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Tom Ridge Holds Press Conference

Aired January 9, 2004 - 11:30   ET


DARYN KAGAN, CNN ANCHOR: Right now, here's Secretary Ridge.
TOM RIDGE, SECY. OF HOMELAND SECURITY: Three weeks ago the United States government raised the national threat level from an elevated to a high risk of terrorist attack or, as it is more commonly known, from code yellow to code orange.

Today, based on a careful review of the available intelligence, we have lowered the threat level to yellow.

Now, we are still concerned about continued threats, but the threat conditions that we've been following have diminished. With the passing of the holidays and many large gatherings that certainly occurred during this time, we have made the decision to come down to yellow.

When we went to code orange on December 21st we asked the nation's governors and mayors, homeland security professionals, international partners and the public to undertake actions that required both speed and reach.

RIDGE: And I'm pleased to report that the level of response and resolve to that call to action was exceptional and, I might add, I think virtually unprecedented.

Many Americans saw the scope of protective measures that were undertaken. You saw an increased police presence at shopping malls, at train stations and power plants. You saw planes sitting on tarmacs. Perhaps you stood through longer lines.

So on behalf of the president and myself, I want to thank everyone who offered their efforts and, I might add, who offered their patience during this time. I know that we're all thankful that nothing happened.

The holidays are past. The potential danger that large gatherings present during the holidays has passed. They passed safely and without incident. We believe this is a testament to the incredible level of awareness, information sharing and communication that stretch across the country and around the world.

We know from experience that the increased security and vigilance that accompanies a raise in the threat level does make a difference in deterring and disrupting a terrorist attack.

Let me emphasize that, although we've returned to yellow, we have not let our guard down. Yellow still means that we are at an elevated risk of attack and we will maintain particular vigilance around some critical resources and locales. And so the force of homeland security continues to move forward.

Just in the last three weeks, we took important steps to increase this nation's level of protection.

RIDGE: For example, we issued aviation emergency amendments to enhance security relating to passenger and commercial aircraft flying to, from and over the United States; provided air cover to several of our nation's cities. We deployed state-of-the-art sensor detection equipment that can readily scan for radiological devices and bio- agents. We launched U.S.-VISIT, a program that uses biometrics to expedite the processing of foreign travelers and stop known or suspected terrorists at our borders.

As I mentioned, some of these security steps also led to planes sitting on runways for extended periods of time. Most of you will agree that we always want to put safety first.

But we also want to minimize the inconvenience, and so I assure you that we will continue to look for ways to do so. Everything we do is designed to keep planes flying, bring loved ones closer, enable sports fans to gather, help businesses stay open; in other words, to keep the country moving.

And to terrorists who think America would ever do otherwise, this country again has proven you wrong. Your goal is to sow fear, but you will not succeed in the United States of America.

We're a free people. We are united and resilient and resolved. We will continue to go forward with our lives, blessed by our freedoms, and comforted in the knowledge that across the country and around the world skilled and dedicated people are constantly at work to keep us safe.

Thank you very much.

QUESTION: Mr. Secretary, can you say with any more specificity where the alert will maintain at the orange level? Will this be geographic areas, certain facilities?

RIDGE: There will be certain locales and certain areas within the private sector that for the time being we will maintain added vigilance and security.

QUESTION: But you don't want to say which they are?

RIDGE: That's correct. I do not. We don't want to broadcast to everybody where we're going to be doing this, but those areas and elements within the private sector, they've already been contacted and they understand that for the time being we want to maintain a similar level of security at these sites.

QUESTION: But certainly airlines?

RIDGE: Oh, yes, there are continued security measures that we have, frankly, ramped up during the course of the past three weeks. But we also need to continue to improve.

I've had personal discussions with representatives from the governments of France and Great Britain, Spain, Mexico. I mean, the administration has reached out to these countries simply to say that we need to establish a better protocol to deal with the kind of threat information that led to either the cancellations or the delays.

Not in any way are we apologetic for what we've done; it was the right thing to do under the circumstances. But now going ahead there's a growing awareness in the international aviation community that we need to establish standards by which we can deal with this kind of threat information, and we will.

