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DHS Press Conference

Aired December 29, 2003 - 15:33   ET


CANDY CROWLEY, CNN ANCHOR: We take you right now to Homeland Security Director Tom Ridge with an announcement.
TOM RIDGE, U.S. SECRETARY OF HOMELAND SECURITY: Just over a week ago the United States government raised the national threat level from an elevated to a high risk of terrorist attack, and as we know, more commonly known -- referred to as from code yellow to code orange.

First let me say that homeland security officials at all levels of government -- federal, state and local -- continue to work around the clock to protect our country.

And so on behalf of the president and the American people and myself, I would first like to say thank you to the literally thousands and thousands of dedicated professionals who willingly exchanged their holiday plans for some real hard work, all to better guard the safety and security of their fellow citizens.

We know from experience that the increased security we implement when we raise the threat level, along with the increased vigilance that occurs, can help disrupt or deter terrorist attacks. That continues to be the case.

I wish that all Americans could have the benefit of seeing firsthand what I have the opportunity to see, and that is the scope of the response undertaken by all segments of law enforcement, public safety and government at all levels as they have quickly and effectively ramped up comprehensive protective measures around the entire country.

It is because of their good efforts that we are, without doubt, better prepared to deter or to respond to a terrorist threat than ever before.

RIDGE: Now, the Department of Homeland Security has been in constant contact with federal, state and local officials from around the country.

Across the nation, federal, state and local authorities and the private sector have worked quickly to increase police presence and security procedures to bolster critical infrastructure protection and activate emergency operation centers on a 24-7 basis.

From New York to Los Angeles, from Las Vegas to Houston, actions have been taken ranging from additional security personnel being placed in transit systems, shopping malls and other places of community gathering. There is increased surveillance at critical infrastructure sites including bridges, power plants, water systems and nuclear facilities.

Law enforcement personnel are coordinating with area hotels, convention centers and arenas to maintain business as usual, but also generate heightened awareness of any suspicious situations.

Let me just add that homeland security executive teams, made up of members of my staff with a wide range of security expertise and capabilities, can serve as a resource to cities and states.

Let me also underscore that these kinds of security actions are being put in place to better protect you as you prepare for travel, for New Year's Eve celebrations, for bowl games, whatever your plans may be.

As you know, last week, the United States and the French governments together took steps to halt inbound international flights, acting on specific information we had to ensure the safety of these flights.

RIDGE: Based upon advanced information, for example, Air France Flight 68, originating from Charles de Gaulle Airport in Paris and destined for Los Angeles International Airport, was not allowed to take off.

We engaged in similar cooperative action with the governments of the United Kingdom and Mexico.

This is an extraordinary example. I think it's an excellent example of the unprecedented partnership and cooperation that is now under way both here at home, across all segments of government and law enforcement, including with our international allies.

We shared information. We shared information with people who could act upon it, and we are grateful that officials in France responded immediately.

In fact, just this morning, several members of this administration met with the French delegation. And today's meeting is an indication of the importance our mutual governments place on security, as well as the need to work together to protect the public from the threat of terrorism.

We had a productive discussion on a variety of areas of mutual concern, including intelligence and information sharing, specific measures to strengthen aviation security and other security efforts that we have under way.

We also agreed that members of our teams will meet again in January to continue to reassess our progress and advance our shared goals to combat terrorism.

Now, with all the recent talk about air travel, it is understandable that some still question the safety of flying. Let me reassure you that in the 2.5 years since September 11th, our aviation system has risen to new heights of security.

RIDGE: And we'll continue to take additional steps to increase protection.

Today I am announcing the Department of Homeland Security has issued aviation emergency amendments to further enhance security relating to both passenger and cargo aircraft flying to, flying from and over the United States.

Specifically, we have requested that international air carriers, where necessary, place trained, armed, government law enforcement officers on designated flights as an added protective measure.

These directives, effective immediately, are part of our ongoing effort to make air travel safe for Americans and visitors alike. All Americans should know, now that we are at a code orange state of alert, additional meaningful security measures have been put in place all across the country. And these measures -- now they're both visible and invisible to visitors and travelers -- are blanketing airports, seaports, chemical and nuclear sites, gathering places all across America, and with unparalleled protection.

I also want to remind all Americans that as we continue under an orange alert, the awareness and preparedness of individual citizens is critical to the ultimate security of this nation as well. Reporting any suspicious activity you may see helps security officials help you and your fellow citizens.

Additionally, and you've heard me say this many times before, simple steps that individuals can take, such as preparing a family emergency plan, putting together an emergency supply kit or communication plan, simply staying informed -- these all can go a long way toward making us more secure and better prepared.

RIDGE: In the end, each of us must remember that we are at war, at war against an enemy driven by hate and determined to destroy the ideals we cherish and the way of life we hold dear. For them, victory is gained if we give in to terror or panic that they seek to create with their threats.

And yet, as citizens, you make the difference in this fight. When you choose to get on a plane, when you choose to continue just to live your lives as you had planned, when you choose to press on even in the face of fear and anxiety, you send a strong, strong message to terrorists; a message that says, in the midst of threats we will not give way to fear.

