U.K.: U.S. Undercut Terror Arrests

Airliner bomb plot trial.Undated Metropolitan Police handout photos of (from the left) Abdullah Ahmed Ali, Assad Sarwar and Tanvir Hussain, who have been found guilty of conspiracy to murder by a jury at Woolwich Crown Court, London. Issue date: Monday September 8, 2008. See PA story COURTS Airliner. Photo credit should read: Metropolitan Police/PA Wire URN:6323166 (Press Association via AP Images)[Click image for details
Press Association via AP Images
Recriminations flew across the Atlantic on Tuesday, a day after London jury failed to convict eight men of an alleged plot to bomb trans-Atlantic airlines. British police said U.S. officials pressed them to arrest the men too soon, weakening the court case against the suspects.

The top U.S. homeland security official denied the claim, saying everyone was "on the same page" about the timing of the arrests.

Investigators said a decision to prematurely arrest suspects in August 2006 came after U.S. officials pressed for one of the men's alleged accomplices to be arrested in Pakistan.

Britain felt the man's arrest in Pakistan could have tipped off the other suspects, so police arrested the men before enough compelling evidence was gathered, according to a senior police official, who requested anonymity to discuss the case.

One key question is whether the jury would have found suspects guilty if British investigators had been able to observe a planned dummy run of the airline plot, which police said would have involved a suspect attempting to pass through airport security with an explosive-laden drink bottle.

The police official said the suspects were arrested two days before the trial run was to take place on Aug. 12, 2006. Both police and Britain's MI5 domestic intelligence service had wanted to continue monitoring the alleged plotters, said a British security official, who requested anonymity to discuss details.

The jury on Monday found three men (Abdulla Ahmed Ali, Assad Sarwar and Tanvir Hussain)guilty of conspiring to murder using homemade liquid explosive bombs - but not necessarily aboard airliners.

Jurors couldn't reach verdicts on four others: Ibrahim Savant, Arafat Waheed Khan, Waheed Zaman and Umar Islam.

A fifth man accused of being a key link between the U.K. and al Qaeda, Mohammed Gulzar, was acquitted of all charges.

Prosecutors will decide Wednesday whether to seek a retrial.

Peter Clarke, the now retired ex-head of British counterterrorism policing and in charge of the inquiry at the time, said the arrest in Pakistan prompted panic in London among investigators who felt they were close to delivering a solid court case.

"This was not good news. We were at a critical point in building our case against them," Clarke wrote Tuesday in The Times of London.

British authorities worried the Pakistan arrest of Rashid Rauf, a British-born alleged contact of the plotters, could send the men into hiding or trigger a desperate snap attack.

"Clearly, the British security services had to take action more quickly than they wanted to," said Conservative Party lawmaker Patrick Mercer, a former military intelligence officer. "There wasn't as much evidence gathered as people would have wanted."

British security officials and police said as many as five other would-be suicide bombers, who would have been drafted into the plot in its final days, may have evaded arrest as a result of the early arrests.

The men allegedly planned to assemble their bombs in the airliner toilets. The bombs were to be made of liquid explosives injected into soda bottles and set off by detonators hidden in disposable cameras.

The alleged plot - when uncovered - ground airports to a standstill in August 2006.

U.S. Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff insisted Tuesday that Britain and the United States had been in agreement on the arrests.

"We were very much on the same page about the timing," he told The Associated Press in Washington.

"I understand that the prosecutors always feel that they want to wait and get as much evidence as they can. I've also seen cases, unfortunately, where waiting too long has resulted in a plot actually occurring and people dying," he said.

Chertoff said cooperation between Britain and the United States had allowed officials "to prevent and disrupt a plot that, had it come to fruition, would have been just comparable to 9/11."

"It's easy, having averted the danger, now in retrospect to say, 'Oh, we could have cut it a little bit closer.' That may make for good entertainment television. It's a very irresponsible way to protect the citizens of both countries," he said.

The jury's decision has dealt a blow to Britain's counterterrorism efforts, coming weeks after another jury failed to reach verdicts over three alleged accomplices of the July 2005 London suicide bombers, who killed 52 commuters during rush hour.

Four other trials connected to the airliner case are also in jeopardy following Monday's verdicts.

In the airliner trial, prosecutor Peter Wright acknowledged the group hadn't produced a viable bomb - although experiments had taken place at a London row house where shelves were packed with explosives, chemicals and equipment.

Wright also conceded no specific date had been selected to carry out the attacks.

But British security officials and police - who were monitoring the group via surveillance, bugs and wiretaps - insist the cell planned to strike within days of their arrests. A lack of evidence meant that allegation was never aired in court.

Bob Ayers, a former U.S. intelligence officer, said a key problem for Britain was that wiretaps and intercepts - key tools in counterterrorism investigations - are not used as evidence in British courts.

Intelligence officials have long objected to using the material as evidence, fearing their methods could be compromised.
By Associated Press Writer David Stringer. AP Writers Eileen Sullivan, Lara Jakes Jordan and Pamela Hess in Washington, contributed to this report