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Announcement Regarding Threat Level Expected Soon

Aired February 7, 2003 - 12:01   ET


WOLF BLITZER, CNN ANCHOR: As we mentioned, the Bush administration, after agonizing for days, is raising the official government assessment of the terrorism risk to high.
Let's go straight to CNN's Jeanne Meserve. She is standing by with these late-breaking developments -- Jeanne.

JEANNE MESERVE, CNN HOMELAND SECURITY CORRESPONDENT: Wolf, the official announcement will come at 12:30 when a press conference will be held with Attorney General John Ashcroft, the Secretary of the Department of Homeland Security Tom Ridge, and also FBI director Robert Mueller. Secretary Ridge, I am told, has already completed a telephone call with the nation's governors and state emergency officials.

I am told that he said to them that this is the most serious conversion of credible corroborated threats since September 11. An administration official to whom I spoke said what concerns them is the convergence of intelligence from a number of different sources and the time period.

That, a reflection of the fact that the Hajj is about to begin. That is the time at which Muslims make their pilgrimage to Mecca. Also, of course, the possibility of hostilities with Iraq looming on the horizon. This is the reason why, at this time, they are deciding to make this move from elevated to a high level of risk.

Now, Secretary Ridge, I am told, in addition to talking to the governors, will be briefing members of Congress. Also, he will be talking to the leaders of 13 different sectors of private industry. These are the 13 sectors that control 85 percent of the critical infrastructure in this country. In the conference calls with state officials, I am told that particular note was made of the energy, finance, and transportation sectors, these three particular areas that they are concerned about.

When I asked an administration official about the nature of the threat, they said they were concerned, not only about conventional weapons but all about chemical, biological, and radiological threats.

These are things that they know terrorists have been trying to get hold of. They cannot say definitively whether they have them or do not have them at this point.

When I asked about the array of targets they're concerned about, they mentioned, of course, that critical infrastructure, but they said they are worried also about soft targets. That would be things like shopping malls, things that generally don't have a high level of protection. And so this official tells me that what we are likely to see as a result of this elevated threat level is an increase in security across the board in this country.

Of course, there will be things like increased border security, but there also will be, on the local level, an increase of policing on most of the streets of the country, and a word to the citizens of this country to be alert, be on guard, and report anything suspicious that you might see -- Wolf, back to you.

BLITZER: One technical question, Jeanne. Who in the end makes the decision? Is it the Homeland Security secretary, the attorney general, the FBI director, or the president of the United States?

MESERVE: It's the president of the United States. All of those individuals who you mentioned came together and they have reached a consensus on this. All of them agreed that it was time to hike this threat alert level. They made a recommendation to the president. The president is the one who made the decision.

BLITZER: All right. Jeanne Meserve with the latest. Jeanne, thanks very much.

Our national security correspondent, David Ensor, standing by as well. Some of the intelligence decision making process that led to this important decision that is about to be announced -- David, what are you hearing?

DAVID ENSOR, CNN NATIONAL SECURITY CORRESPONDENT: Well, the announcements that Jeanne has told us about, the announcement that's coming up, is based mostly on intelligence that was gathered overseas I am told, not surprisingly. There is a lot of intelligence, a rising threat level in the view of U.S. officials, and it is coming from a wide variety of sources.

Officials say that they believe some of this information is both specific and credible, and those are the key words that officials look for. They get reams of intelligence, most of it unreliable. A lot of chatter, a lot of intercepts, a lot of human intelligence. A lot of it is not all that reliable or backed up, but when things start to corroborate each other, then they start to get worried. And they are starting to be able to cross reference some of this intelligence, suggesting to them that there may be specific and credible threats in the coming days or weeks. So that kind of information went to the Department of Homeland Security, to the attorney general, and based on that information, we understand a recommendation was made to the president. He didn't disagree, so we do expect that announcement at 12:30 -- Wolf.

BLITZER: David, is it coincidental or not coincidental that this is happening perhaps on the eve of a U.S. war against Iraq?

ENSOR: You know, I have talked to officials about -- a lot about whether they think there is the possibility of terrorism by -- stimulated by the Muqbarrat (ph), the Iraqi intelligence service, whether the Iraqis perhaps in cahoots with terrorist groups might organize something.

The response I tend to get is officials saying, look, the Iraqi intelligence service is not all that terrific. It is fairly well watched. It's not something we worry a lot about. Sure, we watch them, but we're not really expecting it to come from that quarter. And frankly, a number of officials saying they believe that al Qaeda would attack the U.S. any time it could, without regard to any war in Iraq or, frankly, many other factors -- Wolf.

BLITZER: David Ensor, our national security correspondent. David, thanks very much.

Let's go immediately to the White House. We heard that the president, of course, made the final decision to raise the threat level from yellow to orange, from elevated to high. Our White House correspondent, Dana Bash, is standing by. What are they saying there, Dana?

