British Official Describes Difficulty in Deciding to Act

British officials began the operation to disrupt the plot Wednesday night. By Thursday morning they'd arrested 21 people. Police described them as "homegrown." Home Secretary John Reid described the difficult decision to act.

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RENEE MONTAGNE, host:

This is MORNING EDITION from NPR News. I'm Renee Montagne.

News continues to unfold as authorities in Britain and the U.S. reveal more details of what they described as an advanced plot to blow up airplanes flying across the Atlantic. We're joined our studio by NPR's Ari Shapiro, who spent the morning following events. And, Ari, you have a wrap-up of what we know so far.

ARI SHAPIRO reporting:

That's right, Renee. British officials began the operation last night, and by this morning they had arrested 21 people. Police said they were homegrown. Home Secretary John Reid described the difficult decision to act.

Mr. JOHN REID (British Home Secretary): Move too early, you may not know the full scope of who are involved, and you may provoke those you don't know into taking the very action you want to avoid. And move too early and not have immediate success, and you stand to be criticized by everyone. Don't move, and you run the risk of terrible consequences and you will then be more condemned by everyone.

SHAPIRO: The plotters allegedly planned to blow up airplanes in mid-flight using liquid explosives hidden in carry-on bags. British aviation officials banned carry-on baggage today. American airports have prohibited passengers from taking liquids on airplanes with them in carry-on bags. That includes toothpaste, lotion, drinks, everything but medicine and baby formula.

Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff said Americans should not change their travel plans, but he urged people to be vigilant.

Mr. MICHAEL CHERTOFF (Homeland Security Secretary): There is no - currently no indication of any plotting within the United States. Nevertheless, as a precaution, the federal government is taking immediate steps to increase security measures with respect to aviation.

SHAPIRO: For the first time ever, the Department of Homeland Security raised the threat level to red, or severe, for flights between the U.S. and the UK. Meanwhile, details continue to emerge about the alleged plot and those who would carry it out. Secretary Chertoff:

Mr. CHERTOFF: This operation is, in some respects, suggestive of an al-Qaida plot. But because the investigation is still underway, we cannot yet form a definitive conclusion. We're going to wait until all the facts are in.

SHAPIRO: Some of the hallmarks of al-Qaida include timed explosions, especially on airplanes - as was apparently the case in this alleged plot. Chertoff described this plot as sophisticated. He said it had a lot of members and it was international in scope.

British authorities have described the day's events as the first stage in an ongoing investigation. They say they're convinced that the main players in the alleged plot have been arrested, but there may yet be others.

In airports on both sides of the Atlantic, flight cancellations and delays caused backups. Authorities say these are very serious and inconvenient measures that they're taking, but they emphasized that they'd rather have more protection and scale those policies back once they're no longer necessary.

MONTAGNE: Ari, thank you. That's NPR's Justice reporter Ari Shapiro joining us in our studio as events unfold.

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Secretary Chertoff's Briefing: Highlights

U.S. Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff

hide captionU.S. Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff speaks during a news conference in Washington on Thursday.

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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