NY Times: How British cook plots


Richard Moore

Original source URL:

August 13, 2006

Tracing Plots, British Watch, Then Pounce

WASHINGTON, Aug. 12 ‹ The disclosure that British officials conducted months of 
surveillance before arresting 24 terrorism suspects this week highlighted what 
many terrorism specialists said was a central difference between American and 
British law enforcement agencies.

The British, they say, are more willing to wait and watch.

Although details of the British investigation remain secret, Bush administration
officials say Britain¹s domestic intelligence agency, MI5, was for at least 
several months aware of a plot to set off explosions on airliners flying to the 
United States from Britain, as well as the identity of the people who would 
carry it out.

British officials suggested that the arrests were held off to gather as much 
information as possible about the plot and the reach of the network behind it. 
Although it is not clear how close the plotters were to acting, or how capable 
they were of carrying out the attacks, intelligence and law enforcement 
officials have described the planning as well advanced.

The Justice Department and the Federal Bureau of Investigation have suggested in
the past that they would never allow a terrorist plot discovered here to advance
to its final stages, for fear that it could not be stopped in time.

In June, the F.B.I. arrested seven people in Florida on charges of plotting 
attacks on American landmarks, including the Sears Tower in Chicago, with 
investigators openly acknowledging that the suspects, described as Al Qaeda 
sympathizers, had only the most preliminary discussions about an attack.

³Our philosophy is that we try to identify plots in the earliest stages possible
because we don¹t know what we don¹t know about a terrorism plot,² Attorney 
General Alberto R. Gonzales said at the time. ³Once we have sufficient 
information to move forward with a prosecution, that¹s what we do.²

The differences in counterterrorism strategy reflect an important distinction 
between the legal systems of the United States and Britain and their definitions
of civil liberties, with MI5 and British police agencies given far greater 
authority in general than their American counterparts to conduct domestic 
surveillance and detain terrorism suspects.

Britain¹s newly revised terrorism laws permit the detention of suspects for 28 
days without charge. Prime Minister Tony Blair¹s government had been pressing 
for 90 days, but Parliament blocked the proposal. In the United States, suspects
must be brought before a judge as soon as possible, which courts have 
interpreted to mean within 48 hours. Law enforcement officials have detained 
some terrorism suspects designated material witnesses for far longer. (The 
United States has also taken into custody overseas several hundred people 
suspected of terrorist activity and detained them at Guantánamo Bay, Cuba, as 
enemy combatants.)

At the same time, Britain has far stricter contempt-of-court laws intended to 
prevent the prejudicing of trials. Anything that is said or reported about the 
suspects rounded up this week could, the police contend, prejudice their trial 
and prevent their prosecution.

Andrew C. McCarthy, a former terrorism prosecutor at the Justice Department, 
said he believed that British authorities were willing to allow terrorist plots 
to progress further because, if an attack appeared imminent, they could 
immediately round up the suspects, even without formal criminal charges.

³They have this fail-safe,² he said. ³They can arrest people without charging 
them with a crime, which would make a big difference in how long you¹d be 
willing to let things run.² He said F.B.I. agents, who are required to bring 
criminal charges if they wanted to arrest a suspect, had a justifiable fear that
they might be unable to short-circuit an attack at the last minute.

There is a difference, too, in how information is shared, with American law 
enforcement officials typically communicating much more fully with the news 
media and other agencies than their British counterparts do.

In one case in particular, last year after the London bombings when New York 
police officers traveled there to pitch in, the different working style created 
tension. British police and intelligence officials complained to the F.B.I., 
C.I.A. and State Department after the New York officers, used to speaking more 
openly, gave interviews to the press in London and sent information on to their 
headquarters in New York, where officials then held a news conference with some 
details about the investigation, according to one senior American official 
involved in the relationship with British agencies.

While American officials say they do not believe there were any serious 
compromises of the investigation, the British were extremely upset. ³They don¹t 
want us to share so widely,² the senior American official said.

A senior federal law enforcement official said MI5 also had a distinct advantage
over the F.B.I. in that it had a greater store of foreign-language speakers, 
giving British authorities greater ability to infiltrate conspiracy groups. The 
F.B.I. still has only a handful of Muslim agents and others who speak Arabic, 
Urdu or other languages common in the Islamic world.

Justice Department officials and others involved in developing American 
counterterrorism strategies, however, say it is wrong to suggest that the F.B.I.
always moves hurriedly to arrest terrorism suspects, rather than conduct 
surveillance that may lead to evidence about other conspirators and plots.

