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RAY SUAREZ: For more on today’s decision to lower the threat level to yellow, and last month’s decision to raise it, we’re joined by Asa Hutchinson, the undersecretary for Borders and Transportation at the Department of Homeland Security. Welcome to the program.
ASA HUTCHINSON: Good to be with you.
RAY SUAREZ: Was there a triggering event or change in condition that allowed the federal government to make this declaration today?
ASA HUTCHINSON: Yes, indeed. We analyzed the intelligence. You hear a lot of talk about chatter. And that’s sort of the foundation. That’s one factor you measure.
But in this particular orange alert level, there was specific intelligence that we relied upon that caused us to raise the national alert level — that combined with the holiday season. And then, as Secretary Ridge indicated, that threat has diminished, the intelligence stream has diminished and the holiday season is over, so we felt comfortable in lowering the threat level to yellow even though we are continuing to follow particular threats of having security responses to it.
RAY SUAREZ: Are there certain places in the United States or sectors or businesses in the economy that will remain on orange even as the rest of us go back down to yellow?
ASA HUTCHINSON: Well, everything will be at yellow. And that’s the national standard. And everything will be at yellow. But there will be specific security measures that are in place when we find information or have had information that there was a particular target or a threat. And so these are precautionary measures. There will be security measures that stay in place.
We don’t tell that generally to the public because we don’t want to tip our hands to the security measures to our opponents and to the terrorists.
RAY SUAREZ: Can you say now at this juncture in early January, after about two and a half weeks of the orange alert, that any attacks or specific operations were deterred or prevented by this heightened security around the holidays?
ASA HUTCHINSON: Well, I can tell you that I have full confidence that we made the right decisions in a number of instances during this last alert level. As to whether they prevented a terrorist attack or incident, my gut feeling is that they disrupted any activities that the terrorists were trying to undertake.
As to whether we can ever be able to prove that, or there will be collaboration of that, that remains to be seen. But I think we did make the right decisions on the aviation issues, and on the general threat level.
RAY SUAREZ: You and Secretary Ridge have mentioned the rising level of chatter over communications channels — in some reports there have been specific names and places that have been mentioned and directed America’s efforts. How do you know you’re not being gamed on this — that people with cell phones and other kinds of communications devices can just all hit the phones at once and sort of lead homeland security efforts around by the nose?
ASA HUTCHINSON: Well, we recognize that general chatter is probably the most unreliable and that there is a potential for disinformation on the part of al-Qaida. And that has to be factored in by our intelligence experts. And they understand that possibility and that what is most reliable would be specific information that we might obtain from different sources that is evaluated and from various means determined to be credible. And so that’s what has the greatest credibility and that’s what we rely upon in making judgments.
There’s many different sources. We wouldn’t want to ever go into the sources of that, but we have the intelligence community that evaluates that and have a great deal of experience in evaluating that.
RAY SUAREZ: Is your department getting the hang of this as we’re longer into this new era and living more regularly with the color coded alert chart? The last time it was heightened to orange, it remained that way for months — this time just two and a half weeks. Are we calibrating this a little better now?
ASA HUTCHINSON: I think we are, but the one characteristic of being in this profession of security is that it is very humbling. We are a free society. There are many vulnerabilities that are out there and the risks are very substantial but I do believe that we are doing a better job of communicating to state and local law enforcement. Obviously, we are careful about raising the alert level. It had been six months. This time it was up for two and a half weeks. We understand the inconvenience and cost associated with it.
We are getting better intelligence information. We are getting better about specific responses to threats. And I think it gives the public a greater confidence in what we’re doing, so I know the department is getting better, closing vulnerabilities, increasing security capabilities. U.S. VISIT is a good example of that, having the biometric identity for foreign travelers coming to the United States. So we’re doing some good things and our confidence is growing.
RAY SUAREZ: Over the holiday season, with the threat level raised to orange, there was a lot of attention to international carriers with flights headed to the United States. Are we, as a country, able to compel, suggest, require that flights originating in other places and meeting the standards of those places, meet new ones for coming here to the United States?
ASA HUTCHINSON: Ultimately the decision would be by the foreign government in which the plane takes off from. And that’s why we have to have a great deal of international cooperation because we control our airspace and we can say that flight is not coming into our airspace.
But we are both governed by international standards, and the development of those standards, the increased level of security in those standards are very important. I think we learned some things in working with our allies in this last incident, in which we did share intelligence. Decisions were made to cancel specific flights. They were good decisions, but I think we obviously want to work very closely with our foreign counterparts when these decisions are made, and we’ve had dialogue with the French, with the UK authorities. Those will continue.
RAY SUAREZ: Will the flying public here in the United States see many differences in what’s going on at airports around the United States, what they’re asked to do?
ASA HUTCHINSON: And that’s the assurance that they have, is that even in routine circumstances, our security is very good in that the safety of the traveling public is preeminent in our decisions. What they will see is the continued screening, the strong law enforcement presence at airports. But I think that things will go back to a normal state, at least the post-9/11 normal state. So they’ll still see security. I think this will give them confidence. But we’ll continue to monitor particular flights and put security where it is needed.
RAY SUAREZ: Cargo shippers have been an area of concern. Anything to report on changing standards, changing requirements for those flights?
ASA HUTCHINSON: Actually, yes. We have recognized that as a need for increased security, increased physical inspection of cargo that goes both in the cargo carrier as well as into the passenger aircraft. And so we have put increased responsibility for more inspections of that cargo. I believe it is the right step. During the recent oranges alert, we asked the private sector even to increase above what we normally would the inspection of that cargo.
We’ve also … the flights that crisscross the United States, whether it’s cargo or passenger, we are having more comprehensive vetting of pilots and the background checks, so a number of different security measures focused on cargo as well as the passenger aircraft.
RAY SUAREZ: Undersecretary of Homeland Security Asa Hutchinson, thanks for being with us.
ASA HUTCHINSON: Thank you.