QUESTION: Mr. Secretary, you've mentioned locales and you don't want to get specific. All along you've talked about the partnership between Homeland Security and individuals. Clearly, people in those locales will be interested.

RIDGE: People in those locales know. I mean, we've always said if we have -- in this department we've developed a really good working relationship with the homeland security advisers and police chiefs and sheriffs and the like. And we will continue to work with them and for the time being within certain communities ask them to maintain at certain areas and under certain circumstances greater vigilance.

QUESTION: Do you think it's realistic to expect that the police chiefs and police officers who are heightening security will know what locales are involved but the public won't know?

RIDGE: Yes. Well, I think it's realistic to expect that within the next day or two you'll probably find out, but I'm not going to tell you. That's what I think is realistic to expect.

QUESTION: I mean, you are, kind of, dealing with an inexact science here, in terms of the threat information and threat environment.

QUESTION: And when you raised them three weeks ago, you said it was the greatest concern since September 11th. And what's really changed in the past three weeks where you can bring this down?

RIDGE: Well, first of all, I think if you recall my statement on the 21st, we were concerned about the specificity, the intensity, the volume, and even at that time the corroboration associated with some of those specific threats.

And it was, clearly, since we've had the advisory system, probably the most significant convergence of multiple reporting streams about potential attacks -- simultaneous attacks -- against the country.

You couple that with a time period which was referred to, the nature of hundreds of public gatherings during the holiday period, it was very appropriate for us to raise the threat level at that time.

QUESTION: Mr. Secretary, do you have any information today that indicates that the U.S. officials overseas were able to actually thwart any specific plot, particularly in France, as you continue the hunt for this person who never showed up for the flight?

RIDGE: It may be weeks or months before we can talk to you about being able to specifically confirm the notion that the actions taken did deter and disrupt an attack. But we know from detainees that plans have been disrupted.

Most recently, once they captured the individuals responsible for the bombing of the British consulate in Istanbul, they revealed that they had looked at the American consulate and decided that the preventive measures were so extreme, that they altered their plan of attack and chose another target.

So again, I think it could be weeks or months before we're able to confirm it.

QUESTION: Mr. Secretary, some members of Congress have indicated a desire to have targeted alerts in the future. Do you anticipated that in the future alerts will be targeted toward certain sectors or toward certain cities? What do you think about that idea?

RIDGE: Well, I think there are a couple aspirations we have within the department. I think the country has them; they're not just ours.

As we go about our business day to day, not only responding to potential targets and reviewing the vulnerabilities there, part of the jobs of the department is to take a look at potential targets all around the country, whether they're a part of a threat reporting stream: the huge economy, targets of opportunity all over the place.

RIDGE: And so we are stronger and doing more things at yellow today than we did the last time, and six months from now we'll be even stronger at yellow.

So two things I would say to you. The threshold to be raised to orange in the future, based on not only the threat but a risk assessment, in time will be a higher threshold.

And, secondly, again, there's enough flexibility in the system to target regions or sectors. We're always sensitive to the notion -- and you could understand from a mayor's point of view, it has to be an extreme set of circumstances when you say to the general public -- raise the threat level in a particular region or city, but I could conceivably anticipate where the intelligence would be strong enough to do that, there's flexibility in the system to get it done.

QUESTION: Mr. Secretary, do you remained concerned that terrorists want to use aviation as a weapon?


QUESTION: Airplanes as a weapon?

RIDGE: Yes. One of the most persistent and consistent reports that we have from multiple sources, the continued interest by al Qaeda to use aircraft, but particularly commercial aircraft.

QUESTION: Mr. Secretary, do you concur with the estimate that's gone around publicly that the cost of the U.S. is about $1 billion a week for an elevated orange alert?

And relatedly, to what level do you fear that a disinformation campaign might be being waged by enemies of this country?

RIDGE: First of all, I saw that estimate earlier today, reading through the newspaper, and I have absolutely no idea the basis around which they drew the conclusion that it costs $1 billion a week. I know the cost associated with the last time we ramped up security and it wasn't even close to that.

And we will, again, because of, in many instances, the unprecedented level of security during the past three weeks, once we get the request in for reimbursement from the states and locals, be in a much better position to tell you in 30 or 60 days how much the actual cost was.

