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CNN LIVE EVENT/SPECIAL

Ridge Speaks on Raising Threat Level

Aired December 22, 2003 - 10:00   ET

THIS IS A RUSH TRANSCRIPT. THIS COPY MAY NOT BE IN ITS FINAL FORM AND MAY BE UPDATED.

CAROL LIN, CNN ANCHOR: We understand a security briefing has just broken up at the White House. And we expect Tom Ridge to come to the microphones -- in fact, here he comes right now. Let's hear what he has to say.
TOM RIDGE, HOMELAND SECURITY SECRETARY: Good morning.

The president convened the Homeland Security Council this morning in wake of the decision to go from yellow to orange, or from an elevated risk of terrorist attack to a high risk of terrorist attack. It was very important to the president to learn and to direct the kind of coordinated activity that has been undertaken since the announcement was made yesterday between the members of his Homeland Security Council.

We do a lot of work through Homeland Security with the Department of Defense, State Department, the attorney general's office, and the FBI, and so we reviewed the specific plans and the specific actions that we've undertaken, and will continue to take throughout this period of high alert.

As I said yesterday, when we made the announcement, that was a general announcement to our fellow citizens. It was also a directive not only to the federal government, but to the state governments and local governments, and even to the private sector, that, based on the threat reporting and the elevation of the level of risk, there were additional measures that they needed to take to add more security so that we can, again, on a 24-hour, seven-day-a-week basis, remind and just assure Americans that government at all levels, working in conjunction with the private sector, is at work protecting their way of life and our freedoms.

Clearly, for national security reasons, we're not going to broadcast everything that we're doing.

RIDGE: But whenever we get information that's relevant to a city or a potential threat, where appropriate, we share that information. And we have done that in the past and will continue to do so through this period and as long as we're dealing with the threat of global terrorism.

So, again, I think it was very important for me to report to you the president's convening of the Homeland Security Council; our review with the president of the specific actions that we've undertaken at the federal level. Operation centers are up across the board: DOD, FBI, Homeland Security. I can't possibly emphasize enough how much the local communities are doing as well. Big-city mayors, big-city police chiefs, frankly, even since 9/11, I think their level of readiness and security has been enhanced, but when we raise the threat level, they added more patrolmen, and they pay more attention to critical infrastructure in and around their community.

So again, strong message, hopefully, of reassurance and confidence to the American public. The federal government, with our partners at the state and local level and other security professionals around the country, are on the alert, are working 24/7.

And again, remind everyone that when we get information, when we take actions, we don't necessarily share that or broadcast it to the world or the terrorists, but we get it, we share it appropriately with people at whatever state or local levels, so they can act on it.

QUESTION: Earlier this year, you used similar language you used yesterday in saying that the threat is as serious as it's been since September 11th, 2001. How do you compare the situation now -- I think it was Labor Day or around then? Is it worse now?

RIDGE: It is the conclusion of the intelligence community, the general consensus within that community, that all the strategic indicators suggest from the volume, really the level and amount of reporting has increased -- we've never quite seen it at this level before -- and the sources we could point to that are credible, and our ability to corroborate some of this information, the strategic indicators suggest that it is the most significant threat reporting since 9/11.

QUESTION: What do you say, Secretary Ridge, to people who have travel plans to New York City, to Washington?

RIDGE: Keep going. Keep going.

I mean, one of the things we focused on in the meeting today was an understanding by everyone from the president on down, this is a period of celebration. These are holidays. They're cultural holidays, they're religious holidays. There are public gatherings in major urban areas around the country, big celebrations, Times Square, Las Vegas, L.A., football games, you name it. And we encourage people to, like we said before, be vigilant and be aware, and let the security professionals, the law enforcement community, federal, state and local officials worry about your security.

QUESTION: Governor Ridge, has America gotten complacent since 9/11 in how we're reacting to these alert statuses?

RIDGE: You know, I have one of the few vantage points, I think, in this country that's rather unique, because I have a chance not only to deal with the extraordinary work that is being done by the federal government in the interest of national security to protect our way of life and our freedoms, but to interact with governors and mayors and police chiefs and fire chiefs. And I would tell you that those who go to work every single day concerned about some aspect of homeland security have only since 9/11 gotten stronger and more focused on their mission.

And I don't think America has in any way diminished its legitimate concern about a potential terrorist attack. But hopefully over the past several months or years, as they've seen more visible signs of their country, of their community, and everybody else raising the level of security, that, frankly, there's a comfort level that we're still at war, as the president reminds us and we have to remind ourselves, but your government and others are doing everything they possibly can 24/7. So, if you got holiday plans, go. Don't change them. Don't alter them.

