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CNN BREAKING NEWS
Tom Ridge Holds Press Conference
Aired December 21, 2003 - 13:40 ET
THIS IS A RUSH TRANSCRIPT. THIS COPY MAY NOT BE IN ITS FINAL FORM AND MAY BE UPDATED.
WOLF BLITZER, CNN ANCHOR: Tom Ridge, the former governor of Pennsylvania, someone who's been on the job now for some time. It looks like they're getting ready to move in. Reporters presumably will be allowed to ask some follow-up questions as the secretary emerges.
We're told he will have a carefully prepared statement explaining this decision, why it's being announced right now, and the basis of what -- some of this information, clearly very, very sensitive, so it's doubtful he'll be able to go into a whole lot of detail without fear of compromising national security, but he will explain what's going on. And here he is.
TOM RIDGE, HOMELAND SECURITY DEPARTMENT SECRETARY: Good afternoon.
Today the United States government raised the national threat level from an elevated to high risk of terrorist attack or, as more commonly known, from a yellow code to an orange code.
We know from experience that the increased security that is implemented when we raise the threat level, along with increased vigilance, can help disrupt or deter terrorist attacks.
The U.S. intelligence community has received a substantial increase in the volume of threat-related intelligence reports. These credible sources suggest the possibility of attacks against the homeland, around the holiday season and beyond.
The strategic indicators, including al Qaeda's continued desire to carry out attacks against our homeland, are perhaps greater now than at any point since September 11, 2001.
The information we have indicates that extremists abroad are anticipating near-term attacks that they believe will either rival or exceed the attacks that occurred in New York, in the Pentagon, in the fields of Pennsylvania nearly two years ago.
Recent reporting reiterates -- and this is a constant stream of reporting -- that al Qaeda continues to consider using aircraft as a weapon. And they are constantly evaluating procedures, both in the United States and elsewhere, to find gaps in our security posture that could be exploited.
Our actions, our considerable actions, are directed against their efforts. We have not raised the threat level in this country for six months. But I remind everyone, we have raised it before.
Homeland security professionals and security professionals at all levels of government -- federal, state and local -- as well as the private sector, are hard at work to increase the security in your community, state and across the entire nation.
Americans should know that along with this announcement comes action. A specific plan goes into place as we speak. Most importantly, we share specific information with those who need it and who can act upon it.
Already, I have spoken to the nation's governors, our homeland security advisers, several mayors and other local officials, and asked them to review the security measures they currently have in place and to increase protections to thwart terrorist attacks. And they are doing so.
In addition, we have made calls to officials from states and major cities, and will continue to do so, throughout the past week, reminding them to be on a heightened alert. And now we've called upon them to increase their levels of security.
Leaders in the private sector that control resources critical to our country, they'll be contacted today and provided with very specific measures for them to take to protect those resources and the communities in which those resources are located.
Where appropriate, we have also shared information with foreign countries, to enlist their help in combating these terrorist threats.
All federal departments and agencies are implementing action plans in response to the increase in the threat level.
We have enhanced security at our nation's airports and around other transportation systems and infrastructure.
We will redeploy agents and other resources at our borders to meet the current threat. There will be more Coast Guard air and sea patrols off our shores, in our ports and escorting ships.
Now, obviously, I will not outline all of the actions that are being taken to protect our citizens. We will not broadcast our plans to the terrorists. But extensive and considerable protections have been or soon will be in place all across the country.
I can assure you that your government will stand at the ready, 24 hours a day, seven days a week, to stop terrorism during the holiday season and beyond.
Now, in addition to knowing that homeland security professionals at all levels are working to keep our communities safe, we do ask individual Americans to do a few additional things during this time of heightened alert.
I have said many times before that homeland security begins at home. I guess it means I'm saying it again. Your awareness and vigilance can help tremendously.
So please use your common sense, and report suspicious packages, vehicles or activities to local law enforcement. Go over your family emergency plans, and if you haven't developed one by now, please do so.
These kinds of precautions, we think, just make good sense.
I can tell all of you, from personal experience, that those of us who were affected for several days during the hurricane season were glad to have done some advanced planning to prepare.
Now, for those traveling during this holiday season, let me thank you, in advance, for putting up with some inconveniences. As we learned during the Thanksgiving holiday, additional security measures sometimes require additional patience.
I think we did a pretty good job keeping things safe and not too slow at our airports. And we believe that, with your cooperation, the same will be true in the coming days and weeks.
And finally, no matter your faith or your culture, we know that now is the time of year for very, very important personal and family and community celebrations. So I encourage you to continue with your holiday plans. Gather with your family and friends and enjoy the spirit of the season.
