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American Morning

U.K. Airport Terror Plot

Aired August 10, 2006 - 07:00   ET


SOLEDAD O'BRIEN, CNN ANCHOR: Right now there are 21 people in custody. Police say most of them were arrested in London, around London, in the suburbs. None of those arrests appear to have come from any of the airports in London. The arrests, the culmination, we're told, of major covert counter-terrorism operations that lasted several months, but then quickly came to a close. As Jeanne (ph) mentioned, maybe it was on the verge of going operational. But it went from being an investigation to quickly leading to multiple arrests.
A source close to the investigation says, "this is the real deal." British police are also saying, and we've seen pictures. Maybe we can show some of those shots of homes where searches are now underway in the suburbs of London. People's homes are being searched as well.

The Department of Homeland Security here in the U.S. is announcing a ban on liquids being carried onto airplanes, and that includes drinks, beverages, hair gels, lotions. It does not include, it appears at this time, baby formula. In Britain, they're stopping almost all the carry-on items. There have been dozens of flight cancellations throughout Europe. It's going to have a ripple effect, not only across Europe, but here in the United States as well.

Passengers are being told, and anybody who's flown at all knows, you should expect long delays at airport security checkpoints. As you just heard from Jeanne (ph), you're not only going to have delays getting on the plane, you're going to have delays getting off the flight as well. In addition, they're going to be checking the manifest, the record of all the passengers. So that will be searched, electronically, obviously. And then also, at the same time, there will be physical searches as well. So that is going to slow things down greatly. You can expect that if you don't arrive to the airport two hours in advance of your flight, you're going to have a real problem getting on.

The Department of Homeland Security is raising the U.S. threat level for aviation to orange or high. It's red or severe for flights that are coming from the U.K. to the U.S. And that is the first time that we've seen that raised to that level.

We've got reporters standing by on both sides of the Atlantic this morning. Adrian Finighan is at Heathrow. Let's get to him first for an update on what's happening there.

Adrian, we talked earlier about a potential ripple effect. That not only of passengers, as they start to get backlogged in flights, as they clearly get backlogged, but also traffic as it gets backlogged and the implications for flights around Europe. What are you seeing?

ADRIAN FINIGHAN, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Well, Soledad, good morning, by the way.

This is the situation at Heathrow. The airport is effectively closed to all inbound flights, apart from those already into the air or in the air, rather, when the closure was announced. Now when we arrived here a few hours ago, the runway was still reasonably busy here at Heathrow with incoming flights. Right now, though, we're seeing one flight every, what, 20 minutes or so.

The reason for that closure is the fact that once aircraft get here on the ground, they're unable to disembark their passengers. So few flights are getting away on time. There's such a backlog of people waiting to go through these new security measures that flights just simply aren't able to get off the ground on time. There's nowhere for aircraft coming into the airport to actually park to disembark those passengers.

As far as the situation inside the terminal itself is concerned. Well, as you arrive, each passenger is handed a flyer here. It tells you that you're unable to take a whole host of items on board the aircraft, particularly liquids. That means that people are having, somehow, to get rid of the items they were planning on take on board as hand luggage.

Some have been able to re-pack their main bags. But you know what it's like when you travel. You pack your main bag as full as you can get it. A lot of people are finding there's no room.

Airport authorities are handing out polythene (ph) bags for people to put stray items into. What you do with those? There's nothing to do but tie it to your main case and hope that it gets to your destination undamaged, still attached to the main case.

Particular emphasis, as you've been reporting, on liquids. I spoke to one young mother who was traveling with a baby today. The baby not only needs formula, now we're told that formula is being exempted because, of course, it's in powder form when you actually take it on board the aircraft. But the baby requires medications. It suffers allergies. She was told by security staff that when she got to the actual security screening point that she may have to taste her child's antihistamine medicine in front of the security officials to ensure that it was, indeed, the real thing.


O'BRIEN: You spoke to people as well. What was the feeling? Are people angry? Obviously, now, the hours are ticking by and it's really beginning to sink in. And for many people, they're stuck. They're stuck. What's the tone?

FINIGHAN: Well, as I said, organized chaos is the best way to describe what's going on over in the main terminal buildings over in Heathrow on the other side of the runway there. When I was last there a few hours ago, people who turned up for their flights had been stuck in these huge cues. Of course, the airport, this is August. It's the peak traveling season. Busy at the best of times. This morning, incredibly so.

People taking it on the chin. They seem to take the attitude, most of them that I spoke to anyway, that these new security measures are designed to ensure that we, as passengers, get to our destinations safely. That reassured most of them. And they were willing to accept the delays, the frustration, the stress of having to stand in this packed terminal building in the knowledge that they're going to get to where they're going in one piece.

O'BRIEN: Yes, that might be the completely worthwhile tradeoff, so to speak. Adrian Finighan for us at Heathrow. Adrian, thanks.

And as we mentioned just a moment ago, for the first time ever, the terror threat level for passengers jets bound for the U.S. from Britain has been moved to its highest level, red, or severe. All other commercial flights into the U.S. increased to orange, or high. International travelers, of course, getting special scrutiny this morning. CNN's chief national correspondent John King in Washington, D.C. for us.

Good morning, John.

JOHN KING, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Good morning to you, Soledad.

I was just told moments ago by a senior administration official that the president approved the raising of the level to red for flights from the United Kingdom into the United States and up to orange overall. In a conversation yesterday with the Homeland Security secretary, Michael Chertoff, after discussions with the Homeland Security council, this goes back, we are told, to conversations to cooperation between U.S. intelligence and British intelligence agencies that have been going on for weeks and months, we are told, but the president started discussing this specific plot with the prime minister of Great Britain, Tony Blair, we are told over the weekend and they have had several conversations since, including an overnight conversation as the arrests unfolded.

