John Brennan on U.S.-U.K. Anti-Terror Links

U.S. officials say the terror scheme disrupted in London is "suggestive" of al-Qaida. British authorities arrested 21 people in what they describe as an ongoing investigation. John Brennan, former head of the National Counterrorism Center, speaks with Renee Montagne.

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RENEE MONTAGNE, host:

U.S. officials say the terror scheme disrupted in London is suggestive of al-Qaida. British authorities arrested 21 people in what they describe as an ongoing investigation. They say that terrorists aimed to blow up a number of flights from the United Kingdom to the U.S. using explosives carried on board in carry-on luggage.

Joining us now to talk about the security situation is John Brennan. He's former head of the National Counterterrorism Center. Good morning.

Mr. JOHN BRENNAN (Former Head of National Counterterrorism Center): Good morning, Renee.

MONTAGNE: U.S. authorities are describing this plot as a sophisticated operation. British officials say the investigation is ongoing. Should Americans be concerned?

Mr. BRENNAN: I think we should be concerned. I think there are two messages, though. One is that I think we should feel very good about the excellent investigative and intelligence work that was able to uncover this plot before it was able to come to fruition, and the British are exceptionally talented in this area in terms of identifying plots as they start to develop.

But secondly, I think it reflects the determination of al-Qaida or other affiliated terrorist organizations to carry out attacks of a devastating nature, directed against the United States - in this case, directed against the United States and the United Kingdom.

MONTAGNE: Can you tell us anything about the nature of cooperation between British and U.S. counterterrorism officials?

Mr. BRENNAN: Well, in fact, I think the relationship between U.S. and British counterterrorism officials is the best in the world. The United States has very, very close relationships with intelligence and security services in the U.K., and there is sharing of information on a regular basis.

Officials are constantly interacting with one another. So this is information that I'm sure was shared over the past several weeks or months, however long the investigation was ongoing, and so it really does reflect, I think, just outstanding work on the part of the British and their interaction with the United States so that we could take the measures here and elevate the threat level in the aviation sector.

MONTAGNE: Well, that elevated threat level, it's up to the highest level possible for flights between the U.S. and the U.K. That's a first since September 11th. What exactly does it mean?

Mr. BRENNAN: Well, it means that this investigation, even though arrests have been made, is still ongoing, and I think U.S. and U.K. authorities want to ensure that they do everything possible to identify possibly additional plotters that may be out there and to ensure that the precautions are in place, particularly now that they have some indication about the type of attack that was going to take place, using liquid or gel with detonators and timers.

And so I think they are doing what is most prudent to do, which is to inspect the - especially the carry-on baggage to make sure that they are able to identify someone else who might be out there that they have not yet been able to detect.

MONTAGNE: Of course we've all been able to carry on hand lotion and gel and all kinds of liquids in hand luggage. It's now been banned on flights between the U.S. and the U.K. Do you think that is an effective measure against this kind of threat, or can the threat be carried out in other ways?

Mr. BRENNAN: Well, you're right. It can be carried out in many ways, but I think what the authorities have to do is go on the intelligence they have about some type of ongoing operational activities and the tactics that may be employed. So I don't think this is going to mean that there will be a diminution of attention paid to other forms of attack, but again, what I think they're most concerned about is that there may be something that has slipped through the net and that may, in fact, be close to operational action.

MONTAGNE: Thank you for talking with us.

Mr. BRENNAN: Thank you, Renee.

MONTAGNE: John Brennan is former head of the National Counterterrorism Center, speaking to us from McLean, Virginia.

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Secretary Chertoff's Briefing: Highlights

U.S. Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff

U.S. Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff speaks during a news conference in Washington on Thursday. Alex Wong/Getty Images hide caption

itoggle caption Alex Wong/Getty Images

Thursday morning, Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff briefed the media about a suspected British terror plot, in which 21 suspects have been arrested in Great Britain. Some of the main points in Secretary Chertoff's remarks:

• The plot's operatives planned to bring liquid explosives and detonators, disguised as beverages, electronic devices or other common objects, on board flights to the United States.

• There is currently no indication of any plotting within the United States.

• The threat level for commercial flights from Britain to the United States is at red, or severe, the highest level of alert.

• The threat level for all other domestic and international flights in the United States is raised to orange, or high alert.

• Any liquids or gels have to be checked as part of baggage to go into the hold. There will be exceptions for baby formula and medicines

• Travelers are asked to pack as lightly as possible and minimize clutter to help speed the security screening process.

• Federal air marshals are being sent to the United Kingdom to provide expanded mission coverage for flights to the United States.

• In international arrival areas, U.S. customs officials will increase the use of advanced targeting tools, as well as baggage and aircraft search teams using K-9 units and detection technology.

• Travelers should expect delays, but they do not need to change their travel plans.

• Homeland Security asks Americans to be aware and vigilant, and to report any activity they think is suspicious to law-enforcement authorities.

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