There is no doubt that those of us fortunate to live in this country have a lot to be thankful for, not the least of which is the opportunity to live in the greatest country in the world.
America is a country that will not be bent by terror. America is a country that will not be broken by fear. And instead, America is a country blessed with citizens marked by goodwill and great resolve.
We will show the terrorists both during this holiday season: goodwill toward our fellow men and readiness and resolve to protect our families and our freedoms.
QUESTION: Can you detail the types of chatter that you're talking about when you saying you're getting more information about threats during the holiday season? I know last week, there was some discussion of a female suicide bomber in New York City. Is this the type of thing that you're hearing?
RIDGE: First of all, we heard the reporting, saw the reporting about the suicide bomber, and that's something we're obviously very concerned with, because it's a tactic that's been employed around the country, but we have no independent confirmation of that particular reporting.
But nonetheless, we continue to hear, one, the interest in using aircraft as a means of attack. Two, there's continued discussion -- again, these are from credible sources -- about near- term attacks that could either rival or exceed what we experienced on September 11th.
And I would say and reiterate that I think not only the volume of reporting is up, but from several credible sources.
So we take a look at the scope of the reporting, the volume of the reporting, the credibility of the reports, and say now is the time that we put into plan -- we put into action the plans that we have developed during the past several months.
It's been six months since we put these plans into effect, and we just ramped them up again.
QUESTION: Are you saying, Secretary Ridge, saying the chatter is up -- the highest it's been since September 11th is a pretty dramatic statement. But how would you compare it to, say, the orange alert that you called last February, when there were CIA reports saying an imminent attack was probably about to happen, and obviously didn't? But how would you compare it to that time? Is the chatter more serious, is it more intense?
RIDGE: Well, I think the level -- again, I don't recall numerically, quantitatively, that time, but any time the federal government goes from yellow to orange, orange back down to yellow, there's a consensus within the intelligence community that not only the volume, but the credibility and the kind of reporting merits us to either raise or lower the level of threat.
So I think it's more important to focus on the fact that there is that consensus within the intelligence community that we go up.
QUESTION: In the past, there's been certain events, though, such as Ayman Farris (ph) being arrested that led to a sudden concern over the Brooklyn Bridge being blown up or the wires being cut.
Has there been some specific event, in terms of somebody being collared in recent weeks? Has it been the boat that was intercepted, that had drugs and also several alleged al Qaeda members, by the Navy?
RIDGE: First of all, with regard to Ayman Farris (ph), I think that highlights a very good point. It was reported that it was he that said, "Gee, when America goes up and there's added security or added levels of prevention, we're inclined to deter or postpone those attacks." And that's one of the reasons we do go up.
No, I think it is really the overall -- the credibility of sources pointing toward near-term attacks in the United States. And it's really the scope and the volume of the reporting and the number of credible sources.
QUESTION: What about interception with the al Qaeda members? Are they providing any information that would have helped sort of go into the mix here?
RIDGE: Well, you know, that's a process of interrogation. And if and when they do, and if it's actionable, we would share it with the right kind of people but not discuss it publicly. QUESTION: With security already so high at the airports, I mean, why is there continued concern about airplanes being used as weapons or bombs being put on them? I mean, I think, Americans would think our airports are petty secure right now.
RIDGE: I hope they do, because we think the aviation is far, far more secure from the curbside to the cockpit. I mean, they are layered, comprehensive, defensive measures, baggage screeners which are now professional. We armed hundreds, we're going to arm thousands, of pilots. We've got hardened cockpit doors. We've got thousands of federal air marshals.
But again, since there is a recurring theme that we have heard echoed again during the past couple of weeks, it's part of the reason we go up. We have a substantial level of security at the airports, but we can ramp it up a little bit more when we go to orange, and that's precisely what we do.
But make no mistake about it, aviation is far more secure than it's ever been in the history of the country.
QUESTION: Are you also hearing more about heightened problems for Americans abroad? And are you giving any warnings there, specifically?
RIDGE: Well, I think any intelligence relating to activity or heightened threat to Americans abroad, as you know, is -- those warnings are issued from the State Department. And I'd refer you to the State Department on those.
There have been a couple that have been out there, obviously. And whether or not, based on the intelligence that we are reporting on -- that is, as it relates to threats to the homeland -- I'd refer you to the State Department to see if they're going to add any additional warnings to the international sector.
QUESTION: You touched on this briefly, but what are the implications for people that are traveling over the holidays? Are they going to see different things at airports, at bus stations, et cetera?
