|A THREAT OF VIOLENCE|
December 20, 1999
A State Department warning regarding millennium celebrations coupled with an arrest of a man charged with carrying bomb making materials at the U.S-Canadian border has put officials on high alert. Jim Lehrer leads a discussion with experts on possible terrorist threats.
JIM LEHRER: Terrorist threats from abroad. Spencer Michels begins.
SPENCER MICHELS: Despite the heightened alert that U.S. Customs agents have put on every port of entry into the United States, officials say terrorists may be planning a millennium attack on American citizens. The latest warnings came after the arrest of Ahmed Ressam, the Algerian man charged with trying to smuggle bomb-making explosives through Port Angeles in Washington State from Canada last week. He is suspected of having ties to Afghan-based militant Osama bin Laden. Last week, the State Department issued its fifth worldwide caution since October, saying it has "credible information" that guerrillas were planning New Year's attacks. The latest warnings from Washington came on the heels of arrests by foreign governments.
On December 15, the government of Jordan announced the arrest of 13 individuals suspected of planning attacks on tourist and other sites. And 200 Afghan nationals were arrested over the weekend in Pakistan. But today the White House said those arrests did not appear related to the terrorist threat. Yesterday, White House security adviser Samuel Berger confirmed that US law enforcement and intelligence agencies have been operating at "full tilt."
SAMUEL BERGER: As we head towards the New Year's and the Millennium, the end of Ramadan, this is a period of heightened risk of terrorist actions involving Americans. I would say this: I would say that Americans should be vigilant, as they go about their plans for... for the New Year's, if they see something suspicious, see packages or activities that they think are unusual, they should obviously let law enforcement people know.
SPENCER MICHELS: Berger added that the US is not aware at this point of other specific threats against particular targets.
|An arrest at the Canadian border|
JIM LEHRER: And now to Raymond Kelly, commissioner of the US Customs
Service and Ambassador Michael Sheehan, the State Department's coordinator
for counter terrorism.
RAYMOND KELLY, US Customs Service: Well, this individual acted in a somewhat nervous manner. The inspectors asked him to get out of the vehicle. He first refused to do so. He then got out of the vehicle. They asked him to open the trunk, which is fairly normal procedure. When he went back and looked in the truck of this individual, they saw some substance there. They thought it might have been drugs. He then bolted. He actually ran out of his jacket and ran for five blocks, attempted to get into a woman's car. They chased him on foot and were able to wrestle him to the ground and handcuff him. He had nothing to say.
JIM LEHRER: There was no word - advance word - that he was coming. There was no tip that this guy was coming in with some explosives.
RAYMOND KELLY: No. There was no advanced information. What happened, what we want customs inspectors to do is to question people, and they started a normal conversation. His itinerary seemed a little bit unusual, and he was uncommunicative and, again, when they asked him to get out of the car, he refused to get out of the vehicle.
JIM LEHRER: What happened to the woman who was driving the car?
RAYMOND KELLY: The woman who was driving the car.
JIM LEHRER: Right.
RAYMOND KELLY: She took off. She drove through a red light and she got away. Of course he was in the middle of the street and was subdued by our inspectors.
JIM LEHRER: But you believe there are other people involved with this guy, right?
RAYMOND KELLY: No, I can't make that judgment. The FBI is doing that investigation. We simply don't have information at this time to indicate that someone else is involved with him. I'm aware of the reports coming out of Canada, but as far as our piece of the action this individual was by himself.
JIM LEHRER: Have you done anything in your piece of the action differently as a result of this arrest last week?
|A heightened state of readiness|
RAYMOND KELLY: We have; we've been on a heightened state of readiness as other law enforcement agencies have been for a while as we enter the Y2K timeframe. What we've done since the seizure Tuesday is to increase our manning at some of our remote ports and, indeed, some of the busier ports as well. We've done that through redeployment; we've done that through overtime and certainly our inspector are more vigilant. What we want them to do is have more citizen contacts, more contacts with people who are coming through the system and do more searches. However we don't think it's going to increase the delay times appreciably.
JIM LEHRER: Now, is it not your job to investigate now who is guy is, where he came from and what he might have been up to?
RAYMOND KELLY: Well, we have some very talented investigators, no question about it, but the FBI has taken charge of this investigation. We're cooperating fully with them. We've turned our evidence over to the FBI so they can conduct the investigation.
JIM LEHRER: Now Mr. Ambassador, Ambassador Sheehan, the State Department is involved in all of this informationally, if not otherwise. What can you add to what the commissioner said about who this guy was, whether there were other people with him, what he had in mind?
MICHAEL A. SHEEHAN, State Department: Well, I think I would echo what Commissioner Kelly said. We don't know. It would be very speculative to make those kinds of comments about him and what organizations he may be tied to. But we're working closely with the Canadians and FBI to get all the details as soon as we can.
JIM LEHRER: In a general way forget, you can put that in or not put it in, but just in a general way, how would you characterize the seriousness of the threat to Americans, both here and abroad during this coming holiday season?
MICHAEL A. SHEEHAN: Well, I think long before these threats came out we were concerned about Millennial threats. We've been coordinating with countries abroad. When had this specific and credible information based on a Jordanian cell, we put out a worldwide warning.
