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Homeland Security Chief Calls Plot ‘Comparable to 9/11′

August 10, 2006 at 6:15 PM EST
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RAY SUAREZ: Now we turn to Secretary of Homeland Security Michael Chertoff.

Secretary, welcome to the program. What can you tell us about how many men or how many suspects are still at large?

MICHAEL CHERTOFF, Homeland Security Secretary: Well, we know the British are obviously continuing to follow the trail of the men that have been arrested. And they’re going to have to make judgments about whether those who are connected, either by telephone contacts or other kinds of interactions, are really culpable and part of this plot or whether they just are innocent bystanders.

So we may not know for some time what the total number is, but as Home Secretary Reid said, they believe they have the major players.

RAY SUAREZ: As long as there are an undetermined number of coconspirators at large, can this plot be considered rolled up or is it still a live threat?

MICHAEL CHERTOFF: Well, certainly we believe the plot has been disrupted. But as I said earlier today, we’re not certain that the members have all been rolled up or that we have completely thwarted the plan. And that’s why we, too, have taken precautionary measures with respect to our alert level.

We matched the alert level the British set for flights coming from Britain into the United States, and we went to the level orange here in our own airports and also with respect to other international flights precisely because we’re not certain that everything is over. And while we believe that the plot has been disrupted, we need to be careful and not assume too much.

RAY SUAREZ: What do you know now about the planned chronology, when some of the aspects of this plot were meant to roll out?

MICHAEL CHERTOFF: Well, we believe this was a well-advanced plan and could have, in fact, been executed within a matter of a week or two, perhaps even earlier. So this is not a case where we stepped in at the early stages.

They had the capabilities; they had assembled a team; they had the final stages of planning under way. And that meant we were really in the critical period of time before the plan was actually launched.

RAY SUAREZ: Is it a difficult decision to know when to come in and finally execute those arrests, in the hopes of perhaps maximizing your haul by waiting until the latest possible moment?

MICHAEL CHERTOFF: Well, Ray, this was in fact the difficult set of decisions that officials on this side of the Atlantic and the other side of the Atlantic wrestled with literally every day this week. Obviously, you want to continue to go as long as you’re collecting information about new participants in the plot and new details. That’s very important to make sure you scoop up everybody.

But at the same time, you can’t afford to wait too long, because the worst result would be one in which somebody got wind of the investigation or they simply went ahead with the part of the plan that you didn’t know about and wound up killing a lot of people.

So this is, perhaps, the hardest decision people with jobs like mine make, which is that balancing of what more we need to get against what we fear may happen if we delay too long.

Security measures

Michael Chertoff
Department of Homeland Security
One of the things we did was we've sent an enhanced complement of air marshals to the United Kingdom so that we can have even greater coverage of flights coming from Britain using our air marshal program.

RAY SUAREZ: We went to the red level of alert in the color-coded chart. We've never been there before. What difference will people notice boarding flights from the U.K. to the United States? What differences will there be on the ground here in America?

MICHAEL CHERTOFF: Well, the red alert, with respect to the flights that come from London, may not, in fact, be detectable to Americans, because the British, in fact, have put into effect an even more strict and difficult set of standards. So essentially, the British have equaled or topped what we would do with red.

With respect to orange, I think people will see some changes. They'll see more guards; they'll see more dogs. There may be some random I.D. inspections. A lot of what happens will be less visible; will be happening behind the scenes.

One of the things we did was we've sent an enhanced complement of air marshals to the United Kingdom so that we can have even greater coverage of flights coming from Britain using our air marshal program.

RAY SUAREZ: Will Americans traveling by other ways than by air notice changes, especially around big metropolitan areas?

MICHAEL CHERTOFF: Well, this plot was aviation-centered, and we have no reason to believe that the plot was focused on other forms of transportation or other types of infrastructure. Obviously, every community will make its own judgment about whether, in fact, they need to take some extra precautions.

It is, of course, a sobering reminder for all of us that the threat of terror is very much with us and that we cannot afford to be complacent.

Comparable to 9/11

Michael Chertoff
Department 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.

RAY SUAREZ: What kind of damage -- given what you know about the devices contemplated by these alleged conspirators -- what kind of damage could it have done to an airborne jet? Do we know?

MICHAEL CHERTOFF: Well, of course, we haven't completed studying of the devices that were designed, and I don't want to offer opinions in public about how much explosive is sufficient to take down a jet. This whole issue, for obvious reasons, is very highly classified.

But let me speak generally about the issue. 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.

In terms of the sophistication of the plot, in terms of the risks that were posed to public safety, I think this is really in the top level of the kinds of terrorist activity we've seen over the last 10 years, going back to Khobar Towers, and the bombing of the Cole, and, of course, the 9/11 attack.

