"Details Emerge in British Terror Case," in today's New York Times, gathers together a lot of the melodrama-debunking information that's emerged about the terror plot in England -- too late, of course, given the fact that what's being debunked is already burned into our collective unconscious:
... five senior British officials said ... the suspects were not prepared to strike immediately. Instead, the reactions of Britain and the United States in the wake of the arrests of 21 people on Aug. 10 were driven less by information about a specific, imminent attack than fear that other, unknown terrorists might strike.
... British officials said the suspects still had a lot of work to do. Two of the suspects did not have passports, but had applied for expedited approval. One official said the people suspected of leading the plot were still recruiting and radicalizing would-be bombers.
While investigators found evidence on a computer memory stick indicating that one of the men had looked up airline schedules for flights from London to cities in the United States, the suspects had neither made reservations nor purchased plane tickets, a British official said.
... In fact, two and a half weeks since the inquiry became public, British investigators have still not determined whether there was a target date for the attacks or how many planes were to be involved. They say the estimate of 10 planes was speculative and exaggerated.
... officials said they were still unsure of one critical question: whether any of the suspects was technically capable of assembling and detonating liquid explosives while airborne.
A chemist involved in that part of the inquiry, who spoke on the condition of anonymity because he was sworn to confidentiality, said HMTD, which can be prepared by combining hydrogen peroxide with other chemicals, "in theory is dangerous," but whether the suspects "had the brights to pull it off remains to be seen."
..."In retrospect," said Michael A. Sheehan, the former deputy commissioner of counterterrorism in the New York Police Department, "there may have been too much hyperventilating going on."
Read the whole article and you'll believe that these people fully intended to do harm -- I have a hard time being as skeptical as Andrew Sullivan and Craig Murray were a couple of weeks ago, when they were arguing that there might be nothing to this but hype and confessions induced under torture in Pakistan. But it's clear now that this wasn't imminent and that there's no evidence that it was going to be a carefully choreographed ten-plane orgy of mass death.
And the timing of the arrests?
...British officials said many of the questions about the suspected plot remained unanswered because they were forced to make the arrests before Scotland Yard was ready.
The trigger was the arrest in Pakistan of Rashid Rauf, a 25-year-old British citizen with dual Pakistani citizenship, whom Pakistani investigators have described as a "key figure" in the plot.
...Several senior British officials said the Pakistanis arrested Rashid Rauf without informing them first. The arrest surprised and frustrated investigators here who had wanted to monitor the suspects longer, primarily to gather more evidence and to determine whether they had identified all the people involved in the suspected plot.
..."The aim was to keep this operation going for much longer, "said a senior British security official who requested anonymity because of confidentiality rules. "It ended much sooner than we had hoped."...
Is this a bit like 2004, when The New Republic was reporting that pressure was being placed on the Pakistan government to make a significant Al Qaeda arrest in time for the Democratic convention -- which happened, of course?
You recall that shortly after that, Tom Ridge raised the terror threat level because of a plot reportedly aimed at New York financial institutions -- a plot said to have been discovered as the result of another arrest in Pakistan. The revelation of that arrest by the U.S. actually compromised an ongoing sting operation to track down Al Qaeda operatives -- but who cared? It sure took attention away from John Kerry at a critical point in the election cycle. (The Booman Tribune reviews that history here.)
The recent arrest in Pakistan, of course, set in motion a season of air-travel anxiety -- just in time for the fall campaign.
UPDATE: Link fixed.