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CNN BREAKING NEWS

Terror Threat Level Raised to High

Aired February 7, 2003 - 12:37   ET

THIS IS A RUSH TRANSCRIPT. THIS COPY MAY NOT BE IN ITS FINAL FORM AND MAY BE UPDATED.

WOLF BLITZER, CNN ANCHOR: We're only less than a minute away from the start of this news conference, a statement from the Homeland Security Secretary Tom Ridge, the FBI director Robert Mueller, the Attorney General John Ashcroft. They'll be walking in within a few seconds, going to the microphones and making this announcement, elevating the terror threat level around the United States, for U.S. citizens indeed around the world from this yellow level that's been in place for so long, a yellow level which is called elevated, to the orange level, which is a higher state of security, meaning that law enforcement, some 17,000, 20,000 law enforcement authorities, local, state, federal, around the state have to deal with a much more serious potential threat out there. The reason being, and we'll get some specific explanations from how credible this information is.
But they're walking in right now, the attorney general and the secretary of homeland security.

JOHN ASHCROFT, ATTORNEY GENERAL: Good afternoon.

The United States government continuously reviews intelligence reporting to assess the current threat condition designation and to determine whether or not it should be adjusted.

After conferring this morning with the Homeland Security Council, the decision has been made to increase the threat condition designation currently classified at elevated risk, to increase that threat condition designation to the high-risk category.

This decision for an increased threat condition designation is based on specific intelligence received and analyzed by the full intelligence community. This information has been corroborated by multiple intelligence sources.

Since September the 11th, the U.S. intelligence community has indicated that the al Qaeda terrorist network is still determined to attack innocent Americans, both here and abroad. Recent reporting indicates an increased likelihood that al Qaeda may attempt to attack Americans in the United States and/or abroad in or around the end of the Haj, a Muslim religious period ending mid-February 2003.

Recent intelligence reports suggests that al Qaeda leaders have emphasized planning for attacks on apartment buildings, hotels and other soft or lightly secured targets in the United States.

The recent bombings of a nightclub in Bali, Indonesia, and of a resort hotel in Mombasa, Kenya, demonstrate the continued willingness of al Qaeda to strike at peaceful, innocent civilians and their ability to carry out attacks on such soft or lightly guarded targets.

There are also indications bolstered by the recent arrests in London where chemical -- ricin was discovered. These indications demonstrate al Qaeda's interest in carrying out chemical, biological and radiological attacks.

Historically, the intelligence community has indicated that al Qaeda might also seek economic targets, including the transportation and energy sectors, as well as symbolic targets and symbols of American power.

The United States government has specific intelligence and experience demonstrating that heightened awareness and readiness on our part deters terrorism. Since September the 11th of 2001, the United States has substantially improved its capacity to disrupt, deter and prevent terrorist attacks; terrorist attacks against innocent Americans.

The active cooperation of the American people, your cooperation, has been instrumental in preventing major terrorist attacks.

Since September the 11th, 2001, the Federal Bureau of Investigation has evaluated and investigated over 3,000 terrorist threats within the United States, issued 103 warnings to state and local law enforcement, and announced three -- not including today's announcement -- three major nationwide terrorist alerts.

The threat condition designation was last raised to high risk on September the 10th, 2002, and reduced to an elevated risk standing two weeks later.

Today's change in the threat condition designation from elevated risk to high risk will trigger a series of security precautions by the federal government, as well as state and local governments and U.S. citizens, to increase readiness to prevent terrorism.

I have directed that Joint Terrorism Task Forces nationwide coordinate their local response with U.S. attorneys and local anti- terrorism task forces. In addition, I have directed that all appropriate information be shared with the Joint Terrorism Task Forces in order for federal officials to work effectively and cooperatively with state and local officials.

We are not recommending that events be canceled, nor do we recommend that individuals change domestic, work or travel plans. As we have in the past, we ask that Americans continue their daily work and leisure activities with a heightened awareness of their environment and the activities occurring around them.