This senior administration official moments ago saying that this is very much the real deal in his view. And saying that while they can't discuss much of it right now because of the on-going investigation, in this official's view, "the intelligence makes very strong links to al Qaeda." The official stressing this is not a home- grown terrorist organization in Great Britain. As he put it, not a bunch of kids trying to make a political statement.

He says there's intelligence showing that there is sophistication to what they were planning to do. There is international contacts in this. A the global scope of all this. So, Soledad, officials making the case that the reason you are seeing the higher threat level is that they because, and again they won't get into the specifics, but they are saying the intelligence shows very strong ties to international terror groups, including al Qaeda.

This official also stressing that anyone who is worried about anyone who might be on a trans-Atlantic flight that has taken off as all this is unfolded, they believe all those people are safe. They say the reason these arrests were coordinated overnight was so the people could be arrested in this plot. They did believed it was close to operational. But this official stressing that they believe all the security precautions were in place before any planes left en route to the United States, Soledad.

O'BRIEN: John, let's talk more closely about this home-grown versus al Qaeda influence. I mean, to a large degree, it actually could be both. I guess people think home-grown as people who are in the country, who are citizens, who could easily get around, who don't need to learn to act like the community that they're in. They actually belong to the community. Been born there, raised there.

And, at the same time, may have an al Qaeda influence or al Qaeda inspired, I think is one way I've heard it put. Are they saying that that's not the case or are they saying that this is al Qaeda as in cells come in, you know, basically go underground, instigate themselves into a community, et cetera? Can you give me a better explanation?

KING: I wish I could. They're refusing to give us much information at all right now, Soledad, because they are still looking for suspects. And again this official saying that to the best knowledge of the FBI and U.S. intelligence agencies, none of those suspects are in the United States. They say there's no direct connection to the United States as yet. But because the investigation is on-going, they're being very sensitive, very reluctant to offer us any details.

This official just stressing, there's always a debate. Since 9/11, this has been a recurring theme. When the threat level goes up, when people say they have broken up a suspected plot, there has been a debate about is this home-grown terrorism, is it domestic terrorism in the United States? If it is overseas, is it a local terror group or does it have any ties back to al Qaeda? And this official saying that they believe the intelligence will show very strong ties to international terror groups and that there was coordination.

Often you hear in the investigations here in the United States that there might have an a home-grown group looking to do something and then they go looking for help. And where do they get that help? From somebody who can provide the training, can provide the sophistication, somebody with al Qaeda or ties to a network like al Qaeda.

In terms of this particular plot, Soledad, as it unfolds, they're being very reluctant to tell us. But this official going through the sophistication of what he says these terrorists were planning on doing, how they were planning to carry out these attacks. He says these meetings to plan have been going on over months and months. To this official, he says the intelligence will show very strong links to international terror groups and he said he believed very strongly links to al Qaeda. But when we asked for the specifics to connect those dots, they're not giving them to us right now. O'BRIEN: That's interesting. It will be interesting to see if it ends up being both al Qaeda and home-grown at the same time, if you know what I mean. And I guess when they talk about the sophistication, you're talking about maybe, and we're heard as many as nine planes simultaneously exploded in air, et cetera, et cetera. John King joining us. John, thanks.

Let's get right to John Reid. John Reid, of course, is the home secretary and he has a news conference. We're going to listen in to what he's saying.

JOHN REID, BRITISH HOME SECRETARY: Can I just introduce those on the platform? To my right is Paul Stephenson, who's the deputy commissioner of the Metropolitan Police. To my left, Douglas Alexander, who's the secretary of state for transport. And then to my far left is Stephen Nelson, who's the chief executive of BAA.

Douglas and I will make a short statement and we will then throw it open to questions. And I thank you for coming at such short notice.

In holding this press conference this morning and all the other information that we're putting out, we are trying to balance the need to ensure that the public have as much information as we are able to give them, while recognizing that these matters are not only on-going operationally, but are also likely to be the subject of future criminal proceedings. You will recognize, therefore, that we do not want to preempt either the criminal proceedings or in any way to cut across the on-going operations. We're, therefore, trying to get a balance and how much information we put out and what form. Nevertheless, we do want to share as much as possible through you with the British public and for the wider public.

As I said this morning, the police, acting with the security service, MI-5, have carried out a major counter-terrorism operation overnight to disrupt an alleged plot to bring down a number of aircraft through mid-flight explosions. Had this plot been carried out, the loss of life to innocent civilians would have been on an unprecedented scale. The police operation is complex and it is on- going. Twenty-one people have been arrested and are currently in custody in relation to this specific operation.

The decision to take action was an operational matter for the police and for the security service. But it was, of course, taken with the full knowledge of the prime minister, the deputy prime minister, the secretary of state for transport, as well as myself. The prime minister has briefed the president of the United States on the operation and Douglas and I have been in close contact with the U.S. Homeland Security secretary and the Transportation secretary.

We also have been in touch, of course, with our shadow opposition spokesman. And I have spoken to the leaders of our two main opposition parties, all of whom have offered their support for our endeavors. And, therefore, this important time we have a completely united body policy (ph), which I think is important. I have chaired two cobra (ph) meetings. Just a word of explanation on cobra. Cobra is a means for ministers and officials, including the police and security services, to take and to ensure that we have taken the up-to-date facts and information and the decisions which are necessary to be taken. It is chaired by the minister responsible, in this case myself as home secretary. It met, obviously, last night, into the early hours of this morning, through the night with officials and again in the early hours of this morning with Douglas and I in attendance.

I would like to explain why the Joint Terrorism Analysis Center, who set the threat level, took the decision to raise the U.K. threat state (ph) to its highest level, that of critical. While the police are confident that the main players have been accounted for, neither they, nor the government, are in any way complacent. This is an on- going, complex operation and we all believe we have taken the necessary precautionary measures to protect the public, both by the actions we have taken and by the maintenance of that threat level for the time being at the highest possible level. The police and the security services, together with government officials, are working around the clock to prevent any further terrorist activity.

