New York Times Blocks Access to Airline Plot Article

The Guardian reports that the New York Times has blocked access by United Kingdom readers to an article discussing the Islamist airline plot:

Anyone trying to read Monday’s in-depth account of the investigation that led to 24 arrests in connection with a suspected plot to blow up transatlantic flights saw only a message saying it had been blocked for legal reasons.

Nor was the story available in physical form on this side of the Atlantic. The entire shipment of the paper bound for Britain was cancelled.

Accordingly, non-UK readers may click the link above, and read the article directly. Non-UK readers will have to … well, read it in one of the hundred of internet sites which are mirroring the article, including our friends at Pickled Politics.

The New York Times’ concern is that it might find itself in contempt of court by publishing the article: although it appears that no specific information in the article is the subject of a court order restricting reporting. Indeed, convictions – including that of Rose West – have been upheld in circumstances which have been the subject of considerably more extensive comment and speculation than this investigation. Particularly in the present case – where the nature of the plot was so significant, and where extensive police and governmental comment has already taken place – it is difficult to see why the New York Times has taken such a nervous approach:

Mark Stephens, a media lawyer at Finer, Stephens, Innocent, said he did not believe the article was prejudicial and blocking it would increase the likelihood of British readers reading it.

“Lawyers have a tendency to be overcautious on occasions,” he said. “By not publishing it, it is almost inevitable that the information will come into the public domain in the UK. It is already being copied on to blog sites and emailed around the globe.

In fact, the article adds only a little to that which we know already.

– The men had been monitored for over a year, as a result of a tip-off from informers following the 7/7 bombings. The initial purpose of the surveillance was to determine “whether there were any links between the dozen men and the July 7 subway bombers, or terrorist cells in Pakistan.”.

– It later became clear that the suspects were “serious and determined”. They had recorded “martyrdom videos”. Although two of the suspects had no passports, they had applied for “expedited approval”. They had also established a makeshift laboratory where they had experimented with explosives and had made what appeared to be prototype devices. Whether the explosives would have worked is another question:

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.”

– It is clear, however, that no imminent date for the attacks had been set. Although a suspect had searched airline schedules from London the various U.S. cities, tickets had not been purchased. Moreover, the headline figure of “10 aeroplanes” was wholly speculative.

– What brought forward the date of the arrests in London was the arrest in Pakistan of Rashid Rauf:

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.

But within hours of Mr. Rauf’s arrest on Aug. 9 in Pakistan, British officials heard from intelligence sources that someone connected to him had tried to contact some of the suspects in East London. The message was interpreted by investigators as a possible signal to move forward with the plot, officials said.

“The plotters received a very short message to ‘Go now,’ ” said Franco Frattini, the European Union’s security commissioner, who was briefed by the British home secretary, John Reid, in London. “I was convinced by British authorities that this message exists.”

A senior British official said the message from Pakistan was not that explicit. But, nonetheless, investigators here had to change their strategy quickly.

“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.”

From then on, the British government was driven by worst-case scenarios based on a minimum-risk strategy.

British investigators worried that word of Mr. Rauf’s arrest could push the London suspects to destroy evidence and to disperse, raising the possibility they would not be able to arrest them all. But investigators also could not rule out that there could be an unknown second cell that would try to carry out a similar plan, officials said.

– There are further details of the “martyrdom videos” and the last will and testament of some of the men:

As one of the men read from a script before a videocamera, he recited a quotation from the Koran and ticked off his reasons for the “action that I am going to undertake,” according to the person briefed on the case. The man said he was seeking revenge for the foreign policy of the United States, and “their accomplices, the U.K. and the Jews.” The man said he wanted to show that the enemies of Islam would never win this “war.”

The young man added that he hoped God would be “pleased with us and accepts our deed.””

So, now you know.

UPDATE: The Times is now running a precis of the story.