As President Bush recounted in the State of the Union address, we have arrested or dealt with many al Qaeda key commanders, 3,000 suspected terrorists have been arrested worldwide, other terrorists have met a different fate. We've uncovered and stopped terrorist conspiracies in the United States, in Yemen, Singapore, Saudi Arabia, the Straits of Hormuz and Gibraltar. We've broken al Qaeda cells around the world. And with the support of the American people, we will prevail in this war on terror.

It's my pleasure now to introduce the secretary of the Department of Homeland Security, Secretary Tom Ridge.

TOM RIDGE, SECRETARY OF HOMELAND SECURITY: Good afternoon, ladies and gentlemen.

This heightened threat level has been or is being communicated to local and state law enforcement officials, federal agencies, members of Congress, governors, state homeland security advisers, mayors and those who share responsibility for the nation's private infrastructure. Information is also being provided to the nation's first responders: our fire, emergency, health and public safety personnel.

The nation's Homeland Security Advisory System provides a national framework to inform and to facilitate actions appropriate to different levels of government and to private citizens, either in their workplaces or in their homes. The system couples the threat level with protective measures which should or will be taken to reduce our country's vulnerabilities.

As a result of the increase in the threat level, as a result of going from yellow to orange, elevated to high, specific protective measures will be taken by all federal agencies, both to reduce vulnerabilities and many of them actually will, we believe, serve as a deterrent.

Increased security personnel at points of entry may, in fact, limit points of entry and exit, enhanced identification checks, restrictions to travel around federal facilities and airports among the many augmented security measures that will be implemented.

As I mentioned before it's very important for you all to understand that we've also alerted the medical and public health communities, as well.

Now, at the same time as the federal government is taking action, I want to reassure you that governors, mayors, state and local law enforcement and private sector managers of the nation's critical infrastructure will be taking action, as well.

We are asking all of these leaders to increase their security and vigilance wherever necessary, and we remind them that sometimes varying their security is a good alternative, depending on their circumstances, to actually enhancing it.

It depends on a lot of circumstances. But doing things differently can be a deterrent as well.

Now, as the attorney general mentioned, for individual Americans, we ask you to remain aware and remain alert. We are not recommending that events be canceled or travel or other plans be changed.

We do recommend that individuals and families, in the days ahead, take some time to prepare for an emergency. The thought occurred to me, traveling to join my colleagues for this public announcement, that when I step across the threshold of the front door at night I'm not sure I'm seen as the secretary of the Department of Homeland Security; I'm a husband and a father, a parent and a spouse. And I know a lot of parents and spouses are saying, "Well, what should we do? What does this mean for us?"

And all I would say to you as a parent and a spouse is, take the time now to get informed. There are so many available sources of information that you could refer to that will give you and your family and your businesses and your schools some comfort to know that in the eventuality, with the possibility that something might happen, you have taken some precautionary measures or taken some steps to minimize the damage or perhaps to avoid it altogether.

One of the thoughts that I would just simply share with you, it's probably not a bad idea to sit down and just arrange some kind of a contact plan, that if an event occurred you want to make sure you can -- the family wants to get in touch with one another. That's not a bad thing to do to prepare in advance of any kind of emergency, whether it's a natural disaster or a terrorist attack. Doesn't take a great deal of time. And I think it would make family members a lot more comfortable if they knew they were able to get in touch with one another in the event something happened.

I think there are ways that parents and adults can certainly be bettered informed, because, as we've described to you, terrorist attacks really can potentially take many forms. And so by learning more now about these kinds of attacks, you and your families can be armed in advance with the kind of information that you might need and that will be critical to your health and your well-being.

And I would encourage Americans to log onto the department's web site. You can log on to www.dhs.gov to learn more information, to become better informed about steps that individuals can take simply to be better prepared.

The call that we give today, which Americans have certainly heard before, is based on our knowledge and our conviction that heightened awareness and readiness deters terrorism and saves lives. Each of us in our own ways can contribute to the security of our nation, our families and our communities.

Today we call on Americans to continue to persevere in the face of this evil, in the face of this terror. Because we understand that by working together not only will we persevere, but we will prevail.