I would like to take this opportunity to pay tribute to the skill and professionalism of the police and the security services. We owe them all a great debt of gratitude. The government, the police, and the security service will continue to give 100 percent effort. Of that, you can be sure.

We also need you, the British public, to remain ever vigilant as you are our widest (ph), closest and strongest form of surveillance and intelligence. So most of all, I would like to thank the Great British public and our many visitors from overseas for their patience and understanding as we implement these necessary security measures.

On that, let me just pass to the secretary of state for transport, say a few words and then we'll throw it open to everyone.


And let me begin by echoing those words of gratitude, both for the forbiddance (ph) and understanding of the British people, but also, of course, to the security services and, indeed, to the police, here represented with us on the platform today.

Earlier this morning, we issued instructions to U.K. airports and the airlines that operate from them requiring new security measures to be put in place. The seriousness of the threat gave us no choice but to require these stringent measures to be implemented with immediate effect. This morning, I have been in continual contact with key aviation industry figures and my department is continuing to work with airports and operators at all levels and in all locations of the United Kingdom.

With us on the platform today, as John mentioned, is Stephen Nelson, the chief executive of BAA, who will be able to answer questions on the operational steps that are being taken in light of the new security measures required. We greatly value the corporation that has been shown so far both by industry and by passengers.

I recognize that these measures are already affecting many families and individuals seeking to travel at this busy time of year. I would assure you, however, that every effort is being made to address the operational challenges being confronted by our airlines and our airports. While this work is under way, I would urge all passengers to show understanding in the inevitably difficult circumstances that they will face.

Thank you.

REID: OK. Thank you, Douglas.

We'll throw it open to some questions now if we can. Just give us your name and rank and serial number when you're (INAUDIBLE).

QUESTION: (INAUDIBLE). Secretary of state, you have said (INAUDIBLE) but in no way you remain complacent. Could you give us some sense of how many alleged plotters are still out there? What their number is? And to what extent they're on your radar screen? And to what extent they can operate outside of what one might call the main cell, which you have allegedly rounded up?

REID: Well, I think as a general statement, the price of scurrying protection for the whole country is constantly (INAUDIBLE) vigilance. And I've said so before this operation and I will repeat it after the operation.

As regards to the specific plot, I've already indicated we think that the main players are in custody. But we should always err on the side of caution, which is one of the reasons that we kept the threat level at its highest and critical level.

Perhaps I could pass to Paul to ask him to make any comments on the specific nature of your questions regarding this particular alleged conspiracy.


I'd echo the Home secretary's words here. We are (INAUDIBLE) to counter-terrorist operation and our colleagues across the country. We are satisfied with what is essentially the first phase of a very significant and sophisticated investigation. But I think, again, I would echo the words that you just heard. It would be entirely wrong to be complacent and I think what we've got to is not speculate on where the investigation might take us. And, of course, this sits within the wider threat that we're already aware of and that the country's already been very much made aware of, at least by the Home secretary in recent times.


QUESTION: George Paskiwalski (ph) from "The Sun." Home Secretary, can I ask you, you made a speech yesterday in which you said this country faces as bigger threat to civilians since World War II. Would you say now that the people of this country should be prepared that we are at war with an extreme cell (INAUDIBLE) and would you say that are there many more, hundred more, dozens more similar plots underway that you know of? And thirdly, do you think that the heads of the Muslim communities are simply not doing enough a year from 7/7 to crack down on this extreme cell?

REID: As I said yesterday, we are involved in a long, wide, and deep struggle against very evil people. This is not a case of one civilization against another, one religion against another. It is a case of, in general terms, of terrorists who wish to use evil methods against the rest.

And, therefore, there is common cause in this country among all the people of this country, from whatever background, religion or ethnic dimension, because this threat is common to us all. And indeed, internationally, most of the people who have been massacred are actually Muslims and, in many cases, Muslim men, women, and children in places far from here. So this is a common threat to the British people and it will be met best by the common unity of pompous and opposition of terrorist methods by all of the British people.

And that is a general statement I made yesterday. That I stand by. As regards the specific nature of any investigations on the operation that is on-going, I'm not going to make any comment on that because the operations are for the police and the investigations will eventually be for the judiciary judge. Now I'm going to take one over here.

QUESTION: (INAUDIBLE), thank you very much. The big question in my mind (INAUDIBLE) is it safe to fly? (INAUDIBLE).

REID: Douglas, and then Paul.

ALEXANDER: Well, the very reason that we have taken the security measures that I described early this morning was to secure flights from Britain's airports. We've been determined to send a signal that notwithstanding the challenges that we do face putting in place that new safety regime, that we will continue to operate the British airports with planes coming in and leaving the United Kingdom. But we believe that the steps that we have taken are the basis on which people can view secure, open traveling to or from the United Kingdom.

REID: Paul, do you want to (INAUDIBLE).

STEPHENSON: Just a brief comment, Home secretary.

Yes, I think our actions last night were quite clear about reducing and mitigating the hearts of the public. We think we've done that by acting on the intelligence. In doing that all ready (ph) is to actually allow them to go about their business. Our (INAUDIBLE) that the public to remain calm, but remain vigilant, but do go about their business so that we are not defeated in this (INAUDIBLE). I think that echoes exactly what the (INAUDIBLE) and Home secretary just said. REID: OK. Here you go.

QUESTION: (INAUDIBLE) did increase the threat level in this way. Firstly, are people right to feel afraid given that you've taken that oppressive move? And secondly, do you anticipate reducing the threat level in the near future?

REID: We have raised the threat to the maximum of critical and will maintain it there as a precautionary measure primarily. Although we, by which I mean the police and the security services, think we have the main players in this particular conspiracy. You can never let the stage be satin, and we therefore want to make sure that alongside the operational interventions we have made, that we have maintained a very high level of vigilance and some of the necessary restrictions in the aviation sector, which Douglas has set out this morning. So I don't think people should be panicked by that. But I hope they will be reassured by that. That even when we think we find a successful intervention at this stage, that we're not willing to be complacent, but are maintaining it at a higher level.

