The Bush administration posted an unprecedented code-red alert for passenger flights from Britain to the United States and banned liquids from all carry-on bags Thursday, clamping down quickly after British authorities disrupted a frightening terror plot.
A woman looks through her carry-on bag for items that are not allowed to be taken on the aircraft while standing next to a table of banned products that travelers have already discarded Thursday, Aug. 10, 2006, in Salt Lake City. Airline passengers around the country stood in line for hours and airport trash bins bulged with everything from mouthwash and shaving cream to maple syrup and fine wine Thursday in a security crackdown prompted by the discovery of a terror plot in Britain. [AP]
The heightened restrictions triggered long lines at airports across the country, and governors in at least three states ordered National Guard troops to help provide security.
"This was a well-advanced plan," Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff told reporters as British authorities announced the arrests of 24 alleged plotters. "In some respects suggestive of an al-Qaida plot."
Los Angeles Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa said as many as 10 flights had been targeted, and other officials said the plotters had hoped to bring the planes down in a cascade of horror over the Atlantic Ocean, possibly within days.
The plan involved the use of a peroxide-based solution, flammable when sparked by innocent-appearing small electronic devices.
The targets included United, American and Continental Airlines flights from Britain to major U.S. destinations of New York, Los Angeles and Washington, D.C, officials said.
In brief remarks from Green Bay, Wis., President Bush said the events showed the nation "is at war with Islamic fascists."
The red alert for flights from Britain was the first since the color-coded warning system was developed after the 2001 terror attacks. The decision to ban nearly all liquids from passenger cabins was reminiscent of the stringent rules imposed when planes were allowed back in the skies for the first time afterward the Sept. 11 attacks.
"No liquids or gels will be allowed in carry-on baggage," Chertoff said. "There will be exceptions for baby formula and medicines, but travelers must be prepared to present these items for inspection at the checkpoint, and that will allow us to take a look at them and make sure that they're safe to fly."
That meant water containers, soft drinks, coffee cups and more had to be shed by passengers waiting to board their flights.
Women travelers surrendered bottles and jars of creams and lotions from their makeup kits.
At Dulles, one passenger fished a bottle of Tequila from a carry-on bag. It joined the rest of the newly classified contraband in a trash container.
It was not clear how long the restrictions would remain in effect. One lawmaker, Rep. Pete Hoekstra, R-Mich., said the situation "eliminates the days of carry-on baggage."
The plot quickly became grist for the midterm election campaign.
House Democratic Leader Nancy Pelosi said events reinforced the need to implement the recommendations of an independent 9/11 commission, a reminder of one of her party's main campaign promises.
In Ohio, Republican chairman Bob Bennett accused the Democrats' senatorial challenger of voting against funds "for the very types of programs that helped the British thwart these vicious attacks."
Homeland Security deputy Secretary Michael Jackson said his agency had known for several days of the unfolding plot but waited for a signal from the British to announce it.
The decision to raise the terror level for flights from Britain indicated a severe risk of terror attacks. The "code red" change requires airlines to provide the government with an advance list of passengers aboard affected flights. Previously, passengers names had to be provided within 15 minutes after take-off.
All other flights to and within the United States were put under an "orange" alert, one step below red, but an escalation from the "yellow" status that had been in effect.
Administration officials sought to reassure the traveling public at the same time they imposed heightened security restrictions.
"Today, air traffic is safe, and air traffic will remain safe precisely because of the measures we are adopting today," Chertoff said.
Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger of California deployed 300 Guard troops to at least three large airports, in Los Angeles, San Francisco and Oakland, where direct flights from Europe were scheduled to arrive.
In Massachusetts, Gov. Mitt Romney announced he would activate Guard troops for airline security duty for the first time since the terror attacks of 2001, and New York Gov. George Pataki said Guard troops would be used there, as well.
White House spokesman Tony Snow said Bush had been briefed in advance of the events and had approved raising the alert to red on flights from England.
Senior lawmakers also had received advance word. Several said they had been briefed by Homeland Security or CIA officials as early as Monday.
Officials said the plotters had been planning a test run within two days to see whether they could smuggle the equipment they needed aboard the flights. The actual attack would have occurred within days.
Chertoff, interviewed on CNN, did not challenge the account.
"It's not uncommon that these kinds of plots almost always have a dry run or a casing element before the actual plot is carried out," he said.
The attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, "had dry runs as well," he said.
Rep. John Kline, R-Minn., was the only lawmaker to attend a closed-door briefing in the Capitol.
"This was a very close call," he said of the aborted plot.