On Saturday, as news reports surfaced describing significant disagreements 
between British and American officials over the the timing of the arrests in the
bombing plot, Frances Fragos Townsend, the president¹s homeland security 
adviser, said in a statement: ³There was unprecedented cooperation and 
coordination between the U.S., U.K. and Pakistan officials throughout the case 
and we worked together to protect our citizens from harm while ensuring that we 
gathered as much information as possible to bring the plotters to justice. There
was no disagreement between U.S. and U.K. officials.²

John O. Brennan, a former official of the Central Intelligence Agency who set up
the government¹s National Counterterrorism Center two years ago, said in an 
interview that he had been involved in a number of recent cases ‹ most of them 
still classified ‹ in which the F.B.I. had placed suspected terrorists under 
surveillance rather than rounding them up.

He said the bureau¹s willingness to wait reflected a new sophistication as 
supervisors adapted to the rhythm of terrorism investigations. ³Especially given
the history of 9/11, of course the bureau wants to move quickly and make sure 
there is no risk of attack,² he said. ³But over the past two years, I think the 
bureau has become much more adept at allowing these operations to run and 
monitor them.²

But others are less certain that the bureau has overcome its traditional desire 
to make quick arrests.

Daniel Benjamin, a counterterrorism specialist in the National Security Council 
in the Clinton administration, said the apparent success of the British 
surveillance operation ‹ and the failure of the F.B.I. to identify and disrupt 
any similar terrorist cell in the United States since Sept. 11 ‹ argued for 
creation of an American counterpart to MI5. ³The F.B.I. has still not risen to 
the domestic intelligence task,² he said.

But MI5, others note, may have benefited from the longer experience of dealing 
with domestic terrorism in connection with the Irish Republican Army. And it has
its own critics who question its strategy by noting that it had some of the 
suspects in last summer¹s bombings in the London subway and on a bus under 
surveillance before the attacks.

British security officials have publicly acknowledged that two of the London 
bombers ‹ Mohammed Siddique Khan and Shehzad Tanweer ‹ had been observed in 
connection with a different terrorist plot that was subject to heavy 
surveillance. But when they dropped out of sight ‹ well before the London 
bombings ‹ intelligence agencies did not pursue them because the other 
conspiracy seemed a much greater priority.

John Timoney, the Miami police chief who also has run the Philadelphia Police 
Department and served in the No. 2 post in the New York Police Department, has 
worked extensively over the years in Britain on policing matters. He said 
comparing the two country¹s approaches was difficult.

³First and foremost, the policing systems are completely different,² said Chief 
Timoney, noting that in Britain the Metropolitan Police is the dominant national
law enforcement agency and is served by MI5.

In the United States, on the other hand, there is intense competition between 
various federal agencies and between some federal agencies and some state and 
local forces, he said.

But neither approach is guaranteed to succeed. In June, about 250 police 
officers stormed an East London row house looking for chemical weapons and 
arrested two brothers, Abul Koyair and Mohammed Abdul Kahar. Mr. Kahar was shot 
and wounded during the operation. But the two men were later released without 
charge after the authorities failed to find any evidence linking them to 
terrorist activities.

David N. Kelley, a former United States attorney in Manhattan who has overseen a
range of international terrorism cases, including prosecuting the mastermind of 
the 1993 World Trade Center bombing, said, ³The real challenge in law 
enforcement when you have a plot like that is when do you pull the trigger.²

He also said that the longer investigators waited to take down a case, the risks
that they might lose track of suspects increased, even if the plotters were 
under 24-hour surveillance.

³People think when you have someone under surveillance, it¹s a fail-safe, but 
losing someone is a real fear in these things,² he said. ³It¹s not like 
television. It¹s a real juggling act. You¹ve got to keep a lot of balls in the 
air and not let any of them drop.²

Lowell Bergman contributed reporting from Berkeley, Calif., for this article, 
Alan Cowell from London, and William K. Rashbaum from New York.

Copyright 2006 The New York Times Company

Escaping the Matrix website     http://escapingthematrix.org/
cyberjournal website            http://cyberjournal.org
subscribe cyberjournal list     mailto:•••@••.•••
Posting archives                http://cyberjournal.org/show_archives/
  cyberjournal forum            http://cyberjournal-rkm.blogspot.com/
  Achieving real democracy      http://harmonization.blogspot.com/
  for readers of ETM            http://matrixreaders.blogspot.com/
  Community Empowerment http://empowermentinitiatives.blogspot.com/
  Blogger made easy             http://quaylargo.com/help/ezblogger.html