Paul, do you want to say anything about that?

STEPHENSON: No. Only perhaps to say that you asked, should the public be frightened? No. What the public should be is calm and vigilant. We go back to what we've said on many times previously. It is communities that fight (ph) terrorism. It is our civilians that fight (ph) terrorism. We need our citizens to be vigilant, but we also need them to keep this in some sort of perspective and we do need to go about our daily business otherwise we lose and people who (INAUDIBLE) win.

REID: OK. At the front here.

QUESTION: (INAUDIBLE) there was an excessive difference from your (INAUDIBLE) through cooperation in much better (ph) way with authorities (INAUDIBLE) are likely to be patient (ph) (INAUDIBLE). And, at the same time, you encourage Muslims to come forward in terms of passing information about possible terrorists. How much we can say that you have succeed on this front? And (INAUDIBLE) what different (ph) information in this cooperation (ph)?

REID: Well, I don't want to comment specifically about this operation for reasons that will be perfectly obvious, both operationally and judicially. But as I said at the beginning, all of the people of this country, from every religious background and every ethnic background, have a common threat against them from terrorism. Terrorists will not distinguish between those of different religions or men or women or convicts (ph) and civilians or children or adults. In general, terrorists will massacre or murder anyone who stands in their way. So in the face of that common threat, and on the basis of the common values of the British people and the commitment to democracy, I'm sure we'll get a common populous to assist the police in any inquires that they have to make at any stage and to any of these conspiracies.

QUESTION: (INAUDIBLE) you've been trailing the conspiracy for some months at some stage last night you made (ph) the decision that we had to act, had to stop it (INAUDIBLE). Can we read into it then that these suspects have already the intention but also the means to put that plan into action and that they were pretty (ph) close to (INAUDIBLE)?

REID: I'm going to ask on the specifics Paul here. I would just make one general statement, which Douglas and I know only too well. It is a difficult judgment for people to make at our security services and our police in particular.

As to the timing of any intervention in a given operation, move too early, you may not know the full scope of who are involved and you may provoke those you don't know into taking the very action you want to avoid. And move too early and not have immediate success and you stand to be criticized by everyone. Don't move and you run the risk of terrible consequences and you will then be more condemned by everyone.

So I hope that everyone in Britain who is with great fortitude suffering the inconveniences they've got today, well, as I know they will, and all of these occasions, be very quick to understand the difficulty of those judgments being made by our police service and a lot slower than some commentators to condemn them when it doesn't result in 100 percent success. So we don't treat any of these with any degree of complacency.

On this occasion, I'll ask Paul if he wants to comment on the specifics of the timing of that judgment. I suspect not, but . . .

STEPHENSON: You suspect right, Home secretary.

We are in the very early stages of a complex investigation. And I'll remind you the words of Deputy (INAUDIBLE) Commissioner Peter Kolko (ph). I know he's just briefed you. Who (INAUDIBLE) is leading this investigation. We did reach a critical point last night when the decision was made to take urgent action to disrupt what we believe was being planned. But the prime motivation for that action was, as always, public safety. We thought it was absolutely essential to take that action last night.

REID: Douglas.

ALEXANDER: I would just echo the sentiments John has communicated in these sense of the need for us to work and to stand together in the hours and days ahead. If you look at the arrivals gate at Heathrow Airport on any day of the week, you see people of every race, religion, creed and color. Terrorists do not seek to discriminate on that basis. And on that sense, I would hope and believe that just as after the horror of 7/7, it was a matter of immense pride the extent to which Britain pulled together. That in these challenging hours and days ahead we will see the same sentiment and the same forbiddance and stoicism being shown by all people of Britain.

REID: And I would just point out that the deputy prime minister, who I've spoken to last night and this morning again, is engaged in contacting some of the parliamentary representatives of the communities, both of the ethnic groups and of those areas where the arrests have been made. So the DPM's already engaged on that as well.

I'll take right at the end and I'll come to the back (ph).

QUESTION: (INAUDIBLE). Home secretary, at this stage would you say that this alleged conspiracy is basically British, home-grown? If there is any foreign involvement, how soon (INAUDIBLE)?

REID: I actually wouldn't like to comment on any of the details of those who have been arrested -- Paul.

PAUL: I'd like to echo exactly those words. The reality is, as I've said already, this is a very (INAUDIBLE) investigation, and I would not be able to take -- I don't wish to answer that question.

QUESTION: Do you have any evidence of foreign involvement?

STEPHENSON: We are certainly cooperating with foreign agencies.


STEPHENSON: I'm not going to comment further on that.

REID: Let us take one at the back there. Yes?


Both you and the deputy commissioner have referred to this plot being designed for a mass murder [ inaudible ] on the scale. Are we talking about something bigger than September 11?


STEPHENSON: I think it would be entirely inappropriate to make those comparisons. What we're dealing with is a specific incident, a specific plot based on our intelligence, and we've acted on that. This stands alone. I think such comparisons would bear inappropriate and perhaps even (INAUDIBLE).


STEPHENSON: Intelligence of 9/11 -- I am tasked with the responsibility of policing London and with the national responsibility working to the commissioner. As far as we're concerned in the U.K., in the U.K. context, this is unprecedented.

REID: OK. Yes, one in the front now.

QUESTION: Yes, I'm from "The New York Times," (INAUDIBLE).

There was a plot that was broken up in I think 2000 to simultaneously blow up a number of airlines over the Pacific. Ramzi Yousef, the head guy, was captured later.

And I wondered, if this -- do you consider this to be right out of that same playbook for copycat plot or (INAUDIBLE) a more direct connection between (INAUDIBLE) and now? REID: I don't want to comment on the derivation of it, and the -- or any copycat nature or any comparison, and you'll understand why we avoid that. But we have made it plain this morning that we thought this was a significant and substantial threat to life in considerable numbers through a wave of attacks on airplanes in mid-flight.

