The nation’s chief of homeland security said Sunday that the U.S. should consider reviewing its laws to allow for more electronic surveillance and detention of possible terror suspects, citing last week’s foiled plot.
Michael Chertoff, secretary of the Department of Homeland Security, stopped short of calling for immediate changes, noting there might be constitutional barriers to the type of wide police powers the British had in apprehending suspects in the plot to blow up airliners headed to the U.S.
But Chertoff made clear his belief that wider authority could thwart future attacks at a time when Congress is reviewing the proper scope of the Bush administration’s executive powers for its warrantless eavesdropping program and military tribunals for detainees held at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba.
“What helped the British in this case is the ability to be nimble, to be fast, to be flexible, to operate based on fast-moving information,” he said. “We have to make sure our legal system allows us to do that. It’s not like the 20th century, where you had time to get warrants.”
The Bush administration has pushed for greater executive authority in the war on terror, leading it to create a warrantless eavesdropping program, hold suspects who are deemed as “enemy combatants” for long periods and establish a military tribunal system for detainees that affords defendants fewer rights than traditional courts-martial.
Congress is now reviewing some of the programs after lawmakers questioned the legality of the eavesdropping program and the Supreme Court ruled in June that the tribunals defied international law and had not been authorized by Congress.
On Sunday, Chertoff said the U.S. is remaining vigilant for other attacks, citing concerns that terror groups may “think we are distracted” after last week’s foiled plot. Attaining “maximum flexibility” in surveillance of transactions and communications will be critical in preventing future attacks, he said.
“We’ve done a lot in our legal system the last few years, to move in the direction of that kind of efficiency,” Chertoff said. “But we ought to constantly review our legal rules to make sure they’re helping us, not hindering us.”
He said he expects the Bush administration to keep the U.S. on its highest threat alert for flights headed to the U.S. from the United Kingdom and at its second-highest level for all other flights.
“We haven’t fully analyzed the evidence, and therefore, we’re still concerned there may be some plotters who are out there,” Chertoff said. “We also have to be concerned about other groups that may seize the opportunity to carry out attacks because they think we are distracted with this plot.”
Still, Chertoff said he believed that the nation’s airline screeners were well-positioned to catch future terrorists. He did not anticipate greater restrictions beyond the current ban on carrying liquids and gels onto airliners, such as barring all carry-on luggage.
“We don’t want to inconvenience unnecessarily,” he said. “I think we can do the job with our screening, screening training and our technology without banning all carry-on luggage.”
Chertoff made the comments on “Fox News Sunday” and ABC’s “This Week.”
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