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New Report Critical of Terror Alert System

Aired August 11, 2003 - 20:38   ET


WOLF BLITZER, CNN ANCHOR: A study just done for the U.S. Congress says Americans are confused by the country's color coded terror alert system. The five color scale was introduced in March 2002. We're almost always on yellow, but once last year and three times this year it has been raised to orange making big headlines each time.
The new report for the U.S. Congress lists four reasons why the terror alert system needs overhauling: the warnings are too vague, there is a lack of specific protective measures and little coordination with other federal warning systems. Plus, the high cost of threat level changes.

I'm joined by two men whose jobs are to protect all of us, the American public.

The police chief Gil Kerlikowske. He's in Seattle, Washington.

And John Miller is in Los Angeles. He's the commanding officer of the LAPD's counterterrorism bureau.

Thanks to both of you for joining us.

John, first to you. You think this system is not broken, it is working.

JOHN MILLER, CMDR., LAPD COUNTERTERRORISM BUREAU: I do. And I think more than an actual directive, the color coded system is really a state of mind, meaning if you're on high alert all the time, well, then you're never on high alert. But when we go from yellow to orange as you just said, it's a headline making story. That is a signal to the public that they need to be more aware, they need to report more things. And I have to say, Wolf, when we go from yellow to orange, our Los Angeles based terrorist tip hotline lights up with calls that we weren't getting the day before. People do pay more attention and that's useful to me.

BLITZER: Chief Kerlikowske, what do you think?

CHIEF GIL KERLIKOWSKE, SEATTLE POLICE DEPT.: Well, I think it needs to be overhauled. But let me put that into context.

It was a good initial step after 9/11. It was important. But right now I think the Congressional Research Service report, I think the feeling of many others in police chiefs and across the country is that it does need to be reviewed and overhauled to be more specific and more credible.

BLITZER: Well what specifically, Chief, do you want to see?

KERLIKOWSKE: Well, there are a couple of things.

One is that basing it upon a region of the country or more specificity. For instance, we know that when the color goes up across the country, some cities, some police departments take a number of steps. Some are extraordinary. Others say, Well, we don't have anything more based upon what we have heard. We're not going to do anything more than a basic level. People want confidence in their public safety professionals to be on top of this issue and right now this isn't the system that is getting us there.

BLITZER: On this specific point, John, there is a widespread sense that maybe there should be changes in the alert status, maybe on the East Coast, in New York, Washington maybe on the West Coast, in Los Angeles. But for big chunks of the United States, they don't need to go through this enormous expense and,if you will, concern by changing the alert status from time to time. Would you recommend sort of a regional division of labor, if you will?

MILLER: Well, I would see the sense in if the intelligence was specific to a major U.S. city -- and I don't mean specific to a given city but an attack was going to occur in a major U.S. city, that going from yellow to orange for major cities might be a viable option.

But let me tell you something. Anybody who studied the history of terrorism shows anytime that the government had believed it knew where the terrorists would strike that has turned around and bitten them, you know where.

When the bin Laden made his first threat, they locked down U.S. forces in Saudi Arabia and increased security in the middle east. He blew up two embassies in East Africa. When they secured the embassies worldwide so that there were almost impregnable to attack, he blew up a battleship in Yemen. No one expected him to attack a battleship. When they put force protection in for all the battleships now, the next attack was by airplanes as missiles into skyscrapers. Nobody was ready for that.

So what I'm saying, Wolf, is that if we decide that we are going to pretend to know where the terrorists are going to strike, absent specific information, we're going to learn the hard way. We're wrong again. So absent specific information, I think the blanket warning is the way to go.

BLITZER: I think that's a fair point, Chief Kerlikowske, to err on the side of caution, if you will.

When I spoke to Tom Ridge, the secretary of homeland security not that long ago, I raised the notion of having regional alerts. And his concern was that you sort of advertise where there is no greater security. IN other words, if you put out alerts in New York and Washington and not Chicago, you're telling terrorists go ahead and attack Chicago or Seattle, for that matter. What do you think about that concern?

KERLIKOWSKE: Well, I think there are a couple points.

One is that you have to keep in mind that the threats usually are to the big cities, to these larger urban centers because that's where you have population density. That's where you get huge amounts of media coverage on things like this. And we're also the ones paying the price. We have seen an increase in crime. We have seen a decrease in funding at the state and local level. And for many big city police departments, we have seen a huge increase in the work load when it comes to working on the 9/11 terrorist prevention and protection issues.

So there needs to be some funding that is going help out those cities, those urban centers.

BLITZER: Well, we'll see what happens next. Chief Kerlikowske, John Miller, thanks to both of you for joining us.



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