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Analysis: Europe, U.S. juggle divergent tolerance of risk

LONDON (Reuters) - A U.S. terror warning in Europe at first raised eyebrows in a region where nations like to allow identified plots to run on to garner evidence usable in court.

A security official demonstrates a full body scanner during a photocall at Departure Gate 2 at Hamburg Airport September 27, 2010. REUTERS/Christian Charisius

But analysts say America’s more stoical European allies, mindful of their junior status in the transatlantic intelligence partnership, have decided to put the warning down to their ally’s lower tolerance of terrorism risk.

Eighteen turbulent months of an unprecedented series of failed but brazen attacks in the United States by “homegrown” radicals, many American, have tested nerves anew in Washington, which for years saw such militants as mostly Europe’s problem.

Sunday’s vague alert about attack risks was evidence of this heightened U.S. sensitivity, analysts say.

The alert met a mostly muted response in Europe.

Some analysts said that while the alert served governments’ needs for political cover in the event of an attack, it might harm investigations into the threat by driving plotters underground at an early stage in the conspiracy.

But there was also understanding that Washington would not be deflected from its proactive, prevent-at-all-costs approach to militant threats, whatever the risk of losing evidence.


International intelligence cooperation is too important in tackling a transnational, networked foe like al Qaeda to allow tactical differences to grow into major disputes, analysts say.

A former senior British security official said the United States understandably seemed unprepared to tolerate any risk, “however small or well covered by international partners.”

“The Detroit and Times Square attacks have done nothing to increase U.S. risk tolerance, it seems,” he said, referring to the attempted bombing of an airliner over Detroit on December 25, 2009 and a failed bombing in New York on May 1, 2010.

Tobias Feakin, head of homeland security and resilience at Britain’s Royal United Services Institute, said his impression was that European security agencies were uncomfortable with the U.S. alert and with several preceding days of press reporting about a plot by militants in Pakistan against European targets.

But Bruce Riedel, a former CIA official now at the Brookings Institution think-tank in Washington, said the United States had given European governments some time to explain the situation publicly before issuing the alert.

“Judging from the reaction, I don’t think this has produced disharmony in the alliance,” Riedel said.

“I think maybe in some ways we helped the Europeans do something they were having difficulty saying themselves.”

Britain and its close ally the United States have not always appeared to see eye to eye about the tactics of tracking plots.

In a 2006 foiled plot by British militants to bomb airliners using liquid explosives, some commentators suggested U.S. security agencies put pressure on their British colleagues to rush the arrest of the plotters, and that the plot was not as advanced as the authorities and politicians have claimed.

The case led to two lengthy trials. U.S. and UK officials in public comments said there was no such pressure.


“From time to time there has been tension over some of the attacks ... there has been a little bit of tension with the Brits,” said Scott Stewart, a terrorism expert at the Stratfor global intelligence company.

“The U.S. is usually willing to give up a prosecution if it means thwarting a plot, rather than running the risk of having something slip through the cracks.

But he said there was an increasing tendency for all Western counter-terrorism agencies to adopt the U.S. “proactive model.”

“The idea is that even if we can’t get the guys in prison for life, at least we can pick them up, and if we can do something to crumble this plot then it will save lives.”

Last month a speech by Britain’s MI5 Security Service Director-General Jonathan Evans contained suggestions that the British, at least, are moving in the American direction.

He criticized an assumption increasingly “imported from the American media” that terrorism was 100 percent preventable and any incident that was not prevented was seen as a culpable government failure. This was nonsensical, he said.

“I would rather face criticism when there is no prosecution -- often accompanied by conspiracy theories about what was supposedly going on -- than see a plot come to fruition because we had not acted soon enough,” he said.

Former British Security and Intelligence Coordinator David Omand, writing in a 2009 anthology, “Spinning Intelligence,” about ties between the media and spies, said there was a real necessity for greater public understanding “of the nature of secret intelligence and its limitations.”

“The golden rule is not wait until crisis hits before trying to communicate with the public,” he wrote.

Additional reporting by Phil Stewart and Mark Hosenball in Washington; editing by Myra MacDonald