WaPo : Chertoff: Terrorism Prevention Efforts Successful

Thursday, March 06, 2008

Chertoff: Terrorism Prevention Efforts Successful

By Spencer S. Hsu and William Branigin | Washington Post Staff Writers | March 6, 2008

The United States has successfully lowered the risk of a large-scale domestic terrorist attack in the near future, one of the reasons there has been an increase in attacks by Islamic extremists in Europe, Homeland Security Michael Chertoff said today.

Improvements in U.S. traveler screening and border security have shifted the focus of al-Qaeda operatives and sympathizers to Europe, which is perceived as a more open target, Chertoff told a group of Washington Post editors.

"We have significantly reduced the risk of a major attack in the short term," Chertoff said before meeting with President Bush to mark the fifth anniversary of the Homeland Security Department's creation.

In a speech commemorating the anniversary, Bush renewed his lobbying for a bill that would provide immunity from lawsuits to telecommunications companies that turned over information on their customers to the federal government after the Sept. 11, 2001 terrorist attacks. The bill would extend modifications of a surveillance law that expired last month.

"To stop new attacks on America, we need to know who the terrorists are talking to, what they're saying and what they're planning," Bush told DHS employees at DAR Constitution Hall in Washington. For that, the government needs the cooperation of private companies, he said, but some of them are being sued for billions of dollars for allegedly violating customers' privacy.

"Allowing these lawsuits to proceed would be unfair," as well as "unwise" and "dangerous," Bush said. Although a bipartisan majority in the Senate passed a "good bill," he said, House Democratic leaders blocked a vote on it last month, saying they needed another 21 days to deal with it. That "deadline" arrives Saturday, Bush said.

A previous House version of the bill did not include the immunity provision that the White House has demanded.

"If House leaders are serious about security, they need to meet the deadline they set for themselves, pass a bill and get it to my desk this Saturday," Bush said.

He also warned against complacency about terrorism, urging Americans to "remember that the danger to our country has not passed."

Listing a number of steps he said his administration has taken to prevent future terrorist attacks, Bush asserted that "we have made our borders more secure," unified terrorism databases and improved the detection of counterfeit travel documents.

He also pointed to programs to prevent the smuggling of biological, chemical, radiological or nuclear weapons into the nation's cities.

"We are determined to stop the world's most dangerous men from striking America with the world's most dangerous weapons," Bush said.

Chertoff also highlighted what he said was the department's effectiveness in keeping would-be attackers at bay.

"It's not impossible, but for terrorists who typically operate in being very careful because they don't want their plots disrupted, we have made it harder for them to come in," he said.

Chertoff likened the reaction to a car thief who passes over a locked vehicle set with an alarm and anti-theft devices and decides to steal the one next to it.

"One of the reasons we're seeing more attacks in Europe is because they think it's easier," he said, citing almost annual attacks since 2004 in Madrid, London and Glasgow and disrupted plots in Denmark, Germany, Italy, France and Portugal.

However, the intention of al-Qaeda and affiliated groups to strike at U.S. targets has not diminished, Chertoff warned, repeating U.S. intelligence assessments last year. For example, a disrupted Britain-based plot to smuggle liquid explosives onto transatlantic airliners in 2006 would have caused deaths on the scale of the Sept. 11 attacks, he said.

While al-Qaeda's capability is "uneven" and less than what it was before 2001, it is rebounding somewhat in the frontier areas of Pakistan, he said.

Chertoff's remarks come as Washington is pushing 27 of its European and other allies to accept tighter security requirements on travelers who can now visit the United States as tourists without visas. The restrictions include electronic check-in with authorities days before travel.

He also warned against complacency, saying al Qaeda inspired extremists are "continuing to refine themselves and improve themselves. If we don't do more than we're doing, if we stop, eventually that risk is going to start to increase."