RAY SUAREZ: To head off that specific threat, we've gone to new standards getting on planes in the United States today, eliminating the carrying on of liquids, of various kinds of gels, of home personal care products, all kinds of things. How long could we contemplate those limits staying in effect?

MICHAEL CHERTOFF: Well, of course, when we get access to the design of the device, and we reverse-engineer it, and we examine the way in which they thought they could get by our security, we'll have an opportunity to determine what countermeasures we can take to make sure that our screening devices will pick up any effort to conceal these kinds of explosives, in ordinary looking things like beverage containers or a Walkman or other kinds of radios.

But until we have satisfied ourselves that we have reverse-engineered this and we have the appropriate countermeasures, we really have to be safe rather than sorry. And that may mean for some period of time people will have to get adjusted to packing their liquids in checked baggage as opposed to taking them on the plane.

RAY SUAREZ: Well, the British, as you mentioned have clamped down even more than we have on this side of the Atlantic. Were those measures contemplated here?

MICHAEL CHERTOFF: We did consider a whole range of measures. We obviously put a lot of stock on the fact that the activity, the planning, and the operational activity in this plot was centered in Great Britain. And we didn't have any evidence there was plotting to take any initiative in the United States.

And so we carefully calibrated what we thought we needed to do to protect against copycats or any residual plotters without making it so difficult that we added unnecessary inconvenience to the traveling public.

Balancing security

Michael Chertoff
Department of Homeland Security
Again, this is a matter of balancing. We want to be as transparent as we can be. What we don't want to do is reveal techniques that will tip off terrorists about the way we do things or when we're going to do things.

RAY SUAREZ: How do you strike the balance between absolute security -- that is, grounding every plane meant to take off in the United States today -- and absolute open skies, and drawing that line somewhere between those two poles?

MICHAEL CHERTOFF: You know, Ray, this is the fundamental challenge of homeland security, and it's really something we've talked about for the past several years. We cannot afford no security, but we cannot afford total security, because, as you point out, absolute security could come only at the expense of grounding all the planes and really undermining our way of life. And that would, of course, be a defeat for America.

So we do balance. We manage risk. We strike at the greatest risks. We try to make a cost-benefit analysis of what measures are appropriate to avert the risk.

But we do not promise people that there is a guarantee against risk, because if we were to make that promise, we would have to really shut down our way of life. And that's the kind of balance in which I think we're going to have to get accustomed to over the long run, as long as we are engaged in this protracted war with terror.

RAY SUAREZ: Now, a couple of times in our conversation you've mentioned that there are things that you can't tell me or you can't yet tell me, the things that may be of value to people plotting against the United States. But if we were to take the view that information dispels fear, is there also a judgment call to be made on telling the public things that may actually create a couple of million extra sets of eyes and ears?

For instance, with the plastic food containers that were central to the July attacks on the London Underground system, those became something that the public could have had an eye out for.

MICHAEL CHERTOFF: That's absolutely right, and that's the philosophy we've taken here. I mean, we have talked pretty candidly about the fact that this plot envisioned using liquid in containers, like beverage containers, that would be disguised to look like ordinary common objects you might bring on a plane.

We do that because we do want people to be alert, and we also, frankly, want them to understand why we're inconveniencing them. And we know it's an inconvenience. On the other hand, I'm not going to spell out the precise recipe for mixing the chemicals to make a bomb because then I'm inviting people to try that on their own, and that would be foolish.

Again, this is a matter of balancing. We want to be as transparent as we can be. What we don't want to do is reveal techniques that will tip off terrorists about the way we do things or when we're going to do things.

And we also have to be a little careful in this case because the British courts have very strict laws about public discussion involving pending court cases, and we don't want to jeopardize the very important prosecutions the British government has before it.

Advice to travelers

Michael Chertoff
Department of Homeland Security
But the watchword is still this: When it doubt, given what's at stake with human lives, we have to always err on the side of caution as opposed to putting people at risk.

RAY SUAREZ: Quickly before we go, what could you tell someone who's contemplating a flight in the coming days who feels they must board with a chemical, a medicine, eye drops, whatever, about what they should be prepared to demonstrate to TSA people?

MICHAEL CHERTOFF: I think what -- my advice is this: You present the TSA inspector with the medicine or with the baby formula. They will make the appropriate judgment about how to check to make sure it's genuine. If you have a prescription, bring the prescription. If you have baby formula, you should have a baby with you or you're going to have a hard time explaining why you're carrying it.

And then, with a dose of common sense, the inspector will make the judgment that you can take that in the cabin. But the watchword is still this: When it doubt, given what's at stake with human lives, we have to always err on the side of caution as opposed to putting people at risk.

RAY SUAREZ: Secretary of Homeland Security Michael Chertoff, thanks for being with us.

MICHAEL CHERTOFF: Ray, good to be here.