British frustrated by U.S. warnings

Leaks and alerts harmful to anti-terrorism efforts and trials, authorities say

August 11, 2004|By Todd Richissin | Todd Richissin,SUN FOREIGN STAFF

LONDON - The raids on suspected al-Qaida members here last week were dramatic: Anti-terrorism officers surrounded cars on public streets, high-powered weapons drawn. Officers yanked suspects out of the vehicles while bystanders ran into their houses or dropped to the ground for cover.

After the raids, which netted 13 people suspected of involvement in terrorist acts, London police said the arrests were part of a "pre-planned, ongoing, intelligence-led operation."

What British officials did not say at the time is that they had hoped the operation would continue, so that other suspected terrorists could be identified and eventually arrested.

But it was cut short and legal charges jeopardized, officials now say, because terror warnings issued by the Bush administration and leaks by U.S. officials forced the British to curtail their investigation and stage the risky, daytime arrests.

Those arrests and the aborted investigation are results of starkly different approaches by British and American officials in the way they inform their citizens about terror threats.

When Homeland Security Secretary Tom Ridge was briefed on information that al-Qaida operatives were casing financial institutions in New York, New Jersey and Washington, D.C., he called a news conference, named the potential targets and raised the terror alert for the areas believed to be danger.

British Home Secretary David Blunkett received similar information that Heathrow Airport was being studied by suspected terrorists. The home secretary said nothing publicly.

"Look at the timing and what happened," said a senior British government source. "For our anti-terrorist squads to surround these people as they did - surrounding cars with highly powerful weapons and pulling them out while the public is walking by - obviously, that's not how we want to do things.

"And if these people hadn't already been arrested, that should tell you investigators thought there was still some value in watching them. When the leaks began, and then when things became very public, there was no question these people knew they were being watched and we could wait no longer."

But given the magnitude of the events of Sept. 11, 2001, Blunkett said he understood Washington's tendency to raise alerts while government officials here, armed with the same information, would not. "That's why it's more frustration than tension or anger," he said.

A different approach

In a column published Sunday in The Observer, Blunkett answered criticism from political opponents that he was not explicit enough about the threats facing Britain. At the same time, he warned that the leaks and warnings in the United States could be counterproductive.

He wrote: "Is that really the job of a senior Cabinet minister in charge of counterterrorism? To feed the media? To increase concern? ... Of course not. This is arrant nonsense.

"I've never been a shrinking violet, and I'm the first person to say something when I've got something to say," he wrote. "But it is important to be able to distinguish if there is a meaningful contribution that helps to secure us from terrorism. And to understand if there isn't."

Blunkett has said that despite the new intelligence data, Heathrow has long been considered a prime target for terrorists and that he did not consider the information specific enough to warn the public.

Instead, Britain's approach has been to wage continuous media campaigns to remind citizens that the country is a constant target and to remain alert on subways and in other public places. Blunkett said he will not hesitate to issue a public warning if intelligence identifies a specific threat.

The threshold for what meets that criterion has been higher among British officials than among their counterparts in the United States.

Leaks and warnings

The home secretary said in his column that going public too soon compromises investigations and can prejudice trials. He was said to be particularly concerned that the characterization by unnamed Bush administration officials of one of the men arrested here as "a senior al-Qaida operative" could block his extradition to the United States because of strict British laws requiring that anybody turned over to another country be assured a fair trial.

Ridge's terror alerts and the subsequent leaks came after Mohammad Naeem Noor Khan, a Pakistani also known as Abu Talha, was arrested July 13. His name was first published Aug. 2 in The New York Times.

The article, quoting Pakistani intelligence officials, described him as a 25-year-old computer engineer who helped operate a secret al-Qaida communications system.

The Reuters news agency later reported that while under arrest, Khan was working to help authorities catch al-Qaida suspects. But Khan's value was destroyed, Reuters reported, when his name became public.

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