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British Authorities Disrupt Air Terror Plot

Clark Kent Ervin
Director, Aspen Institute Homeland Security Initiative/Former Department of Homeland Security Inspector General
Friday, August 11, 2006 11:00 AM

Clark Kent Ervin, director of the Aspen Institute Homeland Security Initiative and former Department of Homeland Security Inspector General, was online Friday, Aug. 11, at 11 a.m. ET to discuss the announcement Thursday that British authorities had disrupted a plot to blow up passenger planes over the Atlantic.

A transcript follows.

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Kensington, Md.: Hi thanks for taking questions-I find the whole liquids ban fiasco so predictably reactionary and ignorant. Did terrorism experts not know liquids could become explosive? Did they know this the day before yesterday? So a cell is broken up in the U.K. one day and instantly baby food and lip gel are verboten. We're winning the war on terror? Sad.

Clark Kent Ervin: I agree that Department of Homeland Security officials, knowing years ago that liquid explosives were a potential threat, should have either banned liquids from planes long ago or developed and deployed technologies to counter them. And, as you say, the department tends to be reactive rather than proactive, the reverse of the terrorists whom we are fighting. Unless and until we begin to think ahead of them rather than behind them, we will remain in mortal danger.

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New York, N.Y.: I have been thinking ever since yesterday - if it is so easy to make a liquid-based explosive, and to set it off with a normal electronic device, what is to keep terrorists from using these explosives in the U.S. in places other than airports/airplanes? Should I be concerned when I get on the subway in the morning?

Clark Kent Ervin: You're quite right that liquid explosives and simple detonator devices can likewise be used on mass transit systems or "soft" targets like shopping malls, sports arenas, and movie theaters. We should all, indeed, be very concerned about this.

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Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia: I don't know how terrorists work, and for what reasons they want to kill innocent people. But I know Islam because I am a Muslim and embrace Islam as my religion. It is an ovewhelming scary situation that we the people of the world have to face, and it is more scary for me to travel as I am a Muslim, eventhough I or my nation don't not support such aggresive actions. Please let us know whether Islam is going away from the good humanity path to something terrible? Or what was the reason for it?.

Clark Kent Ervin: Certainly the principal threat faced by the United States, other Western governments, and, for that matter, non-fundamentalist Muslim governments,nowadays comes from radical Muslims. It is critical that "moderate" Muslims like you speak out against the perversion of Islam by radicals. Only moderate Muslims have the credibility to convince their brethren that Allah does not condone killing civilians in his name and that it is not a sin to be an atheist or a practitioner of religions other than Islam.

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Reston, Va.: How safe is checked baggage? Couldn't someone use an explosive with a timer to blow up a plane that way?

Clark Kent Ervin: Well, checked baggage is supposed to be sent through an explosive detection machine, so the problem really is with carry-on baggage. Only about 20% of carry-on baggage is currently screened for explosives.

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Silver Spring, Md.: Don't you agree that Bush's actions, most notably the war in Iraq, have increased hatred of the U.S. around the world and made it more likely that we will be atacked by terrorists. In my work, I travel all over the world and I have seen the increase in hatred of Bush and the U.S.

Clark Kent Ervin: I do agree with this, and I do so as a Republican and as a longtime friend of and aide to the President. Iraq, sadly, has become a recruiting ground for terrorists, and the war in Lebanon and our close alliance with Israel will only further inflame radical Muslims and encourage them to attack us here at home. (I should add, parenthetically, that I supported the decision to go to war in Iraq at the time, believing, like many people, that the Administration was right in claiming that Saddam had weapons of mass destruction and he was inclined to use them sooner or later.)

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Bethesda, Md.: Why hasn't TSA or DHS thought of this kind of plot before? It was pretty obvious to use multi-component devices/explosives. This goes for things like generating toxic gases/poisons in places like subway stations and bridge tunnels. I'd like them to address this fundamental failure in thinking.

