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Chertoff wants US to review antiterror laws

More arrest powers eyed

WASHINGTON -- Homeland security chief Michael Chertoff called yesterday for a review of domestic antiterrorism laws, saying the United States might benefit from the more aggressive surveillance and arrest powers used by British authorities last week to thwart an alleged plot to bomb airliners.

Chertoff said no American links to the London plot have been uncovered, but added that the top priority for US counterterrorism officials is to identify any possible connection between the suspects in Britain and Pakistan and individuals in the United States.

He said officials also remained vigilant for other attacks, and cited concern that terrorist groups may ``think we are distracted."

Officials in Britain also said yesterday that they believe another terrorism attempt is likely, and travelers there endured a fourth day of airport security delays and cancellations.

At a time when Congress is questioning the scope of the Bush administration's executive powers -- including a highly controversial program to listen to domestic phone calls without a warrant -- Chertoff said more powers to track potential terrorists inside the United States may be needed.

He cited some of Britain's broader investigative powers that helped foil an alleged plan by British Muslims believed linked to Al Qaeda to smuggle liquid explosives aboard flights bound to the United States from London's Heathrow Airport. British police have the ability to hold suspects without charges for nearly a month and a greater flexibility to eavesdrop on citizens.

The British ``have an easier time getting electronic surveillance, and they also can detain people for up to, I think, 28 days without charging them," Chertoff said on ``Fox News Sunday." ``And those are very useful tools when you're trying to intercept an ongoing and very dynamic plot when you may not have collected all the evidence."

In a sign of the partisan wrangling to come as fall elections draw near, some Democrats pounced on Chertoff's comments , saying that more security, not more antiterrorism powers, is what is required.

``The Bush administration wants to poke holes in the Constitution instead of plugging holes in our homeland security system," said Representative Edward J. Markey, a Malden Democrat and a member of the House Homeland Security Committee."

Yesterday, the administration scaled back the threat alert for flights headed to the United States from the United Kingdom from red (severe) to orange (high). The alert will remain at the orange level for all other flights.

The Transportation Security Administration relaxed the flight ban on some liquids yesterday, allowing passengers to bring up to 4 ounces of liquid medicine into the passenger cabin. Insulin and other treatments for low blood sugar are also allowed, according to a bulletin from the TSA. But the agency also made it mandatory for all passengers to put their shoes through X-ray machines before boarding.

Still more needs to be done, Thomas Kean , the former governor of New Jersey and cochairman of the 9/11 Commission, told NBC's ``Meet the Press." He said too many security holes remain at the nation's airports.

``When you and I go to the airport, there still is not a unified watch list," Kean said. `` We should know everybody who is getting on that plane -- or if any agency has any problems with them, they shouldn't be allowed to get on the plane."

In Britain, where a third of all flights were canceled yesterday, Home Secretary John Reid said authorities were conducting two dozen separate counterterrorism investigations.

Unlike in the United States, Scotland Yard and other police in Britain have wide antiterrorism powers and the ability to monitor and detain suspects without evidence or the permission of a court. Britain also has a dedicated domestic intelligence service, MI-5, that has wide latitude to spy on British citizens.

After the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, Congress passed a series of new statutes, including allowing greater sharing between the CIA and the FBI of foreign and domestic intelligence. But the independent commission that investigated the terrorist attacks ultimately recommended against establishing an American version of MI-5, citing privacy concerns.

Chertoff, a former federal prosecutor, said yesterday that the massive crackdown on suspected militants across England was a reminder of the importance of giving law enforcement authorities more effective investigative tools.

``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," Chertoff said on ABC's ``This Week." He added: ``We have to make sure our legal system allows us to do that. "

Senator Pat Roberts of Kansas , a Republican and chairman of the Intelligence Committee, agreed yesterday that the British have ``better tools." But, speaking on CBS's ``Face the Nation," he also acknowledged the political opposition in Washington to any further expansion of executive powers.

A program established by President Bush after the 2001 attacks bypassed a special intelligence court to allow eavesdropping on Americans suspected of communicating with terrorists overseas. It is now being restructured as a result of pressure from Congress, where lawmakers have said they were not fully informed about the program.

Bryan Bender can be reached at bender@globe.com.

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