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Terrorism Threat: From Yellow to Orange

December 22, 2003 at 12:00 AM EDT


GWEN IFILL: Now, the heightened terror alert. Homeland Security Secretary Tom Ridge said yesterday the intelligence community has information suggesting extremists abroad are anticipating near-term attacks. He briefed President Bush this morning on the extra precautions now underway around the country. Afterward, he spoke to reporters at the White House.

TOM RIDGE: It is the conclusion of the intelligence community, general consensus within that community that all the strategic indicators suggest from the volume, really, the level and the amount of reporting has increased. We’ve never quite seen it at this level before. And the sources we could point to that are credible and our ability to corroborate some of this information — the strategic indicators suggest that it is the most significant threat reporting since 9/11. If you’ve got holiday plans, go. Don’t alter them. This is … you know, if we simply responded to threats by pulling back from what we had intended on doing in the first place, if we alter our plans to go visit the family, go visit grandma, if we alter our plans to get on the airplane, if we alter our plans to go to one of those public celebrations, then they have won because they’ve dislocated activity, they’ve caused economic loss and they’ve made us act in ways simply by threatening us. And we cannot be burdened by that threat or fear.

REPORTER: Can you tell us about an increased threat specifically at airports overseas, if that has been part of this, and what you…

TOM RIDGE: Well, there has been a stream of reporting over the past … actually for several months. And I think it’s probably pretty obvious to you that they’re always looking, one, to return to methods that they’ve used successfully before, and we know, tragically, they turned four airplanes into missiles. But as we’ve hardened … we’ve increased security in passenger aviation, from the curbside to the cockpit, you’ve heard me say many, many times before, passenger screeners and more technology and thousands of air marshals and hardened cockpit doors and trained pilots and crews, access to passenger name records of those who are traveling into the United States. So again, when we get information, be it venue specific, city specific, we share it with those who can act on it.

GWEN IFILL: Now, for some insight into what orange or high alert means, we are joined by: Raymond Kelly, the New York City police commissioner; Billie Vincent, the former security director at the Federal Aviation Agency — he now runs a security consulting business in Virginia; and Matthew Levitt, a former counterterrorism intelligence analyst at the FBI. He’s now a senior fellow in terrorism studies at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy.

Welcome gentlemen.

Commissioner Kelly, another year’s end, another year end terror alert. As the police commissioner of the nation’s largest city, what’s the first thing you do when you’re told about this?

RAYMOND KELLY: Well, obviously, we talk to our federal partners, and exchange information with them. We increase our presence on the street. We’ve done that since Sept. 11. We have operation atlas it’s called here, where we put additional officers at sensitive locations both in uniform and in plain clothes. We have other groups of heavily armed officers that we move around the city on an unannounced basis, also at sensitive locations. We’re constantly exchanging and looking for indicators, as I say, from our federal partners. We do put some officers on overtime. And it turns out to be a very expensive proposition for the city of New York, and other cities as well I’m sure throughout the country.

GWEN IFILL: If New York has been on level orange, code orange, since Sept. 11, what is the difference now with today’s elevated alert, does this move you to code red?

RAYMOND KELLY: No. You might say the level orange is a relatively broad band where we do some adjustments inside that band. We redeploy officers, we do increase the level of presence that we have at some locations and indeed we cover locations that we hadn’t been covering in the past. It clearly is an increase in security. But we’ve had heightened security in general since Sept. 11.

GWEN IFILL: Mr. Vincent, as we talk about this latest threat, once again the question of how airlines would be used as a weapon is raised again. Is this something that should have been taken care of already? Why are we back to that again?

BILLIE VINCENT: Well, it will always be a problem. The security that we are now in the U.S., post 9/11 is far better than what it was pre-9/11. There are still holes in it. You will never be able to have 100 percent effective security. What you need is layered security, TSA has done a reasonably good job on that recently. But there’s now and will always remain holes in the system. Getting a 100 percent effective system in all layers is virtually impossible.

But taking all those layers and making them as effective as you can possibly make them, from a cost effective standpoint as well, cost efficiency standpoint, you will approach a reasonably high degree of probability of detecting and stopping a terrorist threat.

GWEN IFILL: For people who have been traveling heavily during this holiday season, beginning in Thanksgiving and now continuing through the holidays this week and next, what is going to be different at airports in particular?

BILLIE VINCENT: You’re going to see an increased intensity of screening, probably more thoroughness. That has been the norm though for the last several months. But there will be some things that won’t be obvious to a lot of passengers, like increased selective screening, that is selecting a certain number of people, both from a scientific selection standpoint as well as a random standpoint and giving those persons and their articles added screening. The same thing goes on behind the screens for baggage, cargo, and some of the other things that are not obvious to the normal passenger.

GWEN IFILL: Mr. Levitt, when we hear Tom Ridge talk about increased chatter, that they have been picking up increased threats, credible threats, what does that mean?

MATTHEW LEVITT: Well, obviously we’re listening in on telephones and reading e-mail and we also have sources on the ground, there are a variety of sources. But primarily we’re talking about two different types of information. One is information that is relatively specific. Never specific to time, place and actual attack, like we see in the movies but clearly we have information about a terrorist plotting to use airplanes that are coming to the United States, this is not surprising; we’ve had several threats relating to the aviation industry over the past few months, for example, threats about terrorists wanting to bring explosives aboard airplanes and small electronic devices, and so there’s information that is going to have relative amounts of specificity to it, maybe about an airport here, certain terrorists there, a relatively specific time frame, but never like in the movies. The second is — I’m sorry.