DANA BASH, CNN WHITE HOUSE CORRESPONDENT: Well, Wolf, that decision, we are told, was made just a few hours ago. The president, I'm told, did sign off on it in the Oval Office. He had a meeting with some of his top advisers, those that Jeanne Meserve was talking about. The head of the FBI, John Ashcroft and Tom Ridge, the new secretary of the Homeland Security Department and others, and they had made a decision, and this is, of course, the way it normally works.

They made the decision that the so-called chatter, the information that they were getting from a wide range of intelligence sources did suggest that it is time to raise the threat level.

So they took that information to the president, and the president did sign off on it, we are told. And the White House has been talking about some of the things that Jeanne was talking about. White House spokesman Ari Fleischer, in his briefings over the past few days, has mentioned the fact that, yes, there is increased chatter, and they are pointing to not only a potential -- the talk of potential military action in Iraq, but also talking about the fact that we are starting to -- coming upon the Muslim pilgrimage, or the holiday of the Hajj, and that is a time, certainly, that the U.S. says that is a time that the heightened awareness is certainly up. And so the White House has been talking about that, but this morning, in fact, just a few hours ago, the president did make the final decision to actually raise the threat level -- Wolf.

BLITZER: The president will not be at this announcement when the elevated level will go into effect. The higher level, the threat assessment, but there will be a briefing at the White House later in the day. Is that right, Dana?

BASH: That is correct. There will be a briefing, we are told now at about 1:00 Eastern from the White House spokesman Ari Fleischer, and we are not sure what he's going to offer, but you can be sure that he will be peppered with questions about how this decision was made and all the other questions that go along with that -- Wolf.

BLITZER: All right. Dana Bash over at the White House. Thanks, Dana, very much.

Mike Brooks is our law enforcement correspondent. He's standing by as well. For average folks watching this broadcast, Mike, right now, what does this mean, as far as their day to day activities are concerned? Moving from yellow to orange, moving from an elevated threat level that you can see there to the higher orange level, which is high, not as high as red, the severe, but significantly higher than elevated. What should our viewers go away -- as far as their day to day activities are concerned?

MIKE BROOKS, CNN LAW ENFORCEMENT CORRESPONDENT: Well, law enforcement, Wolf, wants to make sure that the citizens don't become complacent, that they remain vigilant. And if they see anything out of the ordinary, if they see any suspicious packages at their place of business, on the way to work, at sporting events, when they're at the mall, let an official know. Let a law enforcement official know. Pick up the phone, dial 911. Law enforcement is expecting to get more calls as the threat level is increased.

Now, also federal agencies and departments should also consider the following. This is taking it right from the Office of Homeland Security's (sic) Web site, and these are some things that they are considering.

No. 1, to coordinate security efforts with federal, state, and local law enforcement agencies and security organizations. Take additional precautions at public events. May consider alternative venues or even cancellation. Prepare to execute contingency procedures, such as moving to an alternative site or dispersing their work force, and to restrict threatened facility access to essential personnel.

Now, we spoke earlier today with the NBA commissioner, David Stern about the NBA all-star game, which is taking place here in Atlanta this weekend. That is going to be a major event, and he said that they -- when they were actually planning the all star game, that they planned it at an orange or high level. So, they are taking the specific precautions. Now, the NBA all-star game is not a national security event, but the Atlanta Police Department here, working in conjunction with other federal agencies, FBI, Secret Service, ATF, they have been coordinating their efforts and have been working on the security plans for quite some time, and he assures us -- assures CNN that the games will go on, and that it will be a secure -- safe and secure NBA all-star game -- Wolf.

BLITZER: Mike, law enforcement authorities, thousands and thousands of them around the country, obviously are at a very high state of alert already, and I have spoken to a lot of them, you've spoken to a lot of them, many of them your former colleagues. How much higher can they go in trying to deal with this potential threat out there?

BROOKS: Well, some of the departments are already -- and since September 11 -- have already been at an orange or higher state. Jeanne Meserve just a short time ago said that she spoke with a number of different cities, and the major cities across the country, a third of them. Last time the level was raised in September did absolutely nothing because they fell that they were already at a high state of readiness. So I think we will see, depending on the size of the city, the different icons that they have, the different -- if a city has a nuclear power plant, those kind of things that they need to protect. I think you'll see different activities taking place in different cities.

And we also have to take into consideration that a lot of small towns and even major departments have lost a lot of their departments to Army Reserve troops that are preparing for war with Iraq.

BLITZER: All right. We are standing by for that news conference, for that announcement from the Homeland Security secretary, Tom Ridge; John Ashcroft, the attorney general; and the FBI director, Robert Mueller. Mike Brooks, thanks very much.


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