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U.S. given early warning about plot

Mark Silva / Chicago Tribune | August 10 2006

President Bush had been briefed over the last few days about the thwarted airline plot underway in Britain, a White House spokesman said today — "especially as the action by the Brits (to interrupt the plot) became more and more imminent,'' according to Tony Snow, the White House press secretary.

Bush, who had gone to his Texas ranch for an 11-day working vacation, "had full briefings through the weekend'' on the matter, Snow said today.

Bush had gone to sleep Wednesday night advised that British authorities would make their move, Snow said, "although, we did have intelligence and security people up all night maintaining constant contact with the British.''

The president had had "two detailed conversations with the prime minister (Tony Blair,)'' Snow said aboard Air Force One en route to Green Bay, Wis., today. "In addition, U.S. security intelligence and law enforcement officials have been in constant contact.''

Bush had approved a recommendation of the Homeland Security Council to raise the travel alert to "red'' on flights from Britain to the U.S., Snow said. "That was done overnight, as you know. And we remain in very close contact with our allies in trying to follow up on details of the operation that took place, as we said, overnight in Britain.''

Snow would not elaborate on how advanced the plot was.

"I think we want to be careful about getting too much into detail, but there were some signals that they thought it was time to move,'' he said.

Asked if this plot might have been timed to coincide with the anniversary of the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks, Snow said: "I have no idea. What we do know is that there were some people who were determined to try to carry out, as the Brits said, a plot to kill people on a horrifying scale.''

Snow said there is "no confirmation'' of al Qaeda's role in the plot.

"As you know, it's been described as being al Qaeda-like, and I'm not going to get out ahead of intelligence officials in trying to characterize'' it, he said. "It was a very serious threat…. I know you want us to try to characterize timelines and when people were going to do that — you simply can't do that, for operational and intelligence reasons. But it was a very serious and very credible threat.''

After landing in Green Bay today, President Bush, there for a political visit, stopped on the runway briefly to warn that the thwarted plot is a "stark reminder that this nation is at war.''

"The recent arrests that our fellow citizens are now learning about are a stark reminder that this nation is at war with Islamic fascists who will use any means to destroy those of us who love freedom, to hurt our nation,'' Bush said after a short walk from Air Force One.

Thanking Blair and authorities in Britain "for their good work in busting this plot,'' the president said that authorities in the United States had cooperated "in this venture.''

"The cooperation among agencies within our government was excellent,'' said Bush, maintaining that "this country is safer than it was prior to 9/11. … We've taken a lot of measures to protect the American people, but obviously we are still not completely safe. … It is a mistake to believe there is no threat to the United States of America.''

The president left his Texas ranch to fly to Green Bay to campaign for a Republican candidate for Congress and deliver a speech on the economy.

Air Force One landed and rolled up to a ready set of microphones on the tarmac at Austin Straubel International Airport at Green Bay at 10:40 a.m. As he often is, Bush was greeted by a Freedom Corps volunteer at the bottom of the stairs. He walked from there to the microphones on the runway.

John Gard, the state assembly speaker who is favored to win his party's nomination in the open 8th Congressional District contest, was among the local officials who greeted the president. Bush and Gard plan to tour a metal plant in Green Bay before Bush heads to a $1,000-per-plate fundraising luncheon for Gard in nearby Oneida and then back to Texas.

While Bush is crediting federal and British authorities for their cooperation, the thwarted plot should deliver a stern warning, nearly five years after the terrorist assaults of Sept. 11, 2001, that the U.S. still is exposed to threats such as this, experts and critics of the White House say.

"The United States remains behind the curve on terrorism,'' said Rand Beers, president of the National Security Network and an adviser to Sen. John Kerry of Massachusetts in the 2004 presidential campaign.

"Catching potential terrorist attacks at the last minute should not be a point of pride, but rather a point of departure,'' Beers said today. "We are reminded that the United States is still in the bull's-eye of active terrorist groups. More must be done to improve our homeland security.''

Richard Clarke, former national coordinator for security and counterterrorism in the Clinton and Bush administrations, echoed the complaint.

"This plot demonstrates that five years after 9/11 we have not dealt effectively with the terrorist threat,'' Clarke said. "The planned attack would have been more significant than 9/11 in terms of fatalities. The plot reminds us of the failure of the Bush administration to improve our homeland security, including aviation security."

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