More details are emerging. The Brits didn’t want to arrest all the suspects but plans shifted after a Pakistan detention:
In contrast to previous reports, one senior British official suggested an attack was not imminent, saying the suspects had not yet purchased any airline tickets. In fact, some did not even have passports. The sources did say, however, that police believe one U.K.-based suspect was ready to conduct a "dry run." British authorities had wanted to let him go forward with part of the plan, but the Americans balked.
So we have one Islamist planning a dry-run. We have no evidence that any of the others had even bought airline tickets. Malkin-stand-in Karol Sheinin produces a week-old story from the right-wing tabloid Daily Mail to bolster her view that an actual threat to innocent lives was "imminent". All I can say is that, since August 11, new data have cast that unsourced information more suspect, and if Sheinin were a little more savvy about the British press, and had absorbed information unveiled within the last week, she’d be a little more skeptical. From the Guardian today:
A security official said: "There was a mastermind, there was a planner, and there were the executioners." He claimed the al-Qaida link to the alleged plot in Britain had been established and that it had been at the planning stage when it was interrupted in London last week. [My italics].
I don’t know about you – but "a planning stage" does not mean "imminent" to me. But tell that to Karol Sheinin. If torture is permissible to get information for plots in the "planning stage," well you see how the narrow case for torture always expands as soon as it is entertained.
Still, there’s little doubt that there was a serious plot in the works. The Independent – a virulently anti-Blair paper – reported the following last Sunday:
It was the arrest of Rashid Rauf about a week to 10 days ago that triggered the security operation in Britain last week, according to accounts in Pakistan. After he disappeared from contact, a panicking fellow conspirator telephoned the UK to tell the bombers to bring the plot forward and go ahead immediately after Mr Rauf disappeared from contact. The call was intercepted, and the British police mounted an emergency operation to stop the bombers. [Apologies for the nutball site where the piece was reprinted.]
This kind of thing is always a tough call. But the danger is that you seize people too soon, don’t have enough evidence to detain them, and lose potential valuable intelligence. If what triggered this panic was a tortured confession that exaggerated the imminence of the attack, then we may have bungled again. Again, this plot was well-known and closely monitored for months:
The official shed light on other aspects of the case, saying that while the investigation into the bombing plot began "months ago," some suspects were known to the security services even before the London subway bombings last year.
He acknowledged that authorities had conducted electronic and e-mail surveillance as well as physical surveillance of the suspects.
Monitoring of Rauf, in particular, apparently played a critical role, revealing that the plotters had tested the explosive liquid mixture they planned to use at a location outside Britain. NBC News has previously reported that the explosive mixture was tested in Pakistan. The source said the suspects in Britain had obtained at least some of the materials for the explosive but had not yet actually prepared or mixed it.
So: no solid evidence of a) passports, b) tickets, c) prepared explosives. So far- and this may change, of course – we know of one individual allegedly prepping for a "dry-run." Everyone else was already under intense surveillance. And yet this group of potentially lethal Islamists was arrested suddenly, perhaps forfeiting subsequent evidence or intelligence, and maybe rendering a successful prosecution impossible. One wonders why. Faulty tortured evidence from Pakistan? Jitteriness in Washington? There did not seem to be much jitteriness in Downing Street in the week before the planned "dry-run." Tony Blair decided to go on vacation, and never left it. Most of the leading British officials were chilling. Brown was in Scotland. Two suspects have already been released without being charged. The British authorities are asking for time extensions on detaining the rest – not a good sign for the prosecution.