Second, when are you going to start targeting people and profiles? Lets be serious taking lipstick from 80 year old white females just does not make any sense at all.

Clark Kent Ervin: You're quite right, as I said in an earlier reply, that DHS/TSA ought to have known of this threat and responded to it sooner. We tend to be reactive rather than proactive, and this is a major security gap in itself.

As to profiling, you might see my New York Times op-ed about a month ago titled, "The Usual Suspects." In that piece, I argue against profiling because Al Qaeda and its affiliates and copycats know that we are especially on the lookout for young Arab males. They are actively seeking to recruit non-Arabs, non-Muslims,and females. We have to assume that everyone is a potential threat until we can prove otherwise.

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Kamuela, Hawaii: Just as smugglers can "body pack" their contraband, is it possible for terrorists to do so, and if so, what are the chances that they can be detected by current methods?

Clark Kent Ervin: Well, if by "bodypack," you mean hide explosives or other weapons on their bodies, terrorists can do that. Investigation after investigation by my former office, the DHS Office of Inspector General, and the Government Accountability Office, Congress' investigatve arm, have shown how easy it is to conceal guns and knives on passengers' persons. As for explosives, if we had more trace detection machines, that can spot explosive residue on people, we could counter this threat. We need such machines at every checkpoint at every airport; presently, we have them at only some checkpoints at only some airports.

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Washington D.C.: What exactly are those new metal detector looking devices that they've installed at airports? The ones where you stand inside a capsule and have air blown on you. Do those help detect bomb making equipment and if so coud they detect liquid explosives?

Clark Kent Ervin: These "puffer" machines simply detect explosive traces on people themselves. They wouldn't detect the equipment because the equipment isn't placed in them.

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Bethesda, Md.: In your view, what is the risk that Iraq could become a training ground for terrorists to attack U.S. citizens and interests outside of Iraq?

Clark Kent Ervin: The risk of this is very high, indeed. Sadly, Iraq, which was never a terrorist haven before 9/11, has become one as a result of the opposition to our invasion.

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Washington, D.C.: Ok I even though I don't agree with the liquid ban, I can understand the reactive reasoning behind it. My question is why can't I buy a bottle of water in the post secuity zone and take it abroad the plane? In theory everything sold in the secure zone has cleared security at some point right?

Clark Kent Ervin: Well, if the airline personnel at the boarding gate have any sense, they would ban you from bringing the water on board. If this consistently proves not to be the case, then, I'm sure that stores past the checkpoints will be banned from selling water and other liquids.

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Frederick, Md.: Are these new security precautions being used at airports worldwide? We hear about the European/U.S. airports all the time..what about places like South America, Asia, etc?

Clark Kent Ervin: My understanding is that this applies only to U.S. and European airlines. Certainly, this ban should be applied worldwide with regard to flights bound for the U.S.

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New York, N.Y.: If we put our carry-on baggage through an explosive detector, like our checked luggage, would that ensure that these liquid explosive devices are screened out? Would that make traveling with liquids ok again?

Clark Kent Ervin: Well, not necessarily, though we shuld put all carry-on baggage through an explosive detection machine so as to detect "conventional" explosives. The plot foiled yesterday involved ingredients that are not explosive in and of themselves, but that become explosive when mixed together.

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Laurel, Md.: Until the recent bombings in London and Spain, Islamic terrorists had generally chosen targets that represented something evil to them -- like the World Trade Center or USS Cole. Even discotechs in Israel represent a lifestyle of which they dissaprove.

But now it seems they're choosing their targets based on convenience and availability. Does this suggest that post-9/11 security is having good effects at what it IS doing?

Clark Kent Ervin: I still think that Al Qaeda targets things and places for symbolic value. In this instance, it appears as though the intention was to blow up planes in flight, rather than to use them as missiles to hit particular buildings deemed politically or economically iconic. Still, planes themselves have symbolic value in that blowing them up is so spectacular and reminiscent of 9/11

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Washington, D.C.: According to this morning's headline, government folks had been tracking these guys since July 2005. But then suddenly in August 2006, after they are arrested, we are told we can no longer take liquids on planes. It seems odd to me that the feds didn't ban liquids months ago, considering they knew about this plot for months, and knew that liquids were a potential weapon. Why wait until this group was arrested? Someone else could have been plotting a similar thing in another country.

