GWEN IFILL: Today's pre-holiday terror alert carried with it a stark warning: Al-Qaida, the attorney general said, is "almost ready to attack the United States." But what more do we know about the source of these threats, and the timing behind them? For that we turn to secretary of homeland security Tom Ridge. Mr. Secretary, thank you for joining us.
TOM RIDGE: Nice to join you, Gwen, thank you.
GWEN IFILL: Tell us as much as you can about what brought us to this announcement today.
TOM RIDGE: I think during the past four to six weeks there has been an administration-wide effort in light of the bombings in Madrid and the number of very high-profile symbolic and political events of the year, a threat reporting stream that seems to indicate that, not surprisingly, that America remains al-Qaida's number one target and they would like to execute another terrorist attack sometime in the near future.
All those rolled into one we put together an administration-wide group to say "what are we doing now, what can we accelerate?" because our job day in and day out is to provide more security and more safety to America.
Today's press conference by the attorney general and the FBI director really spoke to the kinds of things that the FBI is doing. The Department of Homeland Security in conjunction with the EPA, with the Department of Defense, multiple other agencies and then the state and local governments and the private sector, everybody is engaged in a national coordinated effort to make our country more secure.
GWEN IFILL: I want to read to you a few of the things that were said today at the news conference. Attorney General Ashcroft said, "We are not aware of the details of a plan." And FBI Director Mueller said, "We do not know what forms the threat might take." So why now, if we don't know these things?
TOM RIDGE: Well I think it's very appropriate for the attorney general and for Director Mueller to comment on the quality of information we receive almost on a daily basis. One of the real challenges is even when we have a credible source, someone we believe, that there is very little information that we ever receive that is specific as to who, what, where, when and how?
I mean, I guess if we had three or four of those elements we would be able to apprehend, detain and prevent the attack. So I think given, again, the confluence of events that I mentioned earlier, the law enforcement piece is something that the attorney general and the director of the FBI have been working hard ever since 9/11, for them to go out and say "be on the lookout for these people," this is the task force we're putting together to continue our work from the law enforcement end, hopefully is very reassuring to the American public.
Frankly, if there were days or weeks that went by when we saw no threat reporting stream that didn't indicate a terrorist attack against the United States -- and that would be rare -- we would still go about the business every single day of being smarter and more secure and figuring out ways how we can use people and technology and information sharing in order to make it safer.
GWEN IFILL: I guess I'm trying to help people who are taking this information in to sort some of it through. About a year ago, also just before Memorial Day, you raised the threat level from yellow to orange.
At the time you were citing bombings which had just happened in Morocco and Saudi Arabia. Today, one of the problems that was cited was the recent bombing in Madrid in the spring. How is this different than last year at the same time? If it's not, why haven't we raised the threat level?
TOM RIDGE: Well, first of all, I think it's important to note that we go to work every day doing things to make the country more secure, and that we don't need to raise the threat level to go about our daily job. That's the responsibility of the Department of Homeland Security -- literally -- that's the responsibility of millions of Americans.
The threat level is something we consider two or three times a day. It begins with a daily briefing to the president and then the intelligence community reviews the threat of the day and the past week or months twice a day.
We look for specificity. We look for collaboration and corroboration -- and while we have threat reporting streams some of the other elements would even lead us to consider raising the threat level don't exist right now.
But, again, even though we're not going to raise the threat level given the high profile events, the Madrid bombing, the political nature of the year, we again engage the entire administration on doing additional things, most of which will remain a permanent part of our security infrastructure.
GWEN IFILL: So should a permanent part of the infrastructure also be an expectation among Americans that before every big holiday, before every big national event whether Democratic conventions or Memorial Day or the Fourth of July, there is going to be a warning like this?
TOM RIDGE: No, I don't think that should be the expectation. I just think it's the confluence of events around this holiday. There's actually no specific intelligence that would suggest that al-Qaida would target an attack around a specific holiday.
But there's enough threat reporting... again, it's very generic. It is not specific at all. But in the context of everything that we've previously discussed, I think it's important that the law enforcement leadership of the country say what they're going to do, not only to engage their own resources at the federal level, but what they're going to do in collaboration with the state and local government. That will be an ongoing process during the next several months.
We don't need to raise the threat level for them to do that. I think their purpose was to inform America, "Look, your law enforcement community is on top of this. Homeland Security is working these issues, the private sector is working these issues, other agencies within the federal government are working every single day to use people and technology to make us more secure."
GWEN IFILL: If this is a generic threat, sort of, who are the seven suspected al-Qaida operatives who attorney general -- that actually the FBI director identified today, and are these new names to us or is this just the usual suspects?
TOM RIDGE: Some of them are old names, a couple new faces. Several of them were brought to our attention in a martyrdom video, pledged to give their lives in furtherance of al-Qaida's evil cause. Others we know are associated with the East Africa bombings back in 1998. Some have been to training camps.
All of them, we know, have been involved elsewhere so that they could facilitate, organize, plan or actually carry out a terrorist attack. Several of them speak pretty good English. Again it's also putting the terrorists on notice: We've got names, we've got pictures, we know your background. If you're in the United States or if you're elsewhere around the world and someone identifies you, we'd like to know because we'd certainly like to pick them up.
GWEN IFILL: Do we know if any of them are in the United States?
TOM RIDGE: We do not know. We do know that a few of them had spent considerable time in the United States. We know a couple of them speak very good English.
GWEN IFILL: So is the main purpose of today's announcement to put people on the alert so they will help you, perhaps call in and say we see someone who looks suspicious, we see someone who looks like this picture or is it because you have information? Which way is this information flow expected to go, I guess?
TOM RIDGE: The primary purpose behind the attorney general's announcement was to publicly acknowledge that we are looking for these seven individuals and also we're unsure of whether they're here or elsewhere. But also, I think, just as importantly to alert America that the leadership of our law enforcement community-- and they've been doing a fabulous job-- working with their partners at the state and local level, put together this task force for the balance of the year, doing what we're doing in homeland security for the balance of the year and what other agencies are doing for the balance of the year, and that is accelerating some of the work we do on a day-to-day basis and looking for additional ways to just improve security to prevent a terrorist attack.
All the threat information continues to talk about the next attack or attacks. The primary target is the United States. We're not going to raise the threat level today if there's not enough out there for us to bring the nation up completely but there is enough out there to enhance our vigilance, to accelerate some of the security measures that we've been working on and to look around together to see what additional things we can do to prevent the next attack.
GWEN IFILL: I assume that on a day like today, figuratively at least, your phone rings off the hook with local police officials people from and the country calling you and saying what does this mean? What should we do? In planning these announcements how do you balance out the idea that you may be creating... sowing fear among the masses against the need to know, the need to get this information out there?
TOM RIDGE: Well again, these kinds of announcements serve a two-fold purpose. One is just a general alert which is obviously when the attorney general and the FBI director stand up and talk about what they're going to do to combat terrorism and the attorney general did remind us we are at war. It's a continuing effort that he and his colleague, the director of the FBI have been engaged in with colleagues all around the country. I think that's a good reminder, but it also is to identify seven individuals and basically to assure-- I think it's a matter of assurance to the American people-- that your law enforcement community is on the job.
GWEN IFILL: Secretary Tom Ridge, thank you very much for joining us.
TOM RIDGE: Nice to join you as well. Thanks very much.