Thank you.

ROBERT MUELLER, FBI DIRECTOR: Thank you, Tom.

As already has been stated, recent intelligence reports have led to the decision today to increase the threat level.

And today, as well as every day since September 11, the FBI has stood ready to protect Americans against those who seek to do us harm. And today, as every day since September 11th, the FBI is fully mobilized to respond through our Joint Terrorism Task Forces, which are comprised of federal agencies, as well as state and local law enforcement.

The Joint Terrorism Task Forces have been working 24 hours a day following up on information we may have received.

But I've got to emphasize also, we believe that an alert public is our strongest asset. If you observe suspicious activity, I encourage you to contact your local FBI office or your local police, and to report such activity.

I thank you.

And I turn it over to you, General.

ASHCROFT: Yes?

QUESTION: Is your knowledge based on specific targets or has this decision been made based on the weight -- more of the weight of everything that you're looking at?

ASHCROFT: I think I'll stick with the statements we've made that intelligence, which is assessed on a regular basis, provides a very sound basis and a responsibility for us to communicate what we believe to be an elevated threat to the American people. And for us to go beyond that is probably not in the interest of our doing our job successfully or well.

QUESTION: Is this at all tied to the buildup of military presence in the Gulf and the confrontation with Iraq or is it more just continuing threat of al Qaeda cells?

ASHCROFT: Well, this is information regarding al Qaeda, which has been manifest in a variety of settings around the globe, very clearly unrelated to the issues that you have otherwise referenced: the Bali bombings, the kinds of activities discovered in England, the kinds of activities which were so damaging in Mombasa.

So when you put it in that context, it's pretty clear that this is a situation where al Qaeda is going to strike the United States and at the interest of free people in other settings. And it's very clear that they were willing to do that on September 11th of 2001 without any special provocations. It's their intention to do what they can to disrupt free people and to destroy the values for which America stands and which it represents to prominently in the world.

It's very clear to us that we've taken action based on this kind of intelligence and the kind of information that reflects this as the motivation which is a long-continuing motivation of al Qaeda.

QUESTION: This is for Secretary Ridge. How confident are you that state and local agencies know specifically what they should be doing in response to the threat and that they have specific plans in place?

RIDGE: Well, first of all, for several months now, every governor has called upon someone within their own community to become their homeland security adviser. And every single state and every single governor has worked very, very hard to coordinate activity among their state agencies and were appropriate working through their state agencies down to the local agencies, law enforcement, public health and the like.

And so, I'm confident that, as this country continues to expand its capacity to prevent terrorist attacks, to reduce our vulnerability and then respond to an attack if it occurs, that we get stronger every day. Perhaps not so much because of what the federal government is doing -- and we have a significant role, but we have to give a great deal of credit and highlight what the governors and the mayors and the people of local communities as well as the private sector are doing.

QUESTION: We've talked to state and local community people and they say they are confused about what to do. They don't know what specific actions they need to take going from yellow to orange. They feel that they are already doing everything they can and should be doing. Can you be more specific about what they should do with this elevated risk?

RIDGE: Well, I think you'll find that, through the efforts of -- particularly of the FBI, they know the simultaneous communications are going out as we speak to the 17,000 to 18,000 law enforcement agencies around the country, that we've given them some information. And they are professionals and they know how to act on specific information, and they will.

Again, we realize and understand that, from a technical point of view, we want and need to build up our capacity to reduce our own vulnerability and to respond in a terrorist event. That's one of the reasons that the state and locals are hopeful, they're very, very hopeful that the Congress will send -- make available to them an excess of $3.5 billion for the first responders, a nearly significant part of the $6 billion to combat a bioterrorist threat that the president submitted to Congress almost a year ago.

And when those dollars are available to these state and local communities, because these state and local communities have been developing plans to enhance their capacity to respond through training and the acquisition of equipment, they'll be in even better shape today than they were yesterday.

So yes, I have confidence that they know what to do.

I have confidence that they know what they need to do to be even better prepared and confidence that once they get the money it will be very appropriately and effectively spent.

