Chertoff Describes Plot as "Well Advanced"

U.S. security chief Michael Chertoff describes the U.K. aircraft terror plot as "well advanced." It has prompted officials to raise the alert level at U.S. airports. There may be more arrests in the case, although none are anticipated in the U.S.

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RENEE MONTAGNE, host:

We're joined now by NPR's Larry Abramson.

And Larry, what more have we been able to learn about this plot?

LARRY ABRAMSON reporting:

Well, we really haven't learned that many more details than Secretary Chertoff was able to share with us.

He emphasized that there is no indication of an actual operative threat against U.S. airlines right now. Despite that fact, they've raised the alert level, as you heard, even for domestic flights in this country.

And there are news reports that there were - that there was a focus among this group on American Airlines, United Airlines, and Continental Airlines. Secretary Chertoff has not confirmed that, but he did indicate that they had focused on specific airlines and had researched the plot to such a degree that they knew which planes that they were targeting, which airlines they were targeting, possibly even which cities they wanted these flights to be going to. And of course they were apparently going from Heathrow Airport in London.

MONTAGNE: And British authorities said earlier today that there might be or would be dozens of people involved. Might there be more arrests in Britain?

ABRAMSON: Well, certainly that's a possibility, according to what Secretary Chertoff and other officials have said, that they, you know, believe that they've gotten some of the major cell, but they can never be sure, especially with an organization that operates like al-Qaida, that there aren't other people out there who will - whose orders are to continue on with the plot. And that seems to be the only reason why they're continuing with this heightened security in the United States, even though the threat wasn't directed here. It was directed at planes that were coming to the United States. So it's certainly a possibility that there will be more arrests here or, as Secretary Chertoff indicated, anywhere in the world.

MONTAGNE: Secretary Chertoff said the alert level has been raised to its highest level for flights between the United States and Britain. And what will that mean for passengers, which we already are finding are, you know, in Britain, are lining up, pouring out their bags? Big delays.

ABRAMSON: Right. Well, it doesn't mean anything specific yet, although I suspect in the coming days people who are trying to fly, as I plan to do, are going to find out exactly what extra steps they have to take. Right now, as we heard, you cannot bring any liquids onto planes, and people in airports around the country now are throwing away little bottles of shampoo and other things - cologne - that they used to bring on the planes. You can't do that anymore.

You can certainly expect greater scrutiny of whatever carry-ons you bring. There could possibly, you know, be a limit on what kind of stuff you can bring onto the plane or the amount of hand carried luggage that you can bring.

Of course, in London, they have banned carry-on luggage for the time being. I would be surprised if the U.S. authorities went that far, because it's a tremendous hardship for people, but they will if they absolutely have to.

And I know right now the lines are long and we can certainly anticipate that they may well be long for the coming days or weeks.

MONTAGNE: Well, flights again being delayed. But what about cancelled?

ABRAMSON: I don't know anything about any cancellations right now, Renee. They certainly could be, but I think that's exactly what officials are trying to avoid, because what you cancel one flight then the flight that's connecting with it may have to get cancelled and you end up with a lot of bottlenecks.

MONTAGNE: Well, you mentioned right now that there might not just be arrests in Britain, but possibly here, possibly around the world. As you said, Secretary Chertoff suggested that. Do you know any more about that? Any news about a possible arrest here in the United States?

ABRAMSON: No.

MONTAGNE: Connected with this?

ABRAMSON: No. Again, and I think that the indications are, from what Secretary Chertoff said, is that, you know, they have no immediate knowledge of anything going on in this country. Of course, they're being careful not to tip off anybody who might be in this country helping the plotters by arresting them, and that was the difficult thing, Secretary Chertoff said. This was not a plot in somebody's imagination, like some of the other plots that have been disrupted recently, such as the Miami plotters, who really hadn't taken any concrete steps. He said this was a plot that was actually going to be put into place. And there may well be other people, financiers, who they are continuing to track in the United States or in other countries, people who they feel they don't have to arrest in order to protect the public, but who are worth tracking for intelligence reasons.

MONTAGNE: That's NPR's Larry Abramson. This is NPR News.

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