Chertoff Eyes Next Moves for U.S. Air Security

U.S. Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff says others with a hand in the plot may still be at large. He says new safety precautions at U.S. airports will be in place indefinitely while authorities assess risks.

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MELISSA BLOCK, Host:

From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Melissa Block.

MICHELE NORRIS, Host:

And I'm Michele Norris.

In the U.S., airline passengers are still adjusting to a new reality today in response to a ban on taking liquids, gels and creams in carry-on luggage. The new rules were hastily put in place yesterday, after British investigators uncovered a plot to bomb international flights using combustible liquids. And while the travelers get used to new routines, the investigation into the alleged operation goes on.

Earlier I spoke with Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff. I asked him about what new details have emerged.

MICHAEL CHERTOFF: I've promised the British government, which has both operational considerations and, frankly, certain legal constraints, that we would not be getting into the details of their investigation, but what I can say is that we know that they amassed the materials that they needed. They had done the research with respect to the travel that they wanted to do. They had people who were recruited and ready to go, and in our judgment they were certainly within a couple of weeks of doing it, and maybe within considerably less time of carrying out the operation.

NORRIS: British police say they're confident that they've arrested the key players, including the ringleader, but they also say this network is also global and quite large. Is there any indication that that network reaches across the Atlantic to involve individuals here in the U.S.?

CHERTOFF: Currently we do not have information that there was an intent to originate or initiate any kind of activity within the United States itself. But obviously, the first thing we do is try to track down any even indirect contact between any of the people involved in the plot and anybody in the United States.

NORRIS: There's also new information and intelligence coming out today about a possible link to al-Qaida. I wonder if authorities are in the odd position of perhaps breathing a sigh of relief if it turns out that this group is connected to al-Qaida, because the alternative is so disturbing, the idea that a band of individuals could plot and plan something so spectacular.

CHERTOFF: Well, I think under any circumstances, it's clear that this was a sophisticated plan, and it had an international dimension to it. Now as we know, there are other terrorist groups besides al-Qaida, so it wouldn't shock me to learn that it was another group. On the other hand, this has the hallmarks of the kind of terrorist activity that al-Qaida itself undertakes.

NORRIS: If it turns out that there is a direct link to al-Qaida, does it suggest that almost five years after 9/11 that al-Qaida still has the ability to recruit and train and plot highly sophisticated coordinated attacks, that it has not been weakened?

CHERTOFF: Well, al-Qaida has not been eliminated. We have done an enormous amount of damage. We've taken away their training camps, we've forced them into hiding, we've killed a lot of the leadership and we've incarcerated or incapacitated a lot of other leaders, and although it may take them years to come up with the next sophisticated plot, we would be very foolish to assume they're not going to continue to try. This is going to be a long struggle.

NORRIS: I'd like to turn, if I could, to ask about what's going on in airports now on both sides of the Atlantic. How long in the U.S. will these new security measures last, this prohibition against carrying on any kind of liquid or gel?

CHERTOFF: Well, we have begun almost immediately reviewing whether there are ways we can refine the current restriction. A somewhat more complicated question is what we can do to recalibrate our detection systems to assure that if we start allowing liquids on airplanes, we can screen out anything that is potentially a hazard in terms of terrorism.

So that's going to require reverse engineering and a full understanding of what the design was of the devices that were a part of this plot, as well as looking at the existing technology and the next-generation technology.

So clearly we'd like to make adjustments as soon as possible, but I cannot tell you when, if and when we're going to get to the point that we allow people to take, you know Coca-Colas and coffees onto the airplanes.

NORRIS: Are we talking weeks and months that this might -

CHERTOFF: I don't really want to guess. I mean, I think we will see some immediate refinements in the near future, but I think that the more long term, ultimate plan is going to take a little bit of time while we do this reserve engineering and look at what we know about how to detect this kind of material.

NORRIS: The potential threat posed by liquid explosives is not new. It's been well known to law enforcement since the mid-'90s, perhaps even earlier than that. And some might ask, why weren't these precautionary measures taken earlier if this threat has been out there for so long?

CHERTOFF: Well, we of course have been doing a lot of work for years now on screening quickly, and you know, the concern has always been not necessarily that we don't have the ability to detect the chemical, but that the chemical is so common that it would result in our detecting almost everything and have a lot of false positives.

I think what was particularly challenging here was the design was not simply putting chemicals that are liquid, but that it was to put them in in way that really disguised them as ordinary, common items you might bring on an airplane, so that it would really take a very patient, careful examination of the item to see that it had been altered.

And that, of course, you know, raises the bar and makes it much more challenging than if you run across a bottle with wires sticking out of it and a detonator strapped to it. So you know, this is part of our constant, continual upgrading of our processes. It's a whole system of systems that we've got in place, and we want to make sure that, you know, we've fully incorporated the lessons of this plot as we more forward.

NORRIS: There have been a lot of arrests over the past few months, in the U.S. and Canada and London, of people suspected of plotting terrorist attacks at various stages. Some look at this and say that it reflects better intelligence. Others say that what it actually reflects is that there are more plots in the making. Where do you come down on that?

CHERTOFF: Well, I would certainly say it reflects better intelligence. I'd have to say that at least in the connection of the dots, we've done a lot better now than we've ever done before, and certainly much better than 9/11.

I also have to point out that some of these plots are what we call homegrown plots, where people are radicalizing themselves over the Internet or in small groups, and the larger question is, you know, what do we do about the increased radicalization of some people into an ideology of terror and hatred? And that is a much more fundamental study, which we are undertaking with a great deal of energy and a great deal of urgency.

NORRIS: Well I guess that goes to the question as to how you actually vanquish this threat, because unless you can actually weaken their ability to plan and to plot and to pay for these events, it seems like you're engaged in almost like a game of whack-a-mole, just trying to knock them down when they come up with these plots.

CHERTOFF: I think you're exactly right. I mean, clearly on the short term and through the long term, we're going to continue to have to improve our intelligence and have these measures, but you know, that psychology of what makes a person convert from an ordinary individual to a suicide bomber is, I think, at the core of a long-term strategy to winning here, which is worth a great deal of study and discussion, because clearly at the end of the day, we've got to eliminate that pool of people who are susceptible to becoming killers.

NORRIS: Secretary Chertoff, thanks so much.

CHERTOFF: Good to talk to you.

NORRIS: That was Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff.

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