Clark Kent Ervin: This is a good question, and a difficult one to answer. We've known since at least the 90s of this potential threat, and so liquids should have been banned back then or countermeasures developed. That said, banning liquids once this plot was uncovered could have compromised the investigation and prematurely tipped off the terrorists that they were under surveillance. Governments don't want to wait too long to intervene, for obvious reasons; but, intervening too soon can prevent them from learning who all the participants are and the full dimensions of the plot.

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Tampa, Fla.: I saw the former head of El Al security on TV this morning saying the key to preventing attacks such as that foiled yesterday is looking for the people who would carry out the attack, and not the weapons themselves. He said there's just too many ways terrorists can smuggle explosives on board airplanes, but there's a lot fewer number of people who would carry out these attacks. He said this is the key to El Al's security, and thought we are barking up the wrong tree by focusing our efforts on looking for the bombs. Any thoughts on this?

Of course, El Al uses highly-trained and well-paid people in their security operations. What's the average GS grade of our security screeners?

Clark Kent Ervin: Well, there is some logic to this, and certainly, no one is better at counterterrorism than the Israelis. On the other hand, our civil rights/civil liberties tradition is different from theirs, and, as a consequence, we cannot legally engage in the racial/ethnic profiling that lies at the heart of Israel's counterterrorism strategy. Furthermore, if we were to concentrate our scrutiny on young Arab/Muslim males,Al Qaeda would simply step up its efforts to recruit non-Arab, non-Muslims, and women.

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Fairfax, Va.: In my opinion, the metro and mass trasit systems are quite vulnerable. Do you think they are more secure since 9/11? There was the attack in spain, london. Do you think that bomb/explosives detectors, would be installed in Metros??

Clark Kent Ervin: We've done next to nothing to secure the mass transit sector, spending only about $250 million since 9/11 on this mode of travel, as opposed to some $18-20 billion on aviation. We need bomb/explosive detection tecnology on mass transit systems, as well as an ongoing armed police presence, surveillance cameras, random bag searches, and an aggressive public awareness campaign. We need these measures on an ongoing basis, not simply at times of heightened alert.

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Laurel, Md.: This plot was stopped because of good intelligence and police work on the part of British authorities- not because they stopped someone at a security checkpoint. Doesn't it make more sense to put more proactive effort into intelligence and security training than into a reactive and overly restrictive ban on liquids and potentially carry-ons?

Clark Kent Ervin: We can't make this an either or proposition. You're quite right that good intelligence is the foundation of an effective counterterror strategy. But, we must also do our best to protect ourselves against weapons and technologies that we know or should know are dangerous.

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Ten planes?: I am confused about how this was supposed to work. Would there be 10 transatlantic flights in the air from London at one time?

Clark Kent Ervin: Based on news reports to date, it appears as though the plotters were planning to detonate the plans simultaneously or, at least, about the same time.

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Bethesda, Md.: Is al Qaeda stronger or weaker then it was five years ago? Is our strategy in the war on terrorism misguided?

Clark Kent Ervin: Al Qaeda is weaker, and the Bush Administration (of which I have been very critical on this subject, as you may know) is to be commended for this. It's been denied the sanctuary of Afghanistan, numerous operatives have been killed or captured, and its financing has been disrupted significantly. But, the good news stops there. The bad news is that Al Qaeda, once centrally directed and operationally focused, has now morphed and metastized into numerous individual cells throughout the world (and here at home) that need not and do not wait for instructions from bin Laden to carry out attacks. Needless to say, the more cells they are and the more independent they are, the more threatened we are.

