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RAY SUAREZ: At mid-morning in Washington today, the homeland security team took several questions about the California governor’s decision to speak out about bridge threats, threats the FBI said could not be corroborated.
ROBERT MUELLER, FBI Director: We put out that warning as a… To law enforcement with the expectation that it would go to the senior officials in any particular state. And with regard to what that senior official does, that is up to that senior official in the state.
TOM RIDGE, Director, Office of Homeland Security: Each governor and each county executive and each region makes different assessments as to the best way they can harden those targets and the best way they can interdict or prevent a terrorist attack. Obviously, Governor Davis thought that one thing that he could do to enhance the security of people using those bridges was to make a public announcement. We did not encourage him to do so.
RAY SUAREZ: Separately, Ridge applauded the Pentagon’s decision Wednesday to call up additional members of the National Guard. Some, he said, will be placed along the northern border.
TOM RIDGE: As you can well imagine, there are five or six major points of ingress and egress from Canada to the United States. We’re going to continue to beef up the men and women there charged with security.
RAY SUAREZ: Ridge said Monday’s general terrorism alert to the whole country, asking Americans to be at their highest state of awareness, is long-term.
TOM RIDGE: We’re going to keep everybody on the Monday alert, that attentiveness, indefinitely.
RAY SUAREZ: An hour later, President Bush commented on the permanence of the terror alert.
REPORTER: A lot of Americans are rattled by what they see as a mixed message, being told to go about their business on the one hand and yet having to look for some unspecified threat on the other. What’s your message?
PRESIDENT GEORGE W. BUSH: Well, I wasn’t rattled. When I went out and threw out the ball at Yankee Stadium, right after I had instructed the Justice Department to inform 17,000 law enforcement agencies that… That to be aware, to harden targets, to harden assets. But… But what… What Governor Ridge is saying and what I’ve been saying all along is we’re in a new day here in America. This… We’re fighting a two-front war, and I believe most Americans understand that now.
RAY SUAREZ: The President also defended the California governor’s public warning about threats to bridges.
PRESIDENT GEORGE W. BUSH: Well, as a former governor, I didn’t particularly care when the federal government tried to tell me how to do my business. When I was the governor of Texas, I was elected by the people of Texas, and I handled my state’s business the way I thought was necessary. And I think any governor should be able to conduct their business the way they see fit.
JIM LEHRER: Joining me now with more on the security story is Neil Lewis of The New York Times. Neil, did Gray Davis catch federal authorities off guard with his public warning?
NEIL LEWIS: He sure did. They were quite stunned. Some people in the FBI were sitting in their offices, looked up from their television sets and saw Governor Davis at the podium announcing what they thought was information that was so sketchy, it wasn’t worthy of alarming the public — information they thought was a lot lighter than the stuff that was used to justify Monday’s general national alert.
RAY SUAREZ: But it was information that was passed on nonetheless. Was it passed on to western governors with the understanding that they wouldn’t go public with it?
NEIL LEWIS: I believe that was the understanding, though that restriction was never put on it. As Director Mueller said today, when we put something out to hundreds of law enforcement agencies, we fully expect it to be eventually disseminated to the public. They were taken aback by Governor Davis’s major announcement of this for something they thought was uncorroborated. In the message that we saw and the FBI eventually put it out it emphasized how uncorroborated it was. This is an ambiguous area, what is uncorroborated to relate intelligence analysis to a public threat analysis. In this case, I believe the federal authorities had information from a human intelligence source, from a domestic law enforcement agency, I believe customs, and oddly enough, that these pieces, these kinds of tips that come with great specificity tend to be the ones that are more often false and hoaxes. When you get a person says on such and such a date, a package will be left and it will explode this, that has more the M.O. of a typical hoax or a false lead. In contrast, federal officials say what they acted on, on Monday, what the officials said they act on was a set of facts to issue the national alert.
RAY SUAREZ: In your own reporting have you had any luck in shaking loose the parameters of that threat as to M.O. or location, date, time frame?
NEIL LEWIS: Well, in the last day or so we’ve learned that these were ed– at least I should say what officials assert are al-Qaida members, members of the bin Laden group, they believed they were talking in a manner that suggested that they were not being listen to, so therefore candid, and again they were issuing signals and phrases and kinds of communications that intelligence analysts had seen before three previous attacks: The bombings of the U.S. embassies in Africa in 1998 in Tanzania and Kenya, and the bombing of the USS Cole last year, and now they have a third template to match these signals against, and that is of course before the World Trade Center. What the analysts have done is they say walk back the cat. They go to the moment of the World Trade Center bombing and look back at the intelligence patterns, what they were hearing in the days and weeks before that. And what they assert they were hearing in the days before Monday, and particularly on Sunday and Monday were signals that were congruent to those of the three previous terrorist attacks.
RAY SUAREZ: Either in direct response to this rise in intercepted traffic or on other fronts, have there been areas where, on the domestic security front, things have been ramped up, intensified, any progress to report?
NEIL LEWIS: Well, certainly they’ve acknowledged that nuclear power plants is one area they’re paying close attention to. When they gave the warning on Monday, they had the same dilemma that Governor Davis had yesterday, that today in Washington there has been lots of second-guessing of Governor Davis for having done this, as you asked me, they were indeed startled. But Governor Davis’ explanation is the same as Attorney General Ashcroft and FBI Director Mueller gave on Monday. Well, we don’t know very much, but we want to put it out. Should something happen and we didn’t tell you, you’d be criticized. So we’re going to endure the criticism that we put the people on alert. We didn’t give you much to focus your vigilance on. So they had this sort of general vigilance. Today, for example, the director of the FBI acknowledged extraordinary candor, I thought, that they have made no progress on figuring out the origin of the anthrax spread. And he sort of invited people to be detectives, think of– look at the letters again, you know, we want to put out what these letters look like, anything looks familiar to anybody. And in doing so, he said we don’t know if it’s foreign or domestic. The significance of that has been a lingering question whether any al-Qaida cells or Middle Eastern terrorists have remained in this country after Sept. 11. Well, if it’s connected to the Sept. 11 attacks and those people, we know these letters were mailed the first or second week of Oct., so if it’s related to them, clearly there were active people in this country beyond that.
RAY SUAREZ: And it sounds like, from what you’re saying, that everybody sort of working out the rules as they go along. Here’s information, but we’re not sure what you’re supposed to do with it yet. We’re not sure what value it is, both up and down the chain.
NEIL LEWIS: Precisely. This is new for all the public officials at all levels to sort of figure out the balance between informing the public or unnecessarily panicking the public or the worst thing, making them dull to real threats. Governor Ridge was asked the other day, a long convoluted question, if you put these out, do people get inured to this? You mean the boy who cried wolf? Government officials are keenly aware of that. As you say, Ray, it’s completely new to figure out how much information to put out, how much to tell people, how much is alarming, how much is too much, how much wears out the people’s nerves.
RAY SUAREZ: Neil Lewis of The New York Times. Thanks for being with us.
NEIL LEWIS: Thank you, Ray.