Counterterror Officials: Terror Chatter on the Rise During Holiday Travel Season

Top security officials tell ABC's Diane Sawyer about efforts to keep U.S. safe.

December 21, 2010, 10:18 AM

Dec. 21, 2010— -- With the busy holiday travel season already in motion, the nation's top counterterror officials are seeking to assure the public of their efforts to safeguard the homeland even as they acknowledge real dangers.

In a wide-ranging interview with ABC's Diane Sawyer yesterday, Secretary of Homeland Security Janet Napolitano, Director of National Intelligence James Clapper, and Chief Counterterrorism Advisor John Brennan said that though they know of no specific, credible threat against the U.S. at this time, there are plenty of warning signs to keep them on alert.

"There is a lot of chatter in the intel world ... that references the holidays," said Napolitano. "We know that things have already happened in Europe, and we're watching that very closely as well. But yes, there is increased chatter in the system. And there are increased efforts undertaken now by ... homeland security."

Watch Diane Sawyer's interview with counterterrorism officials tonight on "ABC World News."

On Christmas Day one year ago, Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab, a Nigerian-born, apparent al Qaeda operative, allegedly attempted to destroy a Northwest Airlines flight.

Abdulmutallab was able to board an aircraft with explosives concealed in his underwear, despite being on a terror watch list, and attempts by his father to alert U.S. officials that he was a danger. Only his fellow passengers were able to prevent him from detonating the device.

Officials say that a year later, new security measures would have prevented Abdulmutallab's attempted attack.

"We would prevent him from getting on that plane from Amsterdam to Detroit," said Napolitano. "That's more international protocols put in place ... new international aviation requirements."

"We identified deficiencies in the system," said Brennan. "We have learned lessons from these examples of attempted attacks. And we now, I think, are having a much stronger system as a result."

Security Advisors on Threats to U.S.

Sawyer sat down with the trio of officials on the same day that British authorities arrested 12 men in England.

Brennan and Napolitano knew of the arrests and said that the plot would not have threatened the United States, but Director Clapper, who briefs the president daily on the nation's security, appeared to be unfamiliar with the events in London.

"First of all, London," Sawyer said. "How serious is it? Any implication that it was coming here? ... Director Clapper?"

"London?" Clapper said, before Brennan entered the conversation explaining the arrests.

Later in the interview, Sawyer returned to the subject.

"I was a little surprised you didn't know about London," Sawyer told Clapper.

"Oh, I'm sorry, I didn't," he replied.

After the interview, Clapper's office declined to say whether he knew about the specific disrupted plot but issued a statement:

"The question about this specific news development was ambiguous. The DNI's knowledge of the threat streams in Europe is profound and multi-dimensional, and any suggestion otherwise is inaccurate."

If 2010 passes without a successful terror attack on U.S. soil, it is certainly not for lack of attempts. From the failed Times Square bomb attempt to sting operations that snared alleged terrorists in Oregon and Maryland, there's mounting evidence of the danger posed by homegrown terror.

"Identifying so-called self-radicalization is unquestionably a tough problem," Clapper said. "We are in dialogue with the Muslim community. And that is going to be a source of advice, counsel, and wisdom, as well as hopefully alerting us to those among their number who are professing radical views."

While the Times Square bomb attempt and the Christmas Day plot were both extremely close calls, Brennan claimed that both scenarios actually showed strides on the part of U.S. officials in securing the country.

"Neither one of those attacks were successful," he said. "People may attribute it to luck, but I think it's because of the pressure that we as the U.S. government have put on the terrorist groups over the past decade."

Counterterror Advisors Say Perfection is Not Possible

The group did acknowledge that the U.S. still has plenty of work to do, particularly overseas where a radical message often takes root and terrorists can find sanctuary.

"Terrorists hide in certain places. They're operating and training in certain areas, and we need to continue to work with our foreign counterparts to make sure that they're doing their best to root these individuals out," he said. "We have to continue to adapt, continue to be flexible, and to continue anticipating what the terrorists are thinking themselves."

Sawyer asked about recent comments from Michael Leiter at the National Counterterrorism Agency, asserting that not all attacks can be stopped and some innocent lives will inevitably be lost.

"I think Mike Leiter was correct," Napolitano said. "You cannot hermetically seal the United States."

"We're not going to bat 1,000 necessarily. We can't guarantee that," said Clapper. "But we're certainly doing everything we can to ensure that we do thwart any kind of an attack."

"What I say to the American people is that ... thousands of people are working 24/7, 364 [sic] days a year to keep the American people safe," said Napolitano.

"There are evil people in the world who are trying to do us harm," said Brennan, "but this government has come an awfully long way."

Click here to return to the "World News" page.

Susie Banikarim, Margaret Aro and Rick Klein contributed this this report.

ABC News Live

ABC News Live

24/7 coverage of breaking news and live events