British say US gave terror suspects a heads up
Eight alleged terrorists were charged in Britain this week. One was caught with detailed plans of several US buildings.
A counterterror operation that started in Pakistan last month and rippled through the United States culminated in Britain Wednesday when eight suspects appeared in court charged with involvement in an alleged terrorist plot.
The eight, arrested earlier this month on the basis of intelligence gleaned from arrests in Pakistan, face charges of conspiracy to murder and to use hazardous materials to cause disruption or harm. Significantly, one was also charged with possessing reconnaissance plans of several public buildings in the US, including the New York Stock Exchange (NYSE) and the International Monetary Fund (IMF).
On the surface, the development suggests successful coordination of international counterterror efforts: A pair of suspected Al Qaeda lynchpins are nabbed in Pakistan; a few megabytes of intelligence retrieved from a computer point to a conspiracy and several plotters; the US raises its terror alert and warns the public; the British police and counterterror units swoop.
But intelligence experts say that privately there is great concern that the operation was jeopardized by US public pronouncements that were made before the British suspects were even apprehended.
"For reasons not so far satisfactorily explained, the US authorities decided to broadcast specific intelligence material upon which they must have known a vitally important future UK arrest operation would be based," says Charles Shoebridge, a former British counterterrorism intelligence officer now based in London.
"The broadcast would have inevitably compromised that operation and by implication the actual security of the United States itself."
The broadcast was made on August 1 by Homeland Security Secretary Tom Ridge, two days before the Britons were arrested. Mr. Ridge said the intelligence from Pakistan indicated that Al Qaeda was targeting several buildings including the IMF and World Bank, Prudential Financial in New Jersey, and Citigroup and the NYSE in New York.
Significantly, the charges levelled at one of the Britons in court on Wednesday mentioned exactly the same buildings. The implication, Mr. Shoebridge says, is that the suspects would have been startled by Mr. Ridge's pronouncements, alerting them that the net was closing.
As a result, subsequent arrests were dramatic and dangerous. Police, who remain tight-lipped about the case, have admitted that they swooped earlier than planned.
A spokesman confirmed Wednesday that some of the suspects were charged with having "reconnaissance material from America" but said the US pronouncements did not affect the operation.
"The operation was in place well before that weekend," he said. "There was an operational decision on when to move."
Yet some analysts believe that Washington's new-found openness with security intelligence could pose an operational risk.
"It's fair to say it can't have helped the development of transatlantic relations with regard to antiterrorism matters," Shoebridge says.
Professor Paul Wilkinson, head of the Centre for the Study of Terrorism and Political Violence at the University of St. Andrews, Scotland, agrees that the recent conclusions of the 9/11 commission may have made US officials more determined to err on the side of caution when it comes to terror threats.
The authorities, he says, cannot be blamed for divulging specific terror threats because if they fail to do so and the threat materializes "the public would have had every reason to be outraged."
But Washington should take care to ensure that its release of such information does not upset counterterrorist efforts elsewhere, he adds.
"Unless you have a common approach it's quite possible unthinkingly to jeopardize an operation which is likely to yield convictions," he says.
Daniel Benjamin, former director for transnational threats at the National Security Council in the Clinton administration, says he found Ridge's high-profile announcement "inexplicable."
"The key thing is this seems to me to have been a huge botch," he says. "I don't understand what was gained by having such a high-profile announcement."
Some observers worry that Ridge's announcement may have prevented British authorities from gathering more intelligence from the eight suspects.
What's troubling, they say, is the implication that politically motivated public disclosure may have hurt long-term counterterror objectives.
"The whole [Bush] administration is trying to lean pretty far forward and show results in the run-up to elections," Benjamin says.
The eight British terror suspects were remanded in custody pending a hearing next week. Lawyers said the charges would be "fully contested."
But concerns have been expressed at the possibility that some of the group might be extradited to the US. US Attorney General John Ashcroft has noted that some of them "may have connections to potential terrorist activities in the United States," and that US charges could follow.
"Our expert team of agents and analysts from the FBI will continue to share information and expertise with their British colleagues," he said on Tuesday.
In recent weeks, two Britons - one of them the noted cleric Abu Hamza al-Masri - have been arrested on US extradition requests related to alleged terror offenses.
Lawyers and human rights campaigners oppose the move. They note the difference between the European approach to dealing with terror suspects through the criminal-justice system and the US Guantanamo Bay model.
They balk at the possible death penalty. And they insist that suspects who face charges for crimes allegedly committed in a European jurisdiction should stand trial there.
"These [suspects] are British subjects, their charges relate to activities in Britain and there can be no question of extradition to the US," says Barry Hugill of the human rights group Liberty.
"We would reject any request for extradition unless they receive the quality of justice they'd receive in the UK, which is always a problem in the US because of the death penalty."
• Joshua S. Burek contributed to this report from Boston.