After all, America is a country built by citizens ever ready to answer the call of service, ever ready to make the ultimate sacrifice for their fellow citizens and ever ready to defend the blessings of liberty generations have fought so hard to secure.

This is a great nation. And so we will show the terrorists the strength of our resolve and the spirit of our determination never to falter, never to fail. So I encourage all Americans to go forward with their holiday plans, gather with family and friends, reach out to your neighbors, root for your favorite football team and rest assured that the full force of homeland security all across this nation is at work to keep you safe.

Thank you.

QUESTION: How exactly can you require foreign governments to put armed law enforcement officers on their planes? And how can you be sure that they actually have any system in place to train people to do that? And who will bear the cost of all this?

RIDGE: Well, first of all, any sovereign government retains the right to revoke the privilege of flying to and from a country or even over their airspace. So ultimately a denial of access is the leverage that you have.

RIDGE: But I must say that with the spirit of cooperation evidenced by our discussions with French and British officials and the like, it's pretty clear that it is understood by our international aviation partners that the threat to passenger aircraft is an international challenge. And all of us must work as closely together as possible to share information and act upon it to ensure the safety of our citizens, wherever that flight might originate or whatever its ultimate destination is.

QUESTION: The second part of that, how can you be sure that they'll actually have people trained, or have a program to train law enforcement officers?

RIDGE: First of all, we've made, I think, very appropriate overtures in an organized effort to have these discussions with foreign governments and law enforcement to law enforcement, diplomat to diplomat. It would also have DHS inspectors who can and would be working with our aviation partners internationally to ensure that the kinds of protective measures we have requested actually were effective.

QUESTION: So are you saying, when necessary, you would require law enforcement officers?


QUESTION: Can you give some examples of where that would be necessary?

RIDGE: There have been times and will be times, I'm sure, where information that is generated by the intelligence community -- it could be domestic or foreign. Again, we've got many global partners, many friends that are gathering information about terrorists and terrorist plans, that we believe, shared with the appropriate country and the appropriate airline, might require an added level of protection, an added layer of safety to include trained, armed government law enforcement officials. Again, it would be driven by information that we shared and then it was acted upon. QUESTION: With all of these steps taken for security and with the orange alert coming in during the holidays and now these extra security on airlines, is there any guess at how much this is costing or how much it's going to cost the economy and the government?

RIDGE: Well, hopefully, the signs that we've seen over the past several days -- that people continue to travel, hopefully, with a greater sense of confidence -- when we raise the level to orange to alert the public generally, that was also a signal to airports and to law enforcement and to a wide range of security professionals that we had to raise the level of security, as well.

So we haven't seen, I believe, any reduction in air travel. I just happened to take someone very close to me to an airport today and Reagan was packed.

So it seems to me that, again, we would like to think that because we've had these layers of security to passenger travel -- and remember, this is just another in a long list of measures that we've taken over the past 2.5 years to improve air safety.

QUESTION: Mr. Secretary, in terms of the international corporation for the safety of the planes, what response have you got from the Mexican authorities? And have you talked to Secretary Qureia what he said about putting armed guards from the planes from Mexico to the U.S.?

RIDGE: Well, let me tell you that the last time we had to -- we raised our alert level internally to orange, the Mexican government directed literally thousands and thousands of their law enforcement personnel to assist us in protecting American interests and American citizens in Mexico.

The response this time, with regard to improving passenger safety or air safety was similar: very, very aggressive action undertaken by the Mexican government in response to our request to improve security.

RIDGE: Again, as a neighbor and a partner, this is not the first time we've asked them to help us, and in doing so, help themselves.

Again, this is an international challenge that we all have. And again, information generated from one source or another shared with one country or another to affect and improve aviation security is something that I believe the world community has adjusted to.

QUESTION: Can you respond to concerns that the color-coded threat levels just are too vague and really difficult to respond to and calls by some in Congress to try to make these alerts much more targeted and really much easier for people to understand and respond to?

RIDGE: Well, I've engaged, begun to engage, with the members of Congress with regard to refining the homeland security advisory system.

First of all, let me say that it's a good system. It's a far, far better system than the one we initially employed when either the attorney general or the FBI director or I came out on stage and said the threats require us to go to orange, and leave it at that, or just give a general alert, even before we had this system.

Now, when we make an announcement, we know that accompanying action is taken across the board. We will continue to work with our colleagues in Congress. We're interested in improving and refining the system, and we look forward to those conversations. But we do need -- I'm sorry?

QUESTION: Do you anticipate actual changes happening in 2004?

RIDGE: Again, the system has been designed to give us the kind of flexibility that we need to target the alert if the information warrants that it be targeted.

It's our best judgment, under the existing circumstances as we know them, it was more appropriate to go national with the alert, rather than regional or community-specific.

RIDGE: But there is a design feature in there that is still based upon information that we have. But we'll continue to work with the Congress to see if we can refine it.

QUESTION: Can you tell us, with respect to the announcement today, about trained air marshals on other nations' flights, was there an intelligence-based reason for issuing this today? Was there specific intelligence that caused you to put out these amendments today?

