspecified moves that sometimes end up killing or wounding the wrong people.

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NE Fla.: Whatever happened to those Egyptian / foreign students on F-1 Visas headed to Montana?

Dana Priest: Not a story apparently. The authorities are saying they were brought in (maybe some came in, I don't know), they are not linked to terrorism. They are not linked to this. My hunch would be that they wanted to spend some "fun time" in the US of A before school started.

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Nashua, N.H.: Why hasn't TSA (and DHS?) been screening for these component liquids since 1994 and, esp, since 2001 (shoe bomber). If it's such a high priority item now, why not earlier on? Is it simply favoring flyer convenience over possible in-flight threats? Thanks.

Dana Priest: well, you could ask this too: why aren't they doing full body strip searches? Why aren't they searching train passengers? why do they allow computers on board? why are they giving back nail clippers? The fact is, all of these amount to a trade-off and they are trying to balance the freedom of movement with the real threats, rather than every conceivable threat.

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Frederick, Md.: How long will disruption and increased security measures continue?

Dana Priest: at least weeks.

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Definitely al-Qaeda?: Dana:

It's good to have you as a resource at times like these. Is it that certain that this would be al-Qaeda? Are they really the only ones who are capable of doing this? Given that, as I write this, everyone who was arrested was from England and of Arabic descent, how are they connected to al-Qaeda? Are we simplifying things by automatically connecting terrorist plots like this to al-Qaeda?

Dana Priest: I think it is a simplification. we should stop obsessing on al qaeda because terrorism and terrorists have moved beyond that organization and label. I do believe that about 3/4 of the pre-9-11 AQ leadership structure has been taken down by international efforts. That's obviously good, but something more fluid and amorphous has replaced it, and that's not good.

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Washington, D.C.: Dana This is more of a logistics question. How did they catch these guys? I mean, were the men standing in the security line at Heathrow and were suddenly pulled out? Or did they just arrive at the airport and before walking in, were apprehended? Or were they arrested at their homes beofre they even got to the airport

Thanks

Dana Priest: Not clear. Don't think they had even purchased tickets yet, so it was still in the planning stages. they think. or at least I think they think....if you get my drift.

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Alexandria, Va.: Do you think many of these new security measures may remain permanent? I'm a frequent international business traveller and most of my travel takes me to airports where bringing checked luggage is basically giving an open invitation to baggage handlers to help lighten your load as they see fit. I cannot imagine checking my laptop when flying somewhere like Dili or Harare. I appreciate the urgency of the situtation, but hopefully when things cool down the airlines will think creatively about how to solve these problems (and let us have our toothpaste on those 20 hour flights!)

Dana Priest: Well, maybe the airlines will start thinking about all the things you will need once you get on board--let's see $5 for toothpaste? $10 for contact lens solution? I don't think this will go on for too long within the US unless they find something pretty definitive. and i can't imagine it would affect all international flights (it hasn't today) unless there was an indication that the plot was broader. they are worried about copy cats, and that could spin out of control.

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RE: Definitely al-Qaeda?: : "Given that, as I write this, everyone who was arrested was from England and of Arabic descent..."

The people arrested thus far have been Pakistanis, not Arabs.

Dana Priest: you're right.

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Washington, D.C.: This is a broad question. Why do the Muslims hate the U.S.? Is it simply based upon our support of Israel? Can you give me a 5th grade answer? Thanks.

Dana Priest: Can't give you a 5th grade answer for Muslims, because that's too broad. But on Muslim extremists: support for Israel, support for Saudi Royal family (bin laden's number one target), for having US armed forces on holy land (again UBL speaks on this) meaning Saudi in particular. For our non-fundamentalist culture. For occupying Iraq, and lately, there's no question that the Israel attacks into Lebanon and the civilian casualties there have stirred up a huge resentment, not necessarily just among extremists.

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Red Bank, N.J.: I was thinking recently that places like Iran and North Korea would benefit from being wholely integrated into the modern world, the more Westerners wandering around doing business the better for everyone - except extremists.

Are these regimes too closed to consider this possibility or is our isolation of them imposed, and maybe a mistake?

Dana Priest: Iran is not. North Korea is, at this point, but then again, we haven't really tried that approach.

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Philadelphia, Pa.: Why is Chertoff saying the plot is "suggestive" of al-Qaeda? If he is on the ball and communicating with the Brits and they have been following and now arresting the suspects, wouldn't Chertoff and Co. "know" if the suspects are al-Qaeda?

Dana Priest: Not necessarily. People aren't going to admit they are part of Al qaeda. Suggestive means the plot was big enough, and sophisticated enough and involved airplanes.

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Salt Lake City, Utah: Please answer this . . . Why would U.S. authorities arrest people in the pre-planning stage (like the amateurs in Miami) and not wait and try and gather more intelligence? Could there be an operational reason?

Dana Priest: Yes, there could be lots of reasons. FIrst, they probably aren't convinced they know all the players and, at some point, might worry that those they don't know about are moving ahead.

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Arlington, Va.: In criticizing Democrats for voting out Lieberman, Cheney told reporters yesterday that the terrorists were waiting for Americans to pull back. We now know that the White House (and presumably Cheney) have known about this investigation for weeks. Cheney's statements yesterday and today's events don't seem to be a coincidence.

Dana Priest: Excellent point. I would hope someone here follows up on that.

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Tacoma, Wash.: You mentioned these arrests in Pakistan. I'm searching for the stories and not finding anything tied specifically to the plane plot. Can you post the links or describe the arrests?

Dana Priest: try the british Times online. a story by zahid hussain in islamabad

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Los Angeles, Calif.: Who would you pick as a Special Envoy to the Middle East to stop the carnage? The Lebanese have asked for Bill Clinton. thanks

Dana Priest: he would be good. or howard baker. brent scowcroft.

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New York, N.Y.: Please help me understand: Why aren't the restrictions also applied to checked luggage? It would be easy enough for a malefactor to check the explosive liquids, no?

Dana Priest: you need a fuze, and to light it. you need a person involved.

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Steamboat Springs, Colo.: In re: You response to Bethesda. You doubt bin Laden was involved? Or you doubt he wasn't?

Dana Priest: I doubt he was involved. too risky for him to communicate with anyone, in any way.

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Dana Priest: Okay everyone, I have to run now. I received close to 175 questions, sorry I couldn't answer more.

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Dana Priest: oops. make that close to 400. now i really feel bad. Cheers, until next week.

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