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August 14, 2006
Chertoff: No Connection And No Distraction

Homeland Security chief Michael Chertoff told news interviewers yesterday that the terror plot uncovered in Britain this week had no American connections, but that the investigation would still continue to pursue leads if they led in our direction. He also cautioned against complacency and assured Americans that the plot's exposure had not provided a distraction for his department:

There is no evidence that terrorists were working within the United States as part of a plot to detonate explosives on airliners, but U.S. officials remain vigilant after last week's arrests in Britain and Pakistan, Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff said yesterday.

Appearing on several Sunday-morning television talk shows, Chertoff warned that it is clear in the wake of the foiled terrorism operation that enemies of the United States "still want to carry out spectacular plots" and have been developing innovative ways to skirt security.

"As we speak right now, we have not found any indication of active planning in the U.S. or plans to conduct operations within the U.S.," Chertoff said on CBS's "Face the Nation," discussing the plot to use liquid explosives on airplanes headed to U.S. cities.

He also said there is a concern about copycats. "I think we have to be concerned about other groups that may seek to exploit the opportunities to do their own activities or their own operations because they believe we are distracted," Chertoff said. "And the message here is we are not distracted."

Much of the conversation on yesterday's interview shows centered on the tools needed to provide the necessary security for the US. Chertoff noted that the British have more flexibility for counterterrorist efforts within their country, and those additional powers played a significant role in discovering the extent of the conspiracy. Chertoff declined to explicitly endorse the no-warrant NSA surveillance on international communications, but he told two news shows that we should not leave "tools on the table" in our fight against terrorists.

That assertion came under some fire from other talk-show guests. Senator Russ Feingold, widely rumored to be staging a presidential run, says that he thinks NSA surveillance of terrorists is fine, but he wants the NSA to get the warrants first when part of the communication comes from within the US. Ned Lamont struggled to answer Chris Wallace's questions on Fox News Sunday in an appearance that lent little luster to his flagging campaign. He insisted that the US is distracted by the war in Iraq despite the discovery and halt to this massive terrorist plot and the lack of successful attacks on the US since 9/11. He told Wallace that it was "time to focus", but then opposed the Patriot Act and the surveillance programs that Chertoff mentioned.

The distraction argument sounds great as a political sound bite, but the evidence seems very thin. It assumes that the government can only perform one task at a time. Congress created the DHS in order to allow for homeland defense while the Pentagon focused on a forward strategy against the terrorists. DHS has nothing to do with Iraq or Afghanistan, and no one has yet to explain why those wars distract DHS from its primary mission. If anything, Katrina showed that homeland security had distracted Chertoff and his team from emergency response, a secondary task that Congress grafted onto the department in what has now widely been acknowledged as a mistake.

Chertoff emphatically discarded the notion that Iraq or the successful end to the terrorist plot against British and American airliners had provided a distraction. Their track record speaks to their success, and the collapse of this grand al-Qaeda plan seems to demonstrate even better competence and cooperation than we had hoped.

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Posted by Ed Morrissey at August 14, 2006 5:05 AM

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