Homeland Security Responds to the Terror Threat

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News of the alleged terror plot against flights from the U.K. created chaos among travelers and airport security personnel in the U.S. The government's Homeland Security department raised the threat level in response to the arrests in Britain.

RENEE MONTAGNE, host:

British police said yesterday they thwarted a terrorist plot, possibly just days away, to blow up airplanes bound for the United States. Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff compared the plot to the 9/11 attacks.

Secretary MICHAEL CHERTOFF (United States Secretary of Homeland Security): If these plotters had succeeded in taking down multiple jets carrying hundreds of people, we would have seen a disaster on a scale comparable to 9/11, with hundreds, maybe thousands of people, being killed.

MONTAGNE: That was Michael Chertoff taking on the News Hour on PBS.

The news about the plot to use liquid explosives disguised as beverages has added another potential threat to a long list faced by airport screeners.

NPR's Pam Fessler covers homeland security and joins us now. Good morning.

PAM FESSLER reporting:

Good morning.

MONTAGNE: First, Pam, back to Secretary Chertoff comparing this to the 9/11 attacks. Of course, the fifth anniversary of those attacks is just a few weeks away. Do officials think there's any link?

FESSLER: No, no they don't, Renee. Counter-terrorism experts generally think that terrorists attack when they're ready to attack. When all their plans are in place and the circumstances are right. And they don't think that they do it for a particular, on a particular day, for symbolic effect. And U.S. officials yesterday reiterated that belief, that it was not related to the September 11th anniversary.

That said, it has been five years since the last attack, and the same officials say they think it's only a matter of time when there will be another one.

MONTAGNE: And, the plan in this particular plot to bring liquid explosives on board isn't new. There've been other plans to blow up planes using liquid explosives. Why hasn't the U.S. government done more before now to screen for this kind of threat?

FESSLER: Well, in fact, security officials have been very concerned about this for some time, and they are doing testing, looking for better ways to detect liquid explosives. But I think the simple answer is they're just grappling with so many potential threats. Most of our security is a response to the latest threat, for example, after 9/11 we started securing cockpit doors to prevent planes from attack - from being hijacked. And then after the arrest of shoe bomber Richard Reid, we started having passengers take their shoes off.

So, most of it is a response to - there's just so many different threats. And we are seeing some new technology at airports to screen for explosives called puffer machines, that blow air on passengers to detect trace amounts of explosives. But they're only in a few places.

Some administration critics say the administration should be spending more money on aviation security, but there are also a lot of aviation security experts who question whether it's really feasible to screen all passengers for every single potential threat - that terrorists will always find the gap.

MONTAGNE: Well, is there then any solution to that?

FESSLER: Well, the current head of the Transportation Security Administration, his name is Kip Hawley, he says he thinks the answer is to keep potential terrorists guessing, to make things more random, less predictable. And so since last year, he has been trying to have screeners conduct more random inspections, to mix things up a little bit so you can't know exactly what's going to happen. He's also been having security officials wandering more around the airport terminal looking for anything suspicious, so not all the focus is on the security checkpoint.

Of course, clearly they don't think that these measures are working, or else they wouldn't have imposed these new restrictions on liquids yesterday.

MONTAGNE: Pam, thanks very much.

FESSLER: Thank you.

MONTAGNE: NPR's Pam Fessler.

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