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Falls Church, Va.: I haven't read all the reports - but why blow up planes over the ocean? over land would cause more terror, no? Maybe the lack of evidence left behind?

Clark Kent Ervin: Well, I agree that blowing up planes over land would be even more spectacular. But, blowing up planes over the ocean is pretty spectacular in itself. And, the longer the flight goes the more risk that the terrorist might not pull his plot off. So, I can see them impetus to get it over with as soon as possible. Believe me, the killing of hundreds of people on 10 planes heading would have been a very, very big deal.

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New York, N.Y.: The fact that liquids are being confiscated implies that the authorities believe there is a real threat. But the confiscated materials are apparently not being examined. Isn't this a big security hole, in that the confiscated materials should be examined for presence of explosives, and matched up against the identity of passengers?

Clark Kent Ervin: I agree with this, and I've thought about the very same thing since yesterday. That said, I think that this was a timing issue. TSA employees got the word of this threat just yesterday, so there wasn't time to examine the liquids that thousands of passengers were suddenly forced to throw again and to match each passenger with each bottle of liquid. You're right that another group of terrorists could have been planning the very same thing, and we might know ever find that out.

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Security at subway systems: You want us to have security check points and metal detectors on Metro - are you kidding me? Metro employees can't even keep the elevators & escalators running, what makes you think they can manage that other stuff. At some point don't we have to back up and live in the real world - you can't strip search people who ride the bus or metro and you can't have bomb dogs everywhere. Maybe we just need to be realistic about what risks are out there and let people assess their own safety and live accordiningly.

Clark Kent Ervin: I think it's easier to say that now, since there hasn't been a Metro attack yet in our country. Let me know if you feel the same way if and when there is one. (That said, I agree with you that present Metro people tend to be incompetent. Everything that I recommend in the security realm is premised on getting people to carry security measures out who know what they're doing.)

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Washington, D.C.: I'm confused. Why was the terror threat level raised -after- this plot was foiled? Shouldn't, in theory, the threat level have been raised earlier to warn people of the threat, or is the view that this would simply let the terrorists know that we're on to them? Thanks.

Clark Kent Ervin: As you suggest, i think the concern was tipping off the terrorists prematurely that we were on to them. The governments wanted to learn as much as possible about exactly what the plot was and who was involved in it, while, at the same time, not waiting so long that the plot would be carried out. This is always a tough balancing act. In my judgment, the relevant governments struck exactly the right balance in this instance.

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Raleigh, N.C.: I'm a Muslim with an Arab-sounding name, and in February 2002, my father died and I had to purchase a last-minute plane ticket to get to him in a part of the US that's tough to get to. At every airport gate on my travel, I was asked to drink water/soda from the bottle I carried with me to make sure it wasn't explosives or some component of explosive. Twice I was prevented from boarding planes because of the last-minute-ticket thing and because I "seemed upset" (my eyes were swollen from crying). I was held overnight at O'Hare when I started crying at the gate because yet another security person told me to quaff half a bottle of water and wouldn't let me just toss the bottle away.

Obviously the whole liquid thing was an issue after 9/11. Why hasn't the issue been addressed in all this time, and why the hysteria right now, when this cell was actually uncovered more than a year ago?

And why, why, why, has there been no progress on treating human beings like human beings while addressing the security issues in a dignified and professional manner?

Clark Kent Ervin: I think we should have reacted to the threat of liquid explosives 12 years ago when Ramzi Yousef tried them, as you suggest. I sympathize with what you go through as a Muslim, with an Arab-sounding name. And, I can imagine what you had to grow through if you bought at last minute plane ticket. But, I'm afraid that this is the price that Al Qaeda has required people who fit the 9/11 terrorists' profile to pay for the foreseeable future. Certainly,though, as you say, security personnel should treat Arabs and Muslims with as much courtesy and sensitivity as possible, and scrutiny should not be confined to Arabs and Muslims since Al Qaeda is actively recruting people who don't fit that profile.