Now, I don't really want to go beyond what we said this morning on that, for all of the reasons I've explained earlier.

But we are aware of the history of things that have been tried in the past.

Let's -- we'll take one right -- yes, the lady?


REID: Paul?

STEPHENSON: It was a little bit of (INAUDIBLE), but I think you're asking about the origin (INAUDIBLE). I think it would be entirely proper at this stage in the investigation to comment on that, but simply an identity is part of the early stages of the investigation.

REID: All right. I'm going to take just -- I'm getting signals over here, perhaps two more, if I can. There is -- I think you've been in already, haven't you, in fairness?

Right, the gentleman in the open-neck shirt there.


REID: Sorry, could you speak up a little?

QUESTION: I'm sorry. (INAUDIBLE) of the Associated Press.

I was wondering (INAUDIBLE) surveillance operation. What way is it unprecedented? in the number of suspects?

STEPHENSON: If I may, home secretary.

I'm using the phrase unprecedented, and I think it's improper to do that in terms of this operation. I didn't refer to the surveillance operation; I'm referring to the totality of this and the threat it posed to the public.

REID: OK, I'm going to ask on one point, which is the action that's being taken in the aviation sector. If, Douglas, at this stage, or indeed, Stephen, want to say anything about that before we go to the last question.

ALEXANDER: Sure. I would simply echo one of the remarks I made at the outset, that notwithstanding the reality of the inconvenience and difficulty being encountered by passengers at airports across the United Kingdom at the moment, I can assure you that efforts are being made at every level to try and expedite the way forward. I think it might be helpful for Steven to run through some of the principle airports, just to give you a sense of the extent to which notwithstanding the new security regime that has been put in place. There are considerable efforts being made to make sure that planes are both taking off and landing.


NELSON: And let me just (INAUDIBLE). It's worth mentioning that this is the first time the aviation industry or the airport industry in the U.K. has faced a security mandate of this scale and this severity. But this is an industry that's very familiar with working in close cooperation with government in pursuit of what both the secretaries of state (INAUDIBLE) common purpose and determined visions (ph).

So what that means today is that we've had some very severe delays at all of our airports. But to give you a sense of where some of the major airports represented by BAA are, all our airports are open for business, but travelers, regrettably, are facing very severe congestion at points at the airport and clearly upon departure.

Heathrow is not taking inbound shorter flights, principally in Europe. We've put a timing on that of 3:00 p.m., which may be up for review, but flights are leaving from Heathrow and we're working flat out against very carefully controlled processes to ensure that we clear the capacity.

(INAUDIBLE) and Gatwick (ph) are both very congested and we're facing the same problems on the runway, where, in effect, we have planes which are parked up and backed up. But the (INAUDIBLE) is not closing the airport, but actually reducing the congestion. And therefore, we need to unite in the same appeal (ph) with customers, which is, please, can you work with us, and we ask for your forbearance of these very tricky times, where we're working to resolve the backup.

REID: OK, and one last one.

QUESTION: (INAUDIBLE). Perhaps a question (INAUDIBLE). Do you have any plans to review security at British airports, perhaps invest in new and improved kinds of security, particularly with regard to handbagging?

ALEXANDER: Well, obviously, the immediate challenge that we faced was responding to the circumstances we confronted last night, and that's being reflected in the advice we've provided not just to the airlines, but also to the operators of which Steven has spoken. That remains our immediate priority, and you'll understand why given the threat level that is being described to you today, of course, in tandem and in parallel with that work, addressing the immediate threat level, consideration is being given as to the longer-term response that will be necessary, but I think it would be inappropriate at this stage for the focus to be on anything other than the immediate response being provided by the airlines and the airports on the basis of which Steven has spoken. REID: Ladies and gentlemen. Thank you for your attendance here, and through you can we just finally thank again, the British public and all the many visitors here for the toleration of what are very inconvenient, but absolutely essential measures to protect the public. Thank you.

O'BRIEN: You've been listening to John Reid, the home secretary, the British home secretary, as he updates us on the situation today, as there is this breaking news about a thwarted terror attack at London's Heathrow Airport and other airports.

Let's just begin with what he had to say. He talked about overnight how they were able to disrupt this alleged plot. And the plot was essentially this. The a plan was to bring down a number of aircraft through mid-flight explosions. A number that we have heard from some is nine aircraft. And he said the loss of life would have been on an unprecedented scale. Today there are 21 people under arrest. Those are currently in custody. And he says that there are expected to be more there.

However, he said they're keeping the threat level at the highest level, the critical level, because they want to err on the side of caution.

There was a question, an interesting question, about what happened that would lead to this overnight action. After months and months of investigation and surveillance, as they described it, suddenly, overnight, they decided to move.

Let's get right to CNN's chief national correspondent John King. He's in Washington, D.C. this morning.

John, I thought there were a couple of main players, main points from these players here. They talked about the main players, they believe, are under arrest, but they're erring on the side of caution. And then there was lots of talking around that question. Well, why last night? what happened last night that they decided to move?

KING: And very sobering, Soledad, as you noted. John Reid, the home secretary, in Great Britain talking about the prospect of a wave of attacks on flights as they were flying over the Atlantic to the United States.

Why did they do it when they do it? That has been a recurring theme, a recurring question, a recurring debate, and a very critical one at times, since 9/11. And the home secretary in the United States, who is essentially the homeland security secretary we would have here in the United States, saying that if they go in too early, they may arrest people and they may actually inspire those who are in the plot to attack. They may not get enough information to thwart future attacks. So he's making the point that they try to watch as long as they can, to gather as much information and intelligence as they can to cast as wide a net as possible, to learn as much as they can about how many suspects were involved, how many countries might be involved, how many attacks might be in the planning phase, what type of weapons. But at some point, they have to intervene, Mr. Reed was saying, because otherwise, they're afraid the attacks, the plot will go operational and the attacks will take place. So that is always a very sensitive issue. They were very skittish about providing any details, because even though they say they believe they have the main suspects in place under arrest, they say the investigation is ongoing.