QUESTION: Is there any concern that some of our first responders -- our firefighters, our cops -- may be called to military duty?

RIDGE: Well, I think, as we well know, it's, kind of, interesting when you have first responders and police and fire, what have you, that sense of public service often takes those men and women into the Guard and the Reserve. And clearly that is a situation that the country has had to confront several times in its history when we've had to build up the military presence, and then the community has to adjust.

But the extraordinary element within your question is how people -- there are some Americans, some of our citizens, some of our neighbors among us just can't find enough ways to serve us. And when it's at the local level they want to serve us in a police department or fire department. When their nation calls them, they want to serve in the Guard or the Reserve. So we just have to adjust to those possibilities.

QUESTION: How long do you anticipate the current threat level will stay at this point?

ASHCROFT: The threat level designation is driven by intelligence information analysis, and as long as it remains high, it will remain high. And if we come to the conclusion based on information, based on activity, we reduce it.

For example, on September the 10th of last year you may remember that we moved the designation from elevated, which is the yellow category, to high, which is the orange category. One of the considerations, I think, that was cited at that time was terrorist- related activity in upstate New York. There were other factors, as well.

Subsequent to that elevation, we were able to neutralize that cell in upstate New York and based on an understanding of that, together with other information about the threat, we were able to take the threat level back down.

But the level of the actual threat is what, as we perceive it, understand it and are aware of it, through intelligence resources and activities and law enforcement resources and activities, the constant investigations and activities here at home, as well as our information collection and our observation of things abroad, that provides the basis for making these judgments.

And so we would say that we hope to reduce the level of the threat by our activities. We have, I think, been successful in doing that on various occasions over a substantial period of time with, you know, substantial numbers of convictions, lots of apprehensions, not just here but around the world. And we would look forward to a time when a reduced threat level makes it possible for us to reduce the designation, yes.

QUESTION: When you first last year talked about the threat of a dirty bomb, when you announced Padilla's capture, what is the current state of your knowledge about al Qaeda's ability to construct a so- called dirty bomb and to detonate it? And how much of that concern fuels your current thinking in the decision to raise the threat level?

ASHCROFT: As I indicated in my remarks, we have seen, both from the practice of al Qaeda and from the law enforcement work of individuals around the world and from the intelligence community, that al Qaeda continues to demonstrate a very serious interest in chemical, biological, as well as radiological devices, the impacts of which would obviously be adverse.

It's based on those considerations, as well as others, that we find this occasion one in which we feel that we should elevate this designation from elevated state to a high state of alert.

QUESTION: You mentioned that there's no need for individuals to change or cancel domestic events or activities or work plans; how about internationally?

ASHCROFT: Well, the State Department made and issued a very substantial, sort of -- substantial's probably the wrong word -- a significant statement about certain kinds of international travel. And we believe the State Department has gotten that right, and individuals should take into account the kinds of things and the advice given in the State Department's communication.

QUESTION: Was there any hesitation about raising the threat level based on the anxiety that it might cause or was it purely an intelligence-driven decision?

ASHCROFT: Well, we believe -- first of all, this is an intelligence-driven decision. We believe the American people have the ability to accommodate this kind of information sharing as a strategy in which they participate for being successful in the fight against terrorism.

We believe that when the American people have elevated levels of alertness and when the American public servants engage in activities, as well as individuals in the private sector, to secure the country more effectively, this deters terrorists in their activities and plans.

So we believe that the announcement of this can help in the prevention of terrorism.

The secretary has clearly made a what I consider to be a profound point, sometimes changes in the way in which we secure things, changes in routines, also can be disruptive. And one of the strategies about security in which some, not only governmental entities involve themselves but private entities, is that they vary the security from time to time so that those who would observe their activities and think they could count on a particular security strategy to always be in place would find themselves surprised, and surprise is not the friend of those who want to do things in secret.

STAFF: Last question.

QUESTION: Yes, a question for Secretary Ridge. Secretary Rumsfeld took nine of your Coast Guard cutters and two port security units, all of these involved in port security, and sent them to the Gulf. Is this a good idea in light of this increased risk?

