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U.S. Back on Orange Alert

Aired May 20, 2003 - 15:09   ET


JUDY WOODRUFF, CNN ANCHOR: Let's quickly bring in our White House correspondent, John King.
John, it is just a few weeks after the level was lowered. Why are they turning around and raising it again?

JOHN KING, CNN SR. WHITE HOUSE CORRESPONDENT: Well, Judy, because they say they have -- and we were told this by senior administration officials -- they say they have fresh intelligence suggesting that al Qaeda is trying to plan fresh attacks here in the United States. They say that intelligence is not specific about where such an attack might take place or when or even how.

But they say there is significant increase in the chatter, as they call it. Enough of an increase when, combined with what we have seen overseas in recent days, from the bombings in Saudi Arabia to new intelligence suggesting there could be even more attacks in Saudi Arabia, that the president decided this afternoon after an extraordinary meeting of his Homeland Security Council to accept the Council's recommendation to go from yellow elevated, back up to orange, high.

It was high, orange, just before the war in Iraq and it was just after the hostilities ended that the administration concluded that the risk of retaliatory strikes because of the war in Iraq had eroded to the point where the government could go back to yellow. But again, the president making this decision today. This Homeland Security Council meeting was not scheduled. It was added because of the new intelligence.

The Homeland Security Council met this afternoon. It then presented its recommendation to the president. He quickly approved it.

We are told now notification is going out around the country and that the formal announcement will come first in the form of a written statement from the new Department of Homeland Security. That is due to be released at the bottom of the hour, 3:30 here in Washington. And then Asa Hutchinson, a top official in the new department, will make a public statement. He's up at Capitol Hill at the moment -- Judy.

WOODRUFF: How does this square with some comments we've heard? The president himself said the other day words to the effect we turned the corner on terrorism. We heard the FBI director, Robert Mueller, say something to that effect. How does this square with those comments?

KING: Well it certainly raises questions about those comments. Ari Fleischer at the White House briefing today was asked several questions about this. And this was before we knew the threat level was going up.

And the point he is trying to make and the point the president made just yesterday at his news conference here at the White House was that they believe they have significantly curtailed the ability of al Qaeda. They say its central training camps in Afghanistan are no longer in business, that much of its leadership is behind bars, that other members of the leadership, Osama bin Laden among them, are on the run, at a minimum.

But they say they do have fresh evidence that smaller al Qaeda cells led by some members of the mid-level or upper level management of al Qaeda are trying to reconstitute in places like Saudi Arabia, in places like East Africa, in places like Southeast Asia. So they say they have the organization significantly reduced in its capacity to pull off large-scale terrorist attacks, but they say it is on the run but not out of business. And we're seeing that painful message yet again today.

WOODRUFF: But, John, this also applies to the possibility of a terrorist attack here in the United States, right?

KING: Right. They say they have had increases over the past several days of intelligence, intercepted conversations, other communications and other intelligence data suggesting that there are attempts to plan new strikes here in the United States. Again, they say this information is not all that specific. Not all that specific as to location or timing or how that attack would take place.

The concern is, that if you follow what happened in Saudi Arabia, that the terrorists would target so-called soft targets: hotels, large public gathering places like a sporting event, a baseball stadium. So they wanted to raise the level to get word out to state and local officials to go on higher alert.

I can tell you, Judy, the official notification is just going out now. In the past, every time we have been at the orange level, pedestrians could not walk by the White House. There are still tourists out on the street. So it is unclear how specific they will be in their security precautions around the White House. But we do know the official notice has been sent out to law enforcement, and the official word will come, we are told, at the bottom of the hour.

WOODRUFF: Well I know we're all going to be listening closely at 3:30 Eastern when the formal announcement is made. All right. John King is at the White House. Thank you, John.

I want to quickly go to CNN correspondent Mike Brooks. He's out in California. Mike, you have been taking a look at how cities respond or should be responding when the terror threat level is raised. What do you know about what's going to happen now across the country? MIKE BROOKS, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Well, many departments -- many police departments, first responders across the country, Judy, when we went from orange to yellow, many of them remained at orange. Now the threat level has gone up and down a number of times and they have now remained, many departments, at an orange level. Now this is both small departments and large departments that have different icons within their jurisdiction, that have bridges, those things.

Now we just spoke with a representative, Mary Curry (ph), who is with the Golden Gate Bridge district here in San Francisco, to ask her what is going to be done differently here in San Francisco, especially with an icon like the Golden Gate Bridge. Now she said that they have been at an orange alert for quite some time.

Now, what they will do, though, now that they are back at an orange alert -- even when they were at yellow, they kind of go in between yellow and orange. What they will do, they have access roads on the north and south sides of the bridge that could possibly be targets. So what they'll do is they'll shut them down.

They also may -- the California Highway Patrol may start truck inspections again. Now this has not happened as of yet. In fact, they had not heard about any of this from the governor's office when we called them to inquire. So these are some things that could be done.

But getting back to other departments across the country, many of them have been at an orange level and will remain at an orange level, even though they went back down to yellow and now back again to orange. So it's really not that much difference, but I'm sure that certain icons will be beefed up around major cities around the country -- Judy.

WOODRUFF: So, Mike, in terms of ordinary Americans around the country, certainly around federal buildings, certainly around major transportation sites, what are the places where Americans should look for some increased security or be more on guard themselves?

BROOKS: Well, I think the whole thing is be on guard themselves. You know we talk about yellow levels, orange levels. You know what does that really mean to the citizens?

Citizens need a vigilance alert now and then. I think this is what this is calling for. Now people need to be aware of their surroundings at work, when they're at sporting events. If they see a suspicious package, call the police. The police do not mind at all.

When I was on the response team in Washington D.C. we would rather someone see something, call us, we come out and find it's nothing at all, then to just leave it sitting there. But hopefully this will heighten people's awareness and get them to respond more effectively than they have in the past, because people in the United States, historically, if something doesn't happen six months to a year down the road where they live they kind of get lulled back into a false sense of security and sometimes they need to be poked with a stick. But I think this is going to be a vigilance alert again for them, and people should take heed to these kind of alerts -- Judy.

WOODRUFF: I think it's fair to say this will be poking people with a stick. People are going to pay attention.

BROOKS: That's for sure.

WOODRUFF: All right. Mike Brooks, thank you very much. Joining us from San Francisco.

Well we should be learning more about the rise in the threat level in just a few minutes. Officials from the Department of Homeland Security will talk to reporters at 3:45 Eastern, and we will have live coverage.


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