And, Soledad, it's interesting to talk to officials here in the United States about this. We understand that the first specific conversation President Bush had with Prime Minister Blair about the specific alleged blot was over the weekend. And while British officials didn't use the term, one senior U.S. official is making the suggestion that the intelligence will lead you back to al Qaeda.

I want to read you what the official told me a short time ago. He said, quote, "This is not a group of disgruntled home-grown people looking to make a political statement. This is a highly coordinated, sophisticated operation with international involvement and implications. I ask, is it tied to al Qaeda? And the official said the scope of the activities and the sophistication gives us every reason to believe so. The intelligence, we believe, outlines very strong links."

So as the investigation unfolds, U.S. officials saying they have absolutely no information at all that any of the suspects, anyone tied to this plot, is here in the United States, but the investigation, obviously, continuing, Soledad.

One other quick footnote, we're going to hear from senior U.S. officials in about 20 minutes here in Washington, the homeland security secretary, the FBI director and the attorney general. And we're also told the president himself will address this later in the day. He is off to Wisconsin. He is in Crawford, Texas on vacation, where he has been briefed overnight, but he will address this, and we are told not to expect the president to speak publicly until he is in Wisconsin for an event on the economy early this afternoon -- Soledad.

O'BRIEN: There is a report from the Associated Press. I'm going to read a bit of it to you, John. It says, "A U.S. intelligence official says that the plotters had hoped to target flights to major airports in New York, and Washington and California. This is coming from the Associated Press."

I thought it was, when it comes down to the question, well, is it al Qaeda, meaning is it sophisticated, coordinated, is it more of a global international scale, or is it homegrown, frustrated local people who may have, maybe more of an ax to grind, I guess is a way you could put it, with inspiration and -- from al Qaeda, or maybe even some training from al Qaeda. Kind of an interesting question, especially when you heard from the home secretary, where everybody seemed to dance around the question, well, who are the suspects? They have since -- well, since we've been covering the story this morning, no one has really wanted to comment, outside of saying, we want caution you not to jump to conclusions. They talk about religion in the sense of saying they're hiding behind their religion, et cetera, et cetera. No one actually laying out who the suspects are. KING: It's a very difficult question, and it's an evolving question, because as U.S. officials and other intelligence agencies around the world say that they believe they have done a good job in the almost five years -- we're just a month away from the five-year anniversary of 9/11 -- as they say they think they've done a good job in attacking the central leadership of al Qaeda, the command-and- control structure at the top of al Qaeda, they say what they have, though, in its place is in some ways even a more difficult challenge from an intelligence and law enforcement perspective, because it's a more fractured organization, where you have these people who are affiliated with al Qaeda, or who have expressed their allegiance to al Qaeda, but they may not a wholly-owned subsidiary, if you will. So that has been one of the more fascinating and more difficult and complicated challenges when it comes to law enforcement and intelligence, and it has become one of the debates, both in politics here in the United States and in the law enforcement community. When you say someone is affiliated with al Qaeda, what exactly does that mean?

Five years later, when, again, these officials do say they've made pretty good inroads in attacking what used to be the command structure. Osama bin Laden, obviously still on the run, his top deputy on the run, but they say they've made significant gains, and al Qaeda doesn't have a base in Afghanistan, for example, doesn't have a corporate headquarters, if you will, anymore. It has been splintered and fractured out.

But in some ways, Soledad, officials will tell you that makes their job even harder, because they're looking in more places and there's not as many direct, firm links between these cells and an al Qaeda operation and organization, but in this case, this official saying he believes the intelligence will make very strong links, and in saying so, he said they base that on the sophistication of what they were trying do, trying to get essentially liquid explosives onto planes, and, as the British official just said, for a wave of attacks over the Atlantic headed for the United States.

O'BRIEN: Mass murders is how they've been calling it.

While you were talking, John, we're showing pictures of one of the homes of one of the suspects being searched, and they said those searches -- right there you there, you can see. This is taking place in a western suburb of London, and they're going to continue to do these searches, they've said. It's going to be a long investigation. John King in D.C. for us. John, thanks -- Tony.

HARRIS: And, Soledad, joining us now from the CNN center in Atlanta is CNN's senior investigative producer, Henry Schuster.

Henry, first of all, talk to us, if you would, about the details of this plot and how those details to conceal liquid explosives into carry-on luggage bags is indicative of kind of the evolving thinking of these terrorist groups.

HENRY SCHUSTER, CNN SR. PRODUCER: Well, Tony, I spoke just a little while ago with a former Scotland Yard inspector who was involved in many of these counterterrorism cases, and he says that there is a couple of things that you have to pull away from this. One is that obviously we're talking about, as he said, initiated devices, suicide bombers. Two, how would they over the period of years from 1994, when we first saw from al Qaeda this sort of planning to put bombs on airplanes -- in fact in 1994, al Qaeda actually pulled off a test run of one of these bombs that was assembled on an airplane using liquid explosives and a detonator. In that case, it was a Casio watch.

Here the thinking is that it might have been one of these electric key fobs. So he says, well, how do they know -- you know, he says, we're only talking about a small amount of explosives. Look at what Richard Reid, the shoe bomber had, that was only a small amount of explosives, yet it was enough to bring down a plane, and That was much evolved from what happened in 1994. In 1995 and 1996, there was a plot to bring down up to 11 trans-oceanic flights from the Pacific into the United States. This plot is very reminiscent of that. So you begin to see where there's an evolution of the al Qaeda playbook here.


Well, Henry, can I jump in for just a second here?


HARRIS: Let me just ask you, why continue to target aircraft? Are there vulnerabilities that the terrorists are aware of in the system to protect all of us?