JIM LEHRER: These were the Jordanians who were arrested a few weeks ago.
MICHAEL A. SHEEHAN: That's correct.
JIM LEHRER: Right.
MICHAEL A. SHEEHAN: And that is our obligation to start - the State Department's -- to share that information about the American people and give them prudent warnings; however, we don't have any other specific information at this time. And although we have put out that warning, as Sandy Berger said the other day, it's a yellow light, not a red light, and we think Americans should still continue to do their plans but just to be cautious.
JIM LEHRER: But when you - you and others use the term -- you meaning the State Department and others in government use the term "credible threats, "what do you mean by that?
|Credible threats or just concerns?|
MICHAEL A. SHEEHAN: Well, specifically in this organization that was arrested in Jordan that was a credible threat because they were in the planning stages of an attack. But that cell has been rounded up by those officials in a very professional way. And at this time we don't have anything other like that, specific credible threats. But we have put out a general warning because that was the prudent thing to do.
JIM LEHRER: So you don't have any credible threats but you have the concern that they may be out there and you don't know about them? That's the bottom line.
MICHAEL A. SHEEHAN: That's correct, we are concerned that there may be other cells operating out there. We have some general information about that and we are working with a lot of services around the world to disrupt that type of activity and quite successfully so. We don't have any other specific information as we had in the case of this cell that was broken up.
JIM LEHRER: What are the motives of these folks? Why would they want to commit terrorist acts against Americans over this holiday period?
MICHAEL A. SHEEHAN: Well, I wouldn't speculate too much on the motives of these groups but there are long-standing complaints by Osama bin Laden's organization about American presence in the Gulf, his anti-Israeli stances are well known but I wouldn't speculate particularly about this group and what their particular motive was.
JIM LEHRER: But, why the Millennium, why the end of the year?
|The right time for terrorism?|
|MICHAEL A. SHEEHAN: Well, I think terrorists often look
for spectacular events around certain holidays. That's an old way of operating
for many terrorist groups around the world. We always look at certain
holidays, and this, of course, is a special one and may draw the attention
of concern groups.
JIM LEHRER: Commissioner Kelly, in addition to, of course, being the commissioner now of the Custom's Service, you have a long career in law enforcement. What could you add to that? I mean, here again we're not talking about specifics, but why would people want to do something at this particular time?
RAYMOND KELLY: Well, difficult to say as Mike Sheehan said, we've seen groups in the past focus on particular days, particular events, seasons of the year, but then again in the World Trade Center bombing we could never link that to a particular date. So it's so difficult to predict these events.
JIM LEHRER: What advice would you have Commissioner, to Americans who were contemplating any kind of special action over this holiday time -- should anybody do anything differently?
RAYMOND KELLY: I think as Sandy Berger said yesterday, I think we should be vigilant, we should cautious but I don't think we should significantly change our way of life, our activities. Someone asked me today about the celebration at New Year's Eve in Times Square. I was the police commissioner in New York and have been a member of the department for 31 years. It is a great event, and it is probably the most heavily policed event in the United States, 2000 police officers in a five-block area, events in Washington other big cities --
JIM LEHRER: Big events on the mall, there are going to be huge events on the mall with the President and everything.
RAYMOND KELLY: And they're going to be extremely well policed. You have law enforcement obviously at a heightened state of readiness. So I don't think we should give in and significantly change or -- our plans or activities for the season.
JIM LEHRER: Ambassador, what about Americans traveling abroad, should they stay home?
MICHAEL A. SHEEHAN: I agree with Ray Kelly. No, at this point, I plan to be down on the mall on New Year's Eve. I have good friends in England and family in Rome that are going to go to events and I've read all of the intelligence and I still recommended that people go to those events. We have information. We've put out that information about these cells, but I would think that people can continue on their business, but to be cautious, as we've indicated in our warnings.
|Having a safe New Year's|
|JIM LEHRER: But what does being cautious mean, Mr. Ambassador?
MICHAEL A. SHEEHAN: Well, I think whatever, if you are in a large crowd and you see certain unmarked packages, you see suspicious looking vehicles or personnel operating in strange ways report it to the local authorities and local law enforcement authorities as soon as possible. Otherwise I think people can enjoy their holidays as they've planned.
JIM LEHRER: Do you plan -- this is the fifth alert that you all have put out. Are there others coming? Do you consider this routine for this kind of time of year, this kind of event or is this a special thing that we're talking about? That's what I'm trying to get a handle on.
MICHAEL A. SHEEHAN: This is certainly, we have had several alerts over the past months. And that is more than normal. Clearly there has been some activity. And fortunately we were able to break up the cell in Jordan and have some other successful disruptions of activity, but I think although there indications that activity was heightened around this period, around this holiday period, we think it's a cautionary period but certainly one where people can proceed with their plans.
JIM LEHRER: Well, Mr. Ambassador, Mr. Commissioner, thank you both very much.
MICHAEL A. SHEEHAN: Thank you, Jim.
RAYMOND KELLY: Thank you, Jim.