RIDGE: One of the remarkable qualities of the United States Coast Guard is their ability to adapt to a change in mission status and to rely upon their Reserve component in times of a national crisis when part of their operation is pulled in to support a Department of Defense initiative.

Commandant Collins and I have had several conversations about this. He has a definite plan as to how he and his colleagues within the Coast Guard can backfill with the Reserves and others to make sure that we don't lose any of the capacity to help protect the homeland.

So, again, it's -- for those folks who don't know too much about the Coast Guard, and probably one of the most under-appreciated organizations in the federal government, their ability and historic ability to adapt to this kind of change in mission and move quickly and responsibly is one of their unique qualities.

So I -- we don't lose any force protection; they will adapt.

ASHCROFT: Thank you all very much.

BLITZER: John Ashcroft, Robert Mueller and Tom Ridge, leaving the Justice Department briefing room right now after announcing that the threat level, the terror level, the threat assessment level was being elevated from yellow to orange, from an elevated level to a high level, in the face of intelligence gathering, intelligence gathering evidence that Al Qaeda may be planning another round of terrorism against U.S. targets in the United States or perhaps around the world to coincide with the end of the Hajj, the Muslim pilgrimage to mecca and Medina and Saudi Arabia, the holy cities. That is supposed to end next week.

The FBI director saying, "An alert public is our best asset, our strongest asset." Tom Ridge saying, "We ask you to remain aware and to remain alert," although the attorney general saying the government is not asking, not recommending that events be canceled around the United States, not recommending that domestic travel plans be changed.

The State Department yesterday saying that international travel though, U.S. citizens around the world, should be on a much higher state of alert as well.

Important developments. We're going to have more coverage through the day, including a complete wrap at 5:00 p.m. Eastern on "WOLF BLITZER REPORTS." I'll be back for then. Until then, thank you very much for watching. I'm Wolf Blitzer at the CNN Center in Atlanta. "LIVE FROM" with Kyra Phillips begins right now.

KYRA PHILLIPS, CNN ANCHOR: Thanks, Wolf.

We'll take it from here. The threat for terrorism now high. The official announcement just came moments ago from Washington, if you've been watching, and now Washington is putting local law enforcement agencies on alert. We have correspondents covering all angles of this story. We'll have extensive coverage this hour. We're going to begin with our David Ensor in Washington D.C. -- David.

DAVID ENSOR, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Well, Kyra, as we just heard, the announcement that the threat level is being raised was based on specific intelligence from multiple sources. Let's hear exactly how the attorney general put it. (BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

JOHN ASHCROFT, ATTY. GENERAL OF THE UNTIED STATES: The decision has been made to increase the threat condition designation currently classified at elevated risk, to increase that threat condition designation to the high risk category. This decision for an increased threat condition designation is based on specific intelligence received and analyzed by the full intelligence community. This information has been corroborated by multiple intelligence sources.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

ENSOR: The full intelligence community, that means both the intelligence services, which look at things overseas, the CIA, the NSA and others, and of course the FBI and other agencies that watch the threat at home. So what we're hearing is that there is evidence that corroborates, that cross-corroborates itself, that there may be specific and credible threats.

However, Ashcroft and Ridge were no more specific about what kinds of threats, where, what might be attacked. That kind of information, they were not willing to give us. They did say in terms of time period, as Wolf just mentioned, that the time period they're the most concerned about at the moment is the period of the Hajj. The Muslim religious calendar has that period ending around mid-February. So officials saying it is quite likely this raised level of threat could last that long -- Kyra.

PHILLIPS: David, I'm reading now that authorities are saying now they haven't heard this amount of traffic since September 11th. Is that true?

ENSOR: Well, that's right, the amount of information, the chatter that we hear, that U.S. intelligence officials say they're getting, rises and drops every month or two. This is the highest level they've had since then. So there is a good deal of concern about this.

PHILLIPS: All right, our David Ensor, live from Washington D.C.

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