SCHUSTER: Well, there's a couple of reasons, Tony. And the first one is that -- and I spoke to someone this morning who said, you have to remember, they do what they know how to do. And in this case, they've been trying aircraft, they've been trying public transportation for more than a decade. I mean, you could look back to 1994. So this is what they know. I mean, we expect them to be much more sophisticated and go and, you know, we say, why aren't they going after shopping malls? Why aren't they going after other targets? But this is what they know.

And there is -- think about this. I mean, mass murder on an unimaginable scale is the way the British talk about what would have happened. So the impact here...

HARRIS: I see.

SCHUSTER: And then you have Osama bin Laden earlier this year saying, we have plots under way against you that you don't even know about. Now, you know, these guys do have a tendency to say what they mean, even if some of what they're doing is propaganda. They don't make idle threats.

HARRIS: OK, let's leave it there, Henry. Henry Schuster, senior investigative reporter for CNN. Henry, thank you.

And at 8:00 Eastern, homeland security secretary, just another reminder, Michael Chertoff, Attorney General Alberto Gonzales and FBI director Robert Mueller will hold a news conference. We will, of course, bring that to you live.

And as we've been telling you, dozens of flights canceled in Europe right now. For travelers still hoping to get out of the U.K., there are some very restrictive rules in place. All passengers must be hand-searched. That is slowing down the process considerably. All footwear must be taken off and X-rayed, plus all approved carry-on items also must go through X-ray machines. Walking aides like canes or walkers must also be X-rayed, and only airport-provided wheelchairs can pass through the screening points.

Officials have also banned most liquids -- all liquids from being carried onboard. The only exception -- milk for babies. That must first be tested by the passenger before it will allowed on board. A liquid ban also is in place here in the United States.

The usual carry-on bags are now completely banned. No more garment bags or satchels of any kind. Large purses also on that list. Some individual carry-on items are allowed, like wallets, eyeglasses and prescription medicines are among those items on that list.

But all of those items must be put into a see-through plastic bag, and all passengers headed to the United States need to be ready for a second search at the boarding gate.

So, what will this mean for the airlines?

Let's go now to AMERICAN MORNING's Alina Cho. She is at JFK, John F. Kennedy International Airport here in New York. It is a major entry port for travelers from London and other parts of the world. And Sumi Das is at Hartsfield-Jackson International Airport in Atlanta.

Let's start with Alina. Alina, good morning.

ALINA CHO, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Tony, good morning to you.

We are beginning to see how all of this is affecting travel at U.S. airports, particularly here at JFK. We can tell you that at least one flight from JFK to London's Heathrow is canceled. That's American Airlines flight 145 -- 142 rather, which was scheduled to leave at 8:25 a.m. That flight is canceled. However, over at British Airways, they are already beginning to check in passengers for a flight that is leaving for London at 9:15 a.m. And that is scheduled to leave on time.

Passengers are also beginning to hear an announcement to exactly what they can and cannot bring onto the flight. We're talking about carry-on luggage here. You've been hearing a lot this morning about liquids. There is a liquid ban for carry-on purposes. That includes beverages, hair gels, shampoos, lotions, toothpaste, even liquids from duty-free, and that includes perfume. Now, keep in mind, these are items that cannot be carried onto the plane, but they can be put in checked-in luggage. One thing to keep in mind that British Airways, we've just heard from the Web site, had said that airline is experiencing severe delays. And if you do not have to fly today, you absolutely should not fly today. We are not hearing that here in the U.S. However, passengers are being urged to get to the airport not one, but two hours before their flight.

You can expect increased security here. That will be the case at JFK and throughout the United States. Passengers we spoke to just a moment ago, Tony, tell us, yes, it is a bit of an inconvenience to repack their luggage. In some cases, it's taking them up to 45 minutes to get through security.

People are getting through security, and one woman said she brought her toiletries through, found out that she couldn't bring them, was told you either have to go back and go back through security again or throw your toiletries out. So sure, they're inconvenienced; sure, they are concerned, but so far it is not stopping passengers from getting on their flights -- Tony.

HARRIS: Alina Cho for us. Alina, thank you. Let's get you right now to Atlanta and Hartsfield-Jackson International Airport, the nation's second busiest in the United States. And Sumi Das is there.

Sumi, good morning.

SUMI DAS, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Good morning to you, Tony.

You can probably hear that plane flying overhead. Planes are departing and they are landing here at Atlanta's Hartsfield-Jackson Airport. We've spoken to airport officials who say this is one of the busiest airports in the world. Over 130 flights per hour, and that includes 34 flights a week to the U.K. that depart out of this major international airport.

There are two airline carriers that fly to the U.K. from Atlanta. They are Delta and British Airways. I just spoke to a woman at Delta Airlines, and she said they are operating as they normally would. There are flights that leave in the evening for the U.K. We haven't heard of any delays to those flights just yet. No cancellations, either. There are some flights that are expected to land here at Hartsfield-Jackson, and so far, those are still planned to arrive here. They are somewhat delayed, however.

The airport officials are telling folks to arrive an hour earlier than they would otherwise. So add an hour onto your travel time and get here sooner than you normally would. And contact the airline if you're going to be flying to the U.K. to find out about any extra precautions. When I arrived here at the north terminal this morning, there was an emergency vehicle here, a fire engine that has since left. But we have heard from airport officials, that's part of the standard operating procedure when there's an incident. Emergency crews are on stand-by -- Tony.

HARRIS: And Sumi, just a quick question. Did we lose her? OK. All right, let's go to Deborah Feyerick. She is on the phone with us right now. She's at JFK, John F. Kennedy International Airport here in New York City. And Deborah, I understand we're trying to get you to Heathrow. So you've just gone through security. Describe that experience for us.

