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U.S. Raises Terror Alert Level

May 20, 2003 at 12:00 AM EDT
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MARGARET WARNER: For more on the new alert level, we’re joined by Phil Shenon of The New York Times.

And, Phil, welcome back to the program. What are your sources telling you about where this intelligence is coming from that triggered this higher alert?

PHILIP SHENON: It’s more of the same intelligence we’ve been talking about since 9/11. You know, every day the National Security Agency and other intelligence agencies gather information from intercepted telephone calls, faxes and e-mails suggesting communication among al-Qaida folks and other terrorist organizations.

There has been a lot of this chatter over the last several days. The intelligence agencies of the United States were tasked over the last 48 hours to determine whether or not this chatter and the evidence gathered from the attacks in Saudi Arabia and Morocco suggested there might be a domestic threat as well. And the response that got back today is that yes, there is that possibility which led to the raising of the terrorist alert.

MARGARET WARNER: Was there much debate internally about whether to do this given the higher cost that, of course, it will incur?

PHILIP SHENON: There was some debate as there has been in every one of these situations of the last two years. But apparently when the intelligence agencies reported back today, there was a consensus that this was the thing to do.

MARGARET WARNER: The statement we just heard Asa Hutchinson read was pretty specific about some of the methods that might be used. Assault teams, large car or truck bombs, suicide bombers. Have they heard or overheard plotters talking about that, or does it simply reflect what happened overseas this past 10 days?

PHILIP SHENON: I think more the latter situation. What we had in Saudi Arabia and Morocco was the use of these sorts of the small arms assault teams, the use of explosives placed in trucks or in SUVs, and the fear is that perhaps if there are al-Qaida cells in this country or other terrorists, they might follow the same method in this country.

MARGARET WARNER: And the same question really about the mention of soft targets; by that I suppose that means non-government targets. Again, one, is that new, and two is that overheard conversations or again based on what happened overseas?

PHILIP SHENON: I think a bit of both. But this conversation about soft targets is one that the United States government has been having for a long time now. And in virtually every one of these instances in which the threat alert has been raised, there has been mention of soft targets. I think the last go round, there was a lot of concern that perhaps hotels or restaurants or air conditioning systems in large buildings might be attacked. So I think those are the same sorts of soft targets we are talking about now.

MARGARET WARNER: The statement also said that it is not just from al-Qaida, but what the other government called other anti-U.S. terrorist groups, even disgruntled individuals. Who are they talking about there?

PHILIP SHENON: I did ask that question specifically of folks in the government and they say they are talking about Hamas and Hezbollah. There has long been concern that at some point those two groups might try to export their terrorism to the United States. It’s a continuing concern and something they wanted once again to focus on in this alert.

MARGARET WARNER: So what visible difference will we see, will ordinary Americans see?

PHILIP SHENON: Well, I think when people head to airports or to train stations or to bus stations, or to national monuments during the course of the Memorial Day weekend, they will probably see additional security measures. This is something that we have seen repeatedly since 9/11. This is something the American public I think is increasingly used to and they’re going to see the tightened security that they’ve seen in the past.

MARGARET WARNER: Finally, does this warning reflect a conclusion on the part of U.S. intelligence and law enforcement that al-Qaida is truly reinvigorated, not just overseas, but also here?

PHILIP SHENON: I think they are quite clear that it is reinvigorated overseas, or certainly that its sympathizers are reinvigorated and they’re trying to stage attacks to make clear that al-Qaida still exists. I don’t think they’re nearly so clear on what al-Qaida’s capabilities are in this country. And just today Tom Ridge, the homeland security secretary, was speaking with great confidence about how much better prepared the United States is to deal with the threat of terrorism from al-Qaida and other groups.

MARGARET WARNER: So this warning is really a situation of better safe than sorry.

PHILIP SHENON: I think it’s prudence. And, as I say, this is certainly not the first time we have been through this drill and I’m certain it’s not the last time.

MARGARET WARNER: All right. Phil Shenon, thanks very much.

PHILIP SHENON: Thank you.