RIDGE: You know, if we simply responded to threats by pulling back from what we had intended on doing in the first place, if we alter our plans to go visit the family, go visit grandma, if we alter or plans to get on the airplane, if we alter our plans to go to one of those public celebrations, then they have won, because they've dislocated activity, they've caused economic loss and they've made us act in ways, simply by threatening us.

And we cannot be burdened by that threat or fear. We need to be alert to it. We need to be vigilant to it. We need to add additional security in support of what we're doing, in support of what 290 million Americans want to do during the holidays or elsewhere. But we cannot quit being America, just because of these threats.

QUESTION: Can you tell us about increased threats, specifically, at airports overseas, if that is a big part of this and what you...

RIDGE: Well, there has been a stream of reporting over the past -- actually, for several months, and I think it's probably pretty obvious to you that they're always looking, one, to return to methods that they've used successfully before. And we know, tragically, they turned four airplanes into missiles.

But as we've hardened with increased security in passenger aviation, from the curbside to the cockpit, you've heard me say many, many times before, passengers, screeners and more technology and thousands of air marshals and hardened cockpit doors and trained pilots and crews, access to passenger name records of those who are traveling into the United States, they will continue to look for vulnerabilities.

We heard of their interest in exploiting the transit without visa program a couple of months ago because -- therefore, we suspended it. So again, when we get information, be it venue-specific, city- specific, we share it with those that can act on it.

Thank you very much.

LIN: All right, that was Homeland Security Secretary Tom Ridge briefing reporters after he briefed the president of the United States on the heightened terror threat level as obviously they're getting more intelligence in, getting more information on how serious this threat might be.

We have our own expert with us right here on set, Mike Brooks, one of our CNN security analysts. We can use you as such today, Mike.

MIKE BROOKS, CNN SECURITY ANALYSTS: Sure.

LIN: Taking a listen to the what the secretary said here, it seems that his tone is very different. Yesterday it sounded like a sense of urgency. You know the greatest threat level since 9/11, the possibility.

Today he once again continues reassures holiday travelers, go on with your plans. We've coordinated, we are ready should anything happen.

BROOKS: Absolutely. And people should go ahead and do this. You look at where the security is being put in place right now. One of the main places people are going to see it is at the airports.

The airports have always had kind of a layered security system in place, and now we're seeing another layer, as you drive into the airport with random vehicle checks. Some people say, Well, you know, they look at my trunk. They're not my bags, but just the presence of them being there means a lot.

But also, there's a lot of things that people don't see. And one of those is possibly outside of the fence. You may see law enforcement patrolling more vehemently outside of the airports in rural areas, where the planes take off and land, on those routes.

And if people see something that they feel is out of place, they should call the police. Pick up the phone, call 911. The police are expecting to get more calls. And that's the whole thing. The watch word around that is vigilance.

LIN: do you think the raising the of the terrorist level could actually prevent a terrorist attack?

BROOKS: I think -- again it's a poke of a stick to people who become complacent. And a lot times of people will call up, they'll say, Hey, what is that suspicious package? If it seems suspicious to them, they should call police. Yes, they can help prevent a terrorist attack.

LIN: What do you make of how the secretary has described the volume of information coming in that caused them to raise the terror threat level? I mean what is the nature of what they're hearing? Who's saying it? Why do they think it's credible?

BROOKS: Well they're saying it's coming from credible sources. So you could have sources with foreign intelligence agencies. You could have -- British intelligence, I heard, had some information that they were feeding into this particular case.

You look at CIA, DIA, all of the national security agencies. You look at all those folks. They have different sources. They're hearing different information from these sources, and they're saying, OK, well does Source A know Source B. If not, then they'll probably go ahead and say well the information from Source A and Source B sounds alike. Then they'll do a link analysis, see if there's any link between those...

LIN: So pattern activity?

BROOKS: Exactly. And then if they can corroborate that information, then they'll say, Well, you know, maybe some of this does make sense.

But again, right now, there are no special threats to any cities. We've heard, and we hear all the time, Washington and New York because it was a threat -- it was a target on 9/11. And with all the icons in Washington and New York City, those are going to be two cities that are always going to be in the chatter with some of these people.

LIN: All right. Frustrating because we don't know what we're looking for, but we just have to keep aware.

BROOKS: Right. Vigilance is the main word. And people should go about their main business. But always, keep an eye on security.

LIN: OK. Thank you very much for helping us do just that, Mike Brooks.

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