DEBORAH FEYERICK, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Well, exactly, Tony. What I can tell you is that there definitely was confusion at the check-in counter. One of the agents was going over the list, the list coming that's out of the United Kingdom about what items can and cannot be carried on board the airplane. But after a couple of minutes, what happened is that he was corrected by one of the -- by another airline official who said that's not the case, that in fact, people can carry on what they normally would, everything except liquids. That's where the big concern is, liquids.

As a matter of fact, a TSA agent that we saw was putting up signs throughout the airport, as well as at the check-in counters, just to let people know that, in fact, you could not bring in liquids. I had to check in what was sort of the foundation, but otherwise, I was able to bring on a cell phone and a Blackberry and things like that.

Now the concern, and it's interesting, if you look at the list of items that the United Kingdom is banning from some of the airplanes, all those items were things that were used back in the Bojinka plot, things like liquids, things like electronic devices, timers, things that can be used as timers. And if you remember in that plot, one of the masterminds was able to use that, was able to put a bomb under a seat in a plane in the Philippines that killed a Japanese businessman.

So it's interesting when you look at the list of items that you're not allowed to carry on, if you're transiting through the U.K., as opposed to those items that you are allowed to carry on. But again, a little bit of confusion. But for the most part, we're told that we're going to be leaving right on time.

HARRIS: That's very interesting. Deborah Feyerick for us at JFK International Airport. Deborah, thank you.

O'BRIEN: The FBI's saying that they've been notified of the threat and that the investigation is well in Britain, but how much information is normally shared in these situations? And what potentially could be the outline of this alleged, at this point, plot?

Let's talk to former FBI official Bill Daly. He's now with Control Risks Group. And I'm sad to say we're only always talking to you when there's some big security threat.

First, I want to walk through potentially what this alleged plot would have looked like, had it taken shape. They were talking about key FOBS. People are not allowed to bring their keys through the airport in Heathrow, but not the key FOBS. Those who don't know what a key FOB is, can you guys get a shot of this? This is the, you know, the little electronic clicker you basically use to open your car or maybe even open your garage, if you operate it that way. Why the key FOB can't go through, but the key could? BILL DALY, FMR. FBI OFFICIAL: Well, interesting, Soledad, is that people probably don't realize that a key FOB such as this is actually a transmitter. It sends out an (INAUDIBLE) radio frequency signal, and it just tells your car and your door to do certain things. Well, it can also be programmed to be received by something else that can send off a signal to perhaps a capa (ph), explosive cap, or the explosive itself to go off. It needs some type of initiating device.

So it could be used to transmit a signal at some distance and perhaps within inside the plane. Not that far. We're not talking about going down to the luggage department, but we're talking about perhaps some carry-on luggage that's even overhead, and do it very remotely and very discretely.

Because as we remember, back when the Richard Reid case, the passengers came on top of him, pounced on him and contained him because they saw him trying to light his shoes on fire.

O'BRIEN: Stuck out. I mean, it was obvious.

DALY: It's quite obvious. So if we look at kind of the migration and metamorphosis of these attacks, we see a level of both sophistication as well as knowledge of the systems, and what has worked, what hasn't worked, and see what's really being screened to the airports. And if they saw liquids are not being screened properly, whether it's milk taken up for babies or hair gel or something else that would look knock innocuous to the visual inspection, but yet could contain some explosive device, I think they're looking and saying how can we use these vulnerabilities, these...

O'BRIEN: Exploit the system.

DALY: ... and exploit. So I think by things such as innocuous -- a key FOB, hair gel, other types of liquid, could be carried on. And it sounds as though that's the direction they were heading down.

O'BRIEN: It sure does, when you talk about banning liquids now, certainly in Heathrow and some places in the U.S. as well.

Let's talk about these liquids. Was there a sense that there is something inside the hair gel? Are you saying they would take a hair gel container, fill it with some kind of an explosive and be able to, with the click of this key FOB, basically trigger some kind of explosion?

DALY: Exactly. Well, it's really talking about something called masked -- you know, masked explosives, meaning that it may look like a gel. It could look like hair gel, it could look like a hair spray container, it could look like milk, but in essence, it's just colorized explosive material.

Now, we heard earlier from one of your senior producers in Atlanta that you know, early in the 1990s, there was an attempt to use some liquid explosives, and that drill was called off by al Qaeda. We do know liquid explosives are used both by the military as well as in the commercial applications in mining and other types of excavation by using nitroglycerin.

O'BRIEN: But small amounts? I mean, an amount that would fit in a tiny little...

DALY: Absolutely. These are very highly -- high explosives, highly concentrated explosives that could be masked in some way. I'm not saying totally diluted, but could be masked. They could look as though they're in a container and to the visual inspector as we probably see today, are just looking at it saying oh, that's hair gel. They are using it to exploit that system.

O'BRIEN: Home-grown, al Qaeda. There's sort of this debate, and maybe it's a semantic debate, frankly. Because I think you could be homegrown and al Qaeda at the same time. Maybe it's homegrown and al Qaeda-inspired, versus homegrown and al Qaeda's pulling the strings because it's a sophisticated, as you point out, operation, apparently.

DALY: Mm-hmm. And, you know, Soledad, last year when we talked about the bombings in London when we were here, we talked about this issue of homegrown, because it seemed that many of the suspects were from the local community, you know, kind of grassroots level.

What we've seen over the years is that al Qaeda has moved from being purely a terrorist organization to being a social movement, and has along the way picked up various people who want to carry on the cause. At the same time, al Qaeda itself, the leadership has been broken up. The training camps have been disassembled, for the most part. And but what you may find is though there is perhaps funding, there's some training -- well, they'll send in a trainer rather than sending out those aspiring al Qaeda members. They'll send someone into train them, give them some lessons, provide them some trade craft, and let them go at it.

O'BRIEN: Maybe the semantics are getting a little irrelevant. Bill Daly, thank you for talking with us.

DALY: My pleasure.

O'BRIEN: You know we're going to make you stick around with us all morning as we go through this, as more information comes to us. We appreciate it.