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Falls Church, Va.: How do you feel about Robert Baer's pleas for the CIA to return to the state it was in the 80s when he was there? I think his arguments and his books are pretty moving.

Clark Kent Ervin: I read "See No Evil" some time ago, so I don't remember what his exact argument is. But, I think it's that the CIA should be reinvigorated and given the tools it needs to be the premier spy service in this country. If so, I wholeheartedly agree with that, and the recent reorganization of the intelligence community, though well-intentioned, has only weakened the CIA further.

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Olney, Md.: I believe that by "bodypacking", they meant internally concealing an explosive and remote detonator. Is that a valid concern?

Clark Kent Ervin: I'm not sure that's what's meant, but, if so, certainly it is a valid concern.

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Minneapolis, Minn.: Thank you for taking our questions...

What else can we be -but- reactionary? The only way to prevent all onboard terrorist attacks would be to quite flying. or do full body searches on each and every flyer and full luggage searches on each and every piece of luggage. The public would not stand for that. I heard on NPR this a.m. that taking a random approach is being considered..focus on certain security items this today, different ones tomorrow, etc. Wouldn't thais be a good way to keep them guessing?

Clark Kent Ervin: Well, generally speaking, I agree that we need to introduce more randomness into our security program. That said, once we identify a threat, I think we need to keep responding to it. Otherwise, we will leave ourselves vulnerable to a vulnerability that we know about. We need to be reactive, as well as proactive, thinking of new ways in which we might be attacked. As you imply, we can never think of everything, but that's no excuse for not doing our very best to do so.

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Morgantown, W. Va.: What is preventing these terrorists from attacking "softer" targets like a daycare, school, or shopping mall? Why a "big ticket" target like an airplane? Wouldn't a terrorist attack on a elementry school cause just as much fear, panic, etc?

Clark Kent Ervin: I write about this very issue in my recent book, "Open Target: Where America is Vulnerable to Attack." Certainly it is very easy, indeed, to attack "soft" targets; that's what makes them "soft." But, Al Qaeda has made it clear that they want to do spectacular "Cecil B. DeMille-type" attacks that kill and injure as many people as possible and do as much economic damage as possible; hence this fixation on airports and politically or economically significant buildings. That said, I agree with you that an attack on a school or a sports stadium, because it's never happened before in our country, would likely have as big a psychological impact as a 9/11-style attack.

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washingtonpost.com: Ervin is also author of OPEN TARGET: Where America is Vulnerable to Attack.

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Washington, D.C.:"Needless to say, the more cells they are and the more independent they are, the more threatened we are."

All due respect, doesn't this suggest that al Queda has actually been strengthened?

Clark Kent Ervin: The Al Qaeda "movement" or "idea," for lack of better words, has, indeed, been strengthened. It's Al Qaeda as a discrete organization that's been weakened.

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Arlington, Va.: Since the plot was thwarted and everyone involved was arrested, why ban liquids now? The threat is no longer there, right?

Clark Kent Ervin: Not right. It would be crazy for us now to know about a serious threat like this and then not respond to it. We should use this scare as a motivator to start thinking about what other kinds of hitherto largely unanticipated threats we should develop responses to. We Americans are much too reactive for our good. We always want to make sure that we don't lose the last war. That's necessary, but it's not sufficient. We need to make sure we don't lose the last war, AND we need to do what we can to anticipate the next war, so we don't lose that one, too.

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Alexandria, Va. - Follow up comment on random searches:"I heard on NPR this a.m. that taking a random approach is being considered..focus on certain security items this today, different ones tomorrow, etc. Wouldn't thais be a good way to keep them guessing? "

No that would be stupid and a good way to keep people from flying. The TSA rules are bad enough in some cases, you need to at least know what the rules are when you are packing for a trip.

Clark Kent Ervin: Well, as I said in response to an earlier question, we need some randomness in the system. But, we should continue to focus on every threat that we know to be real.

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washingtonpost.com: Thank you all for joining us today.

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