Did the Bush Administration manipulate the British into making last week's terror-plot arrests prematurely because of politics back home?
A trio of Philadelphia progressive blogs are asking that question on the heels of an NBC News report that quotes British officials as saying U.S. officials forced the arrests one week early.
All-Spin Zone, The Tattered Coat and Suburban Guerrilla wrote separate posts over the weekend that wonder whether the threat was pumped up and the time accelerated for base political expediency.
Twenty-four persons have been detained, suspected of plotting to sneak liquid explosives onto carry-on luggage in London and blow up as many as 10 airliners headed for the United States. The NBC report contradicts some reports about just how ripe the plot was. Some have reported that there was to be a trial run this Wednesday. There have been articles about the recovery of a "martyrdom video."
But NBC quoted a senior British official as saying some plotters didn't even have passports yet, let alone plane tickets. One British suspect was ready to conduct a dry run, NBC reported. The British were prepared to let him. The Americans wanted to move on the group earlier.
All Spin Zone's Dick Cranium asks whether the Americans wanted the busts to occur prior to last Tuesday's primaries, but were rebuffed by the British, who wanted to collect more evidence.
The way All Spin sees it, the Americans had their allies in terror, the Pakistanis, grab alleged main plotter Rashid Rauf, which forced the British to move - lest word leak and the rest of the plotters go underground.
ASZ: As the story of this plot starts to unravel over the coming days and weeks (or at least morphs into something much less threatening), the media really needs to step back and take a look at how they were once again played. We're already seeing the initial rumblings of a 2004 replay in terms of terror alerts and proclamations. The GOP is making it clear that their only gambit to retain control of the House and Senate this fall is to once again go for the reptilian brain stem - fear. It's the only issue they have absolutely any control over, because they can pull the "red alert" string on the Charley McCarthy media anytime they want.
When BushCo whips out the terror card, it drowns out conversation about anything else - the war in Iraq, the economy, the culture of corruption, the decimation of the middle class, healthcare, etc.
Matt at the Tattered Coat calls the NBC report, itself, "explosive." He sees a scenario where the Bush Administration toyed with the timing to divert attention from the primary defeat of Bush ally U.S. Sen Joseph Lieberman in Connecticut and "the developing sense that America had fully turned against the Iraq war."
As Susie Madrak at Suburban Guerrilla introduces the NBC report:
Sounds like those terror suspects, as I suspected, are merely big old props in the desperate GOP attempts to shore up their poll numbers before the midterm elections.... You see why I just ignore these sort of "breaking news"? Because both the U.S. and British leaders lie and spin so much, Id rather wait until people start leaking the details of the real story.
No argument from me how politicians on all sides have invoked the threat of terror to justify a range of ill-considered foreign and domestic programs. But I'm not ready to buy this conspiracy theory. First, this NBC piece is based on an unspecified number of anonymous British officials' comments. It makes it hard to evaluate.
As Jim S. a commenter on the Donklephant blog notes, the report conflicts with several media outlets that have said the arrests came after authorities feared one of the plotters was about to travel to a part of Pakistan where he would be difficult to track.
The Washington Post, for instance, reported this Sunday:
The arrests on Thursday occurred at least two days earlier than planned, according to several U.S. officials. Among other things, sources have said, the suspects stepped up their Internet searches for possible U.S.-bound flights, made plans for an imminent "dry run" to test security, and moved to purchase global-positioning satellite devices and other materials. British authorities were also concerned because they had lost contact with one or two of the suspects who had traveled to Pakistan, some officials said.
Given a schedule from London, senior U.S. and British government officials consulted Wednesday between 6 p.m. and midnight Washington time. It soon became clear that all the suspects could not be located immediately, raising concerns about a potential attack.
Is that the Post getting spun by its government sources? The reporters say they talked with a dozen sources in preparing its report.
The New York Times on Sunday wrote a front page article contrasting U.S. and British approaches to terror investigating, and gave a good reason why the Brits tend to wait and watch while the Americans move in:
A new British anti-terror law allows police to swoop in and detain suspects without charges. This is a fail safe, the piece reported, that lets British authorities let plots run longer, then immediately round-up suspects. (It also said the British have many more agents with language skills that allow them to penetrate extremist groups, where the U.S. still has only "a handful" of FBI agents who are Muslim or who speak Arabic, Irdu or other languages of the Islamic world.)
There is another scenario here, and ASZ touches on it.
Americans are more hair-triggered than Brits when it responding to terror threats because we are not as experienced in prosecuting these groups, and we are not as used to being attacked. The Europeans, in comparison, have faced decades of domestic attacks from nationalist or extremist groups (IRA, ETA, Algerians, Baader-Meinhof Group, etc...)
Maybe the British authorities were mindful how difficult it is to win a court victory over the Islamic extremists - unless they've gathered a wealth of evidence. The Germans have learned this.
The danger of the quick move, is that it could weaken the legal case against the plotters, as the Tattered Coat notes: "It will be much harder to convict them without passports or airline tickets." Maybe. Of course, there are many other ways of making a case -- phone and computer records, wire transfers, surveillance tapes, etc.... And there are reports the British used undercover agents. But every piece helps.
The Tattered Coat writes:
The Republicans, in other words, once again played politics with national security, and hurt anti-terrorism efforts as they did so.
Hope he's wrong.