RIDGE: I think they will undoubtedly see additional security at airports. We are going to ask the traveling public to do the same thing they did in helping us as they did during Thanksgiving. We're not going to compromise security. We are going to add more security. But if they do a couple of things during the course of their travel, they will expedite things.
I mean, take all those items out of your pocket and put them in that tray. Take the computer out of the case. Take the coat off. There are a lot of little things that they can do so we can move things along.
But if you've got travel plans, travel. I mean, we've had a lot of people working on this for the past couple of days that had some travel plans, and we encourage them and everybody else, just travel.
QUESTION: What about traveling to New York City? I mean, that's obviously a city that's been hit before. Are these threats directed at specific American cities, or is it just incredibly broad over the entire nation?
RIDGE: Well, first of all, I think it has been reported before -- and I think it comes as no surprise -- that New York and Washington have been, are, and undoubtedly always will be some of the most high- profile targets in this country.
Secondly, I think I've said before, I doubt if there is a city that is better prepared, more on alert, that has devoted more resources to prevention and security than New York City. And they probably have a lot of other mayors and police chiefs doing the same thing.
So, no, this is not specifically directed at New York. Basically, they are always at a elevated state of security and prevention. I mean, that's just how their mayor chooses to operate. And, you know, Chief Kelly (ph), Mayor Bloomberg, Governor Pataki, they've committed the resources to make sure the citizens and visitors are protected, and they'll continue to do that.
QUESTION: Mr. Secretary, is the reason why you're making this a national -- you're raising the threat level nationally, is it because you don't have a specific or specifically targeted cities? You have, again, just, sort of, chatter that's not really directed in any particular place?
RIDGE: Yes, we have reviewed -- and again, it's not surprising that some of the same venues come up. I mean, there are always -- they talk about New York and Washington, and it's predictable that, if they're looking for a -- if they're talking about a terrorist attack of the same or greater dimension than on 9/11, I mean, you naturally, I think, gravitate toward the larger urban areas. And so, to make sure that we enhance security across our major metropolitan areas, we go up.
QUESTION: President Bush has said in the past that the war on terror has greatly hampered al Qaeda's ability to communicate within its network. What does it say that now you believe that chatter is at a greater point than any time since 9/11?
RIDGE: Well, first of all, I think the president's assessment is correct. I mean, we've decapitated or imprisoned from one-half to two-thirds of the known leadership. We've literally taken off the table, for their use, probably a couple of hundred million dollars by freezing those assets. Those that were in leadership have been dispersed, so the communication is more difficult.
So, in reality, all those -- that may be the reason that it has been so long. I'm not going to speculate. But remember, we haven't raised this level of alert for over half a year. But make no mistake about it. The president has said this is -- we have to be -- we are in this for the long term. That in spite of the extraordinary success of the military and the CIA, the cooperation with our allies, the apprehension or death of a lot of the principals and the freezing the assets, that this is still a international war, international terrorist cells, including al Qaeda.
And the fact that we are picking up information that results in us going to orange, I think, is a reflection of increased capacity, probably on our side, not necessarily greater ability on theirs.
QUESTION: Do you have any indication that the increased chatter has anything to do with the capture of Saddam Hussein last week?
RIDGE: There's no nexus that I'd be prepared the draw now. I mean, there are several fronts of the war on terror, and capturing Saddam Hussein is of great significance to this country's international effort to combat terror. But we don't see any nexus, with regard to the reporting, that causes us to raise -- any connection that causes us to raise the threat level.
QUESTION: With all the talk about going to orange, was there ever any discussion, was the level of chatter ever serious or high enough that you thought of going to red?
RIDGE: When we convened those that we get together and have the discussion about the quality of the information and the kinds of actions we should take, whether or not we go up to orange or whether we go to more specific actions, no.
I mean, but, again, I think it's very important to note that ever since 9/11, from the early morning hours when the president meets with the intelligence community and the attorney general and the FBI director and everybody else, there's been a continued focus not only on the war on terror abroad, but the war on terror and its impact in the United States.
Twice a day, the intelligence community meets to review the intelligence of the day and how it relates to intelligence that they've acquired before. And so, it's 24-7 since 9/11.
And, again, the convergence of the quantity, the quality and the credibility and the scope and the notion that there are near-term attacks of a scope that's equal to or greater than those that occurred on 9/11 -- there was a general consensus within the community now is the time to go up.
We got action plans, specific things people going to do at the federal, state and local level. We'll give specific directions to certain segments of the private sector.
I mean, I just want Americans to understand that we have, literally, thousands and thousands of homeland security professionals out there who, based on going to orange, will do additional things. There is an additional risk, and we are going to do additional things to combat the risk. Thank you very much.
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