RIDGE: Oh no, no. This has been part of an organized effort that we've undertaken. We've had some private conversations with individual governments. And the decision was made, working with the Department of State and other agencies of the federal government, just to put the amendment out today -- basically notice to all countries that have international flights that travel either to, from, or over the United States, that there may be occasions in the future when we have to have the same kinds of conversations that we've recently had with the French with regard to air travel and to give them an alert -- give them an idea that we may ask them to provide this additional measure of security depending on the specific information that leaves us to have the conversation in the first place.

QUESTION: Do you have any evidence that any of these actions so far have thwarted a terrorist plot of any kind?

RIDGE: We had specific information that needed to be acted upon relative to the Air France flights. The law enforcement community in France is sharing the results of those interviews with the passengers that were on the one flight. And since we still continue our investigation relative to the information, that information, the related information -- I just don't think it would be appropriate for me to comment on that.

QUESTION: How long do you expect the code orange to be in effect, through January? RIDGE: It will last at least through the holiday season and perhaps beyond. It is very difficult to give you a date certain. It is intelligence-driven, and when there is a similar consensus within the intelligence community and the president's Homeland Security Advisory Council that we lower the level, we will. But you can well anticipate it'll be through the New Year's at least.

QUESTION: Is there a goal to eventually have air marshals on all international flights in and out of this country?

RIDGE: No, the present goal is to have armed and trained law enforcement officials on flights of interest where the information warrants that added level of protection.

I think it needs to be stressed again that -- and I will use the French example; they have rigorous passenger screening, baggage screening, random selection of passengers for additional screening. They, even prior to this event, had engaged in enhanced security around travel to the United States. This is an added level of protection, and if conditions warrant we will ask similar countries and foreign airlines to provide the same additional air protection.

QUESTION: So it sounds like what you're saying is, I mean, of the thousands of international flights that come here daily, a very small percentage would be asked to have these marshals?

RIDGE: We will ask whenever we think it's appropriate. Whether the percentage is large or small depends on the information that we have about the flights or passengers or anything else related to it.

QUESTION: In the specific arrangement with Mexico, has the Mexican government officially accepted to put armed men, when you deem necessary, in flights bound to the U.S.?

RIDGE: I'll let the government of Mexico speak to the kind of security measures that they have agreed to provide to us.

RIDGE: The only thing I can say to you is that they have been very helpful and very forthcoming in adding additional security measures to flights when we've requested them to do so.

QUESTION: Secretary Ridge, you said that we should not give in to terrorists, and we should go about our lives as normal. But wouldn't the cancellation of six flights right before Christmas, stranding probably hundreds if not thousands of people, be giving in to terrorists?

Was there no other way to deal with that threat than to cancel those flights?

RIDGE: I think within your question is the answer. There's always a range of alternatives to deal with a threat. In this situation, given the nature of the information that was, from the French government's point of view, the best way to deal with it. And we agreed with their decision. QUESTION: Can you tell us please what the mechanics will be and how fast you can turn this around? If you hear of a threat, do you go to the diplomats or do you go straight to the air carriers? And how fast can you ask for help?

RIDGE: One of the challenges raised in your question is: How soon do we get the information? How credible do we deem it? And what's the mechanism we share it? And a lot of it's just predicated on how quickly we have it, how quickly we get it.

One of the concerns that we have is always the timeliness of the information and the ability to get it to the airline or the foreign country so that actions can be taken and decisions made.

So, again, there's a procedure that we employ, and there's a diplomatic as well as a law enforcement conversation so that people will understand completely what we're trying to accomplish.

QUESTION: Mr. Secretary, some foreign governments already have their own air marshals, but many other major countries do not. And how soon do you anticipate that trained, properly trained and armed marshals will be available in those other countries that do not now have them?

RIDGE: We felt that, again, working with other agencies and government, by sending out this notice to the international aviation community and the countries that have these flights, that they would be put on notice that sometime in the future we may ask them to put trained officials on. And we are prepared to help with that training.

To your point, not every country has presently today trained, armed law enforcement personnel. And some have trained law enforcement personnel that do not have sidearms, others are restricted from sidearm use. We would work around those scenarios if they occur.

But again, the notice today is a recognition that this is an international challenge and, that as aviation partners, we need to consider this possibility in the future.

QUESTION: It's my understanding -- correct me if I'm wrong -- but I understand officials in your department are looking at a comprehensive restructuring of the TSA to add new functions and possibly add new agencies. Can you provide any details on that?

RIDGE: Right now, the only thing that officials at TSA are concerned with is the safety and security of air travel and passengers, not just during this holiday season, but meeting the mandates of Congress and the goals that we've given them.

We will always look for ways to improve the effectiveness of security within aviation, and obviously TSA is at the heart of it. But right now, our focus is on security, not reorganization. The primary focus is on security, not reorganization.

CROWLEY: That is Treasury Secretary -- I'm sorry, that is the Secretary of Homeland Security Tom Ridge walking a very fine line here, announcing on the one hand the U.S. is now going to require that some international flights carry armed and trained guards, while at the same time assuring U.S. citizens that they should go about their normal daily lives. That includes plane travel where he says security has risen to new heights.


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