GWEN IFILL: Go ahead.

MATTHEW LEVITT: The second is this chatter. And clearly the U.S. intelligence community has picked up terrorist operatives talking about in far more vague terms a near-term attack, something that would meet or surpass what happened on 9/11.

GWEN IFILL: But when you hear what are, he was saying today, saying we have seen this code alert rise and fall over the past few years and when he says this is the most significant threat since 9/11, what do you read into that?

MATTHEW LEVITT: I think it’s a question of the quality and quantity of the information. It suggests that there’s for specificity, it suggests there are more sources that are reporting similar types of information independently of one another and therefore corroborating at least in part some of the threat information. Also, more than two and a half years now into this process of the war on terrorism, we’ve been interrogating so many individuals and going through so much information that we’ve collected, independently we’re able to corroborate a lot more information. We’re far better prepared today to go through this information and interpret it in terms of how we should affect our threat level than we were leading up to 9/11.

GWEN IFILL: Commissioner Kelly, shortly after this process began two and a half years ago, as Matthew Levitt was explaining, there was a lot of concern expressed by local officials they didn’t have enough information to go on, that when these terror threats were raised and lowered, they didn’t know what they were supposed to do with that. Do you feel today as though you have enough information?

RAYMOND KELLY: Well, I think it’s improved and I think we, generally speaking, have the information what the federal government has. I think that’s one of the more profound issues as to just what we get as country a country. But I feel reasonably confident that the information that the federal government gets is passed along to local law enforcement agencies. Again, some of it lacks specificity, even the specific information that the federal government has, but I think it’s enough for us to do our job relative to what they have.

GWEN IFILL: In New York what are you telling citizens to do?

RAYMOND KELLY: Well, the mayor has directed people to go about their business, he says, and other government officials have said that. The raising of the threat level is really for security forces, really for government, that we want the rest of the citizenry to go about their lives. It’s our job, our obligation to be on a higher state of readiness, a higher state of alert. But we want people to go about their ordinary business but to be vigilant. And we say to them that we’d like them to look through the prism of 9/11, if you will, look at things and see if they are somewhat out of the ordinary, somewhat suspicious, we have a hotline in New York, it’s manned 24 hours a day, seven days a week. You can get it through our 311 number. And we’ve gotten a fair amount of calls and of course after the level is raised like this, we’ll get more calls. We’ve seen that historically; calls have gone up. But most of them are thoughtful calls and we do respond to the ones that are of concern to us.

GWEN IFILL: Mr. Vincent, it sounds almost like a mixed message. You should be very alert, yet go about your business, do your shopping, go visit grandma, as Tom Ridge put it. Is that a mixed message?

BILLIE VINCENT: No, not really. There is only so much the citizen can do, or the passenger of the airplane and so on, and that is so remain vigilant and if you see anything that’s suspicious, report it. But this is a cooperative system. It works because everybody does their part. It didn’t work pre-9/11 because, as Matthew just mentioned, there was a lot of chatter at that time and no one did anything because of the chatter.

GWEN IFILL: But is the weak link the aviation piece of this what happens at airport as broad? It’s one thing that we now have a transportation safety agency, professionals at airports doing all the screening and checking, but what about in other countries where they might not have as rigorous a security apparatus?

BILLIE VINCENT: That’s really not correct because in many other countries think have a better security system than we do, and they’ve had a better security system for many years. We had the bad system. I do 70 or 80 percent of my business internationally, and I just finished doing an around-the-world trip. I saw three major airports in the world, two of them had excellent, outstanding security. The third one always had weak security. The U.S. generally knows that. It’s not that we’re the best, it’s spotty outside of the U.S. And there are some very good systems outside the United States, better than the U.S.

GWEN IFILL: And Mr. Levitt, let me ask you about one other weak part which was exposed after 9/11 which is that communications among intelligence agencies, one hand wasn’t talking to the other, has that improved as far as we know?

MATTHEW LEVITT: It’s greatly improved, everybody admits there’s still a long way to go. Changing bureaucracies is a very slow and painful process, but I think it’s very clear that there is much better communication between the agencies, much greater use of the joint terrorism task forces, which incorporate under the FBI, not only other federal agencies but local authorities. There’s a much greater emphasis on sharing information in a timely fashion, making sure that it goes through official channels, some of the information for example leading up to 9/11 was passed from the agency, the FBI, by word of mouth and only later followed up through official channels. I think a lot of effort has gone into making this more seamless is the word we want it to be. I think we’re getting there slowly, but we’re getting there.

GWEN IFILL: Is that why everyone from the president to Tom Ridge to everyone are so convinced today that this is al-Qaida?

MATTHEW LEVITT: Well, I think the quality of the information speaks for itself, I don’t think there’s much debate over the fact that this is al-Qaida. And I think that the unanimity of their message indicates that certainly at the highest levels there’s a tremendous amount of consultation in general about the quality of information and also about whether or not and when to go up to an orange level, because, like you mentioned, we want people to be informed, people have made it clear they want to be informed, but we want to inform them in a way that is useful to them.

GWEN IFILL: Matthew Levitt, Billie Vincent, and Commissioner Ray Kelly, thank you all very much.