And clearly one of the biggest challenges that the intelligence community has, that we have in this country, we have internationally, is trying to distinguish between information that we should act upon and information that is intentionally designed to deceive us. Because if they can achieve their goal simply with threats instead of actions in disrupting the economy, et cetera, you know, they're part way -- partial way to victory.

So that's one of the most difficult things that the intelligence community has to do. And, frankly, every single day there are threat reporting streams that target American interests, domestic interests. And, as you noticed, we haven't respond to them. It's been, like, six months since we took ourselves up to the orange.

So it's a difficult job that people in the intelligence community have, but the convergence of all these reports within the past month have certainly led to the unavoidable conclusion that under these circumstances we needed to go to orange.

QUESTION: Can you clarify, Mr. Secretary, how this going from orange down to yellow is different than before? Are these certain sectors and areas asked to stay at code orange or are they yellow with heightened awareness? Or exactly how does that work?

RIDGE: No, we're just asking certain locales and the private sector at certain sites to add security.

You know, when we go to orange and add vigilance, it makes a difference. Now we want to work on a more selective basis to maintain a level of security for the foreseeable future based on the threat stream that we still consider to warrant, in these instances, added security. But we don't need the broader instrument of keeping everyone in every city under all circumstances at that level. So again, in a very selective way, we have literally thousands of security professionals that are adding security at specific locations.

QUESTION: Sir, just to make sure we understand this, would it be wrong to say that aviation, and perhaps certain localities, will maintain an orange level of readiness.

RIDGE: Yes, yes. I don't want to get caught up in a discussion of colors.

I just want to reiterate again that there are specific locales, and within those locales there are specific things that we still have some concern about. And we're going to work with the security professionals in those areas to make sure that we maintain some form of added security.

There's still an area of concern, we want to maintain a certain level of security and that's what we're going to do.

But I think we want to get away from the notion that we're just blanket orange in this community, blanket orange over this sector, because that's not the way it's going to be.

QUESTION: You said that you know from interviews with detainees that some plans have been disrupted. Can you expand on that? Are you talking about plans that were supposed to be attempted during this past couple of weeks? And what exactly did you learn...

RIDGE: Well, I think in time -- as we've discovered from other detainees during periods of interrogation, we have learned from them that when we add additional security measures and accompany it with greater vigilance, obviously, it has frustrated some of their efforts.

There was a plot related to the Brooklyn bridge some time ago. There was a detainee -- a couple people that were detained because of the bombing in Istanbul that looked at an American target and decided the security was too tight.

RIDGE: And I think it goes without saying, and I think most people understand, when we raise the security level, when have you more police, when you have, frankly, more security professionals involved in protecting communities and critical pieces of infrastructure it is a deterrent, it does disrupt activity. And may be weeks or months before we apprehend a detainee who may be involved in this process and the planning that might share that with us.

QUESTION: The president recently announced this initiative concerning immigration. And I'm wondering what impact that will have on homeland security, not the specific impact on Customs or Immigration but on the security of the country?

RIDGE: Well, first of all, I think it's important to note that there are a couple of networks that are used by those involved in human trafficking that could be easily diverted and used by terrorists. One, there's a whole infrastructure to get terrorists -- to get undocumented aliens into the United States. It is an infrastructure that is exploitative, but it exists. And if you can get an undocumented alien into this country, you certainly can get a terrorist.

The other -- that process of validating or legitimizing the presence of these undocumented aliens also is -- hopefully, will at least dry up in part this incredible network of document forgers that exist.

So you've got a network of people that create forged documents that are used for identification. You've got a network of people and places that use to transport these undocumented aliens. If you validate that presence and you say to those who would propose to come into this country, "Well, you are not going to get a job because the only way you can get it is through this new program," then suddenly that network is -- both networks are -- there's a lot of pressure on both kinds of networks.

So I think it's a long-term -- there is a definite security nexus between the president's immigration plan, as well as a humanitarian and an economic piece to it as well.

Thank you very much.

KAGAN: We've been listening to homeland security secretary Tom Ridge, announced a lowering of the threat level from orange to yellow. He said it still will stay elevated in some private areas. Wouldn't be specific about exactly where, but saying there is still reason to be concerned. Certain locations in the private sector will have added vigilance.


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