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Raising the Terror Alert

February 7, 2003 at 12:00 AM EDT
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RAY SUAREZ: The higher state of alert against terror threats was announced today by Attorney General John Ashcroft and Homeland Security Sec. Tom Ridge. The attorney general said the terror alert was raised from “elevated risk” to “high risk” because American intelligence picked up indications that the al-Qaida terrorist network was still determined to attack Americans overseas and in the United States.

JOHN ASHCROFT: Recent reporting indicates an increased likelihood that al-Qaida may attempt to attack Americans in the United States and/or abroad, in or around the end of the Hajj, a Muslim religious period ending mid- February 2003. Recent intelligence reports suggest that al-Qaida leaders have emphasized planning for attacks on apartment buildings, hotels and other soft or lightly secured targets in the United States.

Since Sept. 11, 2001, the United States has substantially improved its capacity to disrupt, deter and prevent terrorist attacks, terrorist attacks against innocent Americans. The active cooperation of the American people– your cooperation– has been instrumental in preventing major terrorist attacks. We are not recommending that events be cancelled, nor do we recommend that individuals change domestic or work or travel plans. As we have in the past, we ask that Americans continue their daily work and leisure activities, with a heightened awareness of their environment and the activities occurring around them.

TOM RIDGE: As a result of the increase in the threat level, as a result of going from yellow to orange, “elevated” to “high,” specific protective measures will be taken by all federal agencies both to reduce vulnerabilities and many of them actually will, we believe, serve as a deterrent. Increased security personnel at points of entry may in fact limit points of entry and exit; enhanced identification checks, restrictions to travel around federal facilities and airports, among the many augmented security measures that will be implemented.

Now, as the attorney general mentioned, for individual Americans, we ask you… we ask you to remain aware and remain alert. One of the thoughts that I would just simply share with you: It’s probably not a bad idea to sit down and just arrange some kind of a contact plan, that if an event occurred, you want to make sure you can… the family wants to get in touch with one another. That’s not a bad thing to do to prepare in advance of any kind of emergency, whether it’s a natural disaster or a terrorist attack, it doesn’t take a great deal of time, and I think it would make family members a lot more comfortable if they knew they were able to get in touch with one another in the event something happened. And so by learning more now about these kinds of attacks, you and your families can be armed in advance with a kind of information that you might need and that will be critical to your health and your well-being.

RAY SUAREZ: The secretary encouraged Americans to think of staying informed as an important part of their security precautions, and he talked of his conviction that heightened awareness and readiness deters terrorism and saves lives. Joining us with more on this story is Eric Lichtblau, who has been covering the terror alert for the New York Times. Eric, were the government officials involved in this briefing very specific about what people should be on the lookout for. What kind of attack they want us to be worried about.

ERIC LICHTBLAU: No, not really. That’s been part of the frustration all along with these warnings as they’ve gone out in the past 17 months, is that there is sort of a feeling among local police and the public is that we know we should be worried but we don’t know what to do about it.

RAY SUAREZ: Did they talk about what they were basing this new heightened level of threat on?

ERIC LICHTBLAU: Attorney General Ashcroft did not get into the details. What we are hearing desperately is that this is based partly on interviews with recent detainees from al-Qaida, electronic intercepts and other intelligence that has been picking up steam in the last week or so indicating that more attacks might be in the works.

RAY SUAREZ: During this briefing, were any of the people involved, either the attorney general or the director of homeland security, Sec. Ridge, or the F.B.I. director, Mr. Mueller who also briefed, did they give any action points; things that regular people should do, could do in response to this new heightened level of threat?

ERIC LICHTBLAU: Their main message was just be vigilant. If you see anything suspicious, call it into the F.B.I., to the local police. Just look for anything out of the ordinary. And as you heard Sec. Ridge say, come up with a plan in the event of a terrorist attack, which is sort of a new focus.

RAY SUAREZ: The threat level has been raised and lowered in the past. Was there something different about the tone of this announcement that you detected?

ERIC LICHTBLAU: This is only the second time they’ve raised it to the orange status. The last time was last year right around the one-year anniversary of the September 11 attacks when there were similar concerns about attacks that might be coinciding with one-year anniversary. I think the feeling among law enforcement intelligence officials is that the level of anxiety and the level of intelligence chatter as they call it, was too high in the last week or so to ignore and that they needed to do something about it in terms of putting out even what’s a very general alert.

RAY SUAREZ: But it sounded like Sec. Ridge was almost talking as if we should be thinking more about what happens once an attack happens than about preventive measures – his advice.

ERIC LICHTBLAU: There was certainly a focus on that. I think that did strike a lot of people who were listening to him was almost the, perhaps inevitability… that might be too strong a word… but the sense that if and when another attack does happen, you should talk to your family and sit down and know where is everybody going to be and what are we going to do?

RAY SUAREZ: This is the public face of these threat levels, and the way it is given to Americans at large. But internally when the status goes from yellow to orange as it did in this case, does that trigger any events inside the security apparatus of the United States – are there things that are done differently by the F.B.I. or any other the uniformed services that weren’t done when it was just at yellow?

ERIC LICHTBLAU: Well, the F.B.I. today is ordering their field offices to take extra precautions in contacting leaders of the Jewish community, for instance, because they believe that targets not only synagogues but things like Jewish community centers and Jewish related hospitals might be targeted and they want them to reach out to leaders, rabbis and Jewish community. So they are certainly taking law enforcement steps like that. And as you heard Sec. Ridge mentioned, there are many any number of border security measures today in response to this: Tightening airport security, putting more air marshals in the sky; doing additional photo I.D. checks, inspections. There is a long list of steps that they say will be immediately implemented because of this elevated status.

RAY SUAREZ: It was mentioned that one of the trigger points was the approaching date for the Hajj, the Muslim pilgrimage to Mecca. Is that similar to the way the threat level was raised around the anniversary of the Sept. 11 attacks?

ERIC LICHTBLAU: Yeah, I mean one thing that the analysts and the F.B.I. And the C.I.A. Look for is a trigger point. What… is there something on the calendar or anniversary of some date that is likely to prompt some sort of symbolic attack? And they’re concerned really two time factors. One is the Hajj ending at the end of next week and the other being the prospect of war with Iraq. That was not mentioned specifically today by Attorney General Ashcroft or Sec. Ridge. But the internal warns that have gone out within the F.B.I. and the CIA specifically say that as war approaches, the likelihood of terrorist attacks is going to grow significantly.

RAY SUAREZ: And, quickly Eric, are there places that the threat level has never gone up or down, or pretty much stays in the same place, different from other places in the country?

ERIC LICHTBLAU: Well, we’ve never gotten to the red level yet, which is the highest level. And I think that they see this as we’re at the second highest level, they see this as a way of hopefully making sure it never gets there.

RAY SUAREZ: Eric Lichtblau of the New York Times, thanks a lot.

ERIC LICHTBLAU: Thanks for having me.