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Why Britain Stopped the Terror Plot By: Insight Magazine
Insight Magazine | Friday, August 25, 2006

The Homeland Security Department has neither the legal nor technical tools to match the British capture of terrorist operatives before they were about to blow up passenger airliners.

Officials said U.S. law would not have allowed the FBI to conduct the type of surveillance that led Britain to uncover the al Qaeda cell and capture what could be the network’s chief. They said the department also does not have the funding to detect new types of bombs used by al Qaeda.

''What helped the British in this case is the ability to be nimble, to be fast, to be flexible, to operate based on fast-moving information,'' Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff said.


Officials said British authorities have greater powers of surveillance and investigation, which facilitated the capture of more than 20 suspected al Qaeda plotters. In contrast, they said, Congress has been reviewing the Bush administration's warrantless eavesdropping program and military tribunals.


On Aug. 17, U.S. District Judge Anna Diggs Taylor ruled in Detroit that the National Security Agency's wiretap program was unconstitutional and ordered that it be halted. The administration plans to appeal the decision.


"If this program were to be halted, it would hamper our ability to foil terrorist plots," said Sen. Mike DeWine, Ohio Republican and member of the Senate Select Intelligence Committee. "It is a critical tool to prevent America from being attacked."


But critics in Congress said DHS has failed to properly use its authority to foil terrorist plots. They said the biggest disappointment was the department's refusal to allocate research and development funds.


In August, the Bush administration sought to eliminate $6 million from the DHS budget for the development of explosives detection technology. The administration's attempt, blocked by Congress, took place as DHS's Sciences & Technology Directorate failed to spend $200 million in research and development money from previous years.


"The committee is extremely disappointed with the manner in which S&T is being managed within the Department of Homeland Security," a June 29 report by the Senate Appropriations Committee said.


Officials also acknowledged DHS delays in testing a new liquid explosives detector supplied by Japan in 2006. Al Qaeda sought to use liquid explosives to destroy as many as 10 American airlines.


"It is very promising technology, and we are extremely interested in it to help us operationally in the next several years," Assistant Secretary for Transportation Security Kip Hawley said.


But DHS, which spent $732 million in 2006 to develop explosives deterrents, concluded that several commercial liquid explosive detectors tested since 2003 have been deemed unfeasible.


The department has also failed to deploy trace explosive detectors in foreign airports to stop so-called shoe bombs. The systems have already been deployed in most U.S. airports.


"To help close this gap, the percentage of shoes subjected to explosives inspection should be significantly increased," a DHS report in 2005 said.


"Within the current state of the art, they afford the only meaningful explosives detection capability at the checkpoint."


The U.S. watch list of suspected terrorists has been criticized as vague and often a waste of time for border officers. A July 24 report by DHS Inspector General Richard Skinner asserted that U.S. Customs and Border Protection officers lack "authority to make timely and informed decisions regarding the admissibility of individuals who they could quickly confirm are not the suspected terrorist."


''We've done a lot in our legal system the last few years, to move in the direction of that kind of efficiency,'' Mr. Chertoff said. ''But we ought to constantly review our legal rules to make sure they're helping us, not hindering us.''


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