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Attorney General, Homeland Security Director Address Press

Aired September 10, 2002 - 13:34   ET

THIS IS A RUSH TRANSCRIPT. THIS COPY MAY NOT BE IN ITS FINAL FORM AND MAY BE UPDATED.


KYRA PHILLIPS, CNN ANCHOR: Right on time, as we planned here, live to the Justice Department for more on the stepped-up terror alert code.
(JOINED IN PROGRESS)

JOHN ASHCROFT, ATTORNEY GENERAL: Good afternoon.

I'm pleased to welcome you here today. I want to express my appreciation to Governor Tom Ridge, who is the adviser to the president for homeland security, for being here, and to the director of the FBI, Bob Mueller, for being here.

The United States government has concluded, based on analysis and specific intelligence of possible attacks on U.S. interests overseas, to call government, law enforcement and citizens, both at home and overseas, to a heightened state of alert. After conferring with the Homeland Security Council, the recommendation has been made to increase the national threat level currently classified at elevated risk to high risk. The president has accepted this recommendation.

The U.S. intelligence community has received information, based on debriefings of a senior al Qaeda operative, of possible terrorist attacks timed to coincide with the anniversary of the September 11 attacks on the United States.

Information indicates that al Qaeda cells have been established in several South Asian countries in order to conduct car bomb and other attacks on U.S. facilities. These cells have been accumulating explosives since approximately January of 2002, this year, in preparation for these attacks.

The U.S. intelligence community has also received information that one or more individuals in the Middle East are preparing for a suicide attack or attacks against U.S. interests. At this time we have no specific information as to where these attacks might occur.

The U.S. intelligence community has concluded that the most likely targets of al Qaeda attacks, are the transportation and energy sectors and facilities or gatherings that would be recognize worldwide as symbols of American power or security. Examples of such symbols are U.S. military facilities, U.S. embassies and national monuments.

In addition, U.S. intelligence has concluded that lower-level al Qaeda operatives may view the September 11 anniversary as a suitable time to lash out in even small strikes to demonstrate their worldwide presence and resolve. Accordingly, widely disbursed, unsophisticated strikes are possible, as well.

The specificity of some of the information and analysis has contributed to the decision to close four U.S. embassies in southeast Asia and to elevate our security at all overseas diplomatic and military facilities. The increased threat level is based on specific intelligence received and analyzed by the full intelligence community.

This information has been corroborated by multiple intelligence sources.

Last year at this time the United States intelligence discerned similar patterns of terrorist threat reporting overseas. In addition, other recent events parallel terrorist activity that occurred in the weeks prior to last year's attacks.

I want to emphasize that the recommendation made today was not made to move to the highest level of alert, an action that would have been triggered by specific, credible intelligence and analysis pointing toward an imminent attack on the United States homeland. At this time, most intelligence focuses on possible attacks on U.S. interests overseas.

As attorney general, I have directed the joint terrorism task forces nationwide -- there are joint terrorism task forces all across America in the various FBI district offices -- I've directed that they coordinate their local response with U.S. attorneys and local anti- terrorism task forces. In addition, I have directed that all relevant information be shared with the joint terrorism task forces in order for federal officials to work effectively and cooperatively with state and local officials.

As we have been forced to do in the past, today we once again call on the American people to remain alert, but defiant in the face of this new threat. We are not -- we are not recommending that events be canceled, nor do we recommend that individuals change domestic travel plans or that the federal workforce not report for duty. We are not making those recommendations.

We ask that Americans both at home and abroad mark the anniversary of last year's savage attacks with a heightened awareness of their environment and the activities occurring around them. This call, which Americans have heard before, is based on specific intelligence that heightened awareness and readiness deters terrorism. Each of us has the ability to increase the security that we need; security for ourselves, security for our families and security for our communities. Today, we call on Americans to exercise this responsibility with special care and vigilance.

Now Governor Ridge will discuss actions which will and can be taken in response to this new information.

Governor Tom Ridge?

TOM RIDGE, DIRECTOR, OFFICE OF HOMELAND SECURITY: Thank you, General.

Good afternoon, ladies and gentlemen.

As the attorney general has announced, we are now at high risk of a terrorist attack, and now we are at level orange. This heightened threat has been or is being communicated to local and state law enforcement, federal agencies, members of Congress, governors, state homeland security advisers, and representatives of the private sector.

The nation's Homeland Security Advisory System provides a national framework to inform and facilitate decisions appropriate to different levels of government, and to private citizens, either at a workplace or at home. The system couples the threat level with protective measures that will be taken to reduce our country's vulnerabilities.

Specific protective measures will be taken by all federal agencies as a result of the decision to raise the threat level to reduce vulnerabilities. All federal agencies have provided to the Office of Homeland Security the protective measures that they had been prepared to adapt to the threat advisory system by the end of August, and included among some of those that these agencies will consider taking in response to the elevation of the threat will be additional security personnel and federal facilities.

At the very least, we want to ensure that security is more visible as a part of deterring terrorist activity. Depending on the department and the area they are tempting to secure, they may engage in increased surveillance, or counter-surveillance operations, may make adjustments as to the number of entry points into buildings.

And if there are strict security procedures associated with access, we're going to encourage every one to make sure that they enforce them to the very letter of the law. No exceptions.

There may be some barriers erected to alter some of the traffic flow. There may be more frequent inspections of people or cars entering federal facilities.

These are just some of the examples of the extra steps that are and will be taken by all federal agencies.

And I might add that in talking with several governors and homeland security advisers just within the past half-hour, some states and organizations, in response to the threat advisory system, had already prepared different protective measures that they would embark upon if we were to raise the level of threat. And we are assembling that information and getting it out to the governors and homeland security advisers and local law enforcement.

At the same time, we are taking these actions at the federal level, governors, mayors, state and local enforcement, as well as private sector managers of the nation's critical infrastructure, will be taking action, as well.

For individual Americans, every citizen -- we know this is a very sobering announcement -- just as federal, state and local officials are taking precautions, we certainly recommend and think there's some commonsense measures that would enhance their security interests, some commonsense precautionary things they should do as well.

I know we've called on them before, but the attorney general, the FBI director and I see on a fairly regular basis what happens with citizen involvement when they are extra vigilant, extra careful, when they become very alert to suspicious activity. And we're going to call on them to maintain that high level of awareness. As the attorney general said, "Be alert, but be defiant."

Let's make sure that every individual citizen who sees something suspicious reports it to either the Joint Terrorism Task Force or their local law enforcement.

Parents may want to have a communication plan and talk to their children and their family about the significance of September 11, and about the possibility that those who would do us harm may choose that date or any time around the commemorative period to do us harm again.

We would encourage employers and employees to know their own emergency plans, to review them, to talk to the governors and the homeland security advisers to put some of their facilities on alert, on call.

Again, there are a lot of very practical, commonsense measures that we will be encouraging and basically giving some direction to the states and locals to take.

Now, beyond these very, very important steps, our advice to America as we engage the local law enforcement, the state law enforcement, the private sector, as we engage everyone who has critical responsibilities to reduce vulnerabilities and protect our homeland, our advice to America is to continue with your plans. If travel is in your plans, attendance at a public event is in your plans, we would like you to proceed; to do as you had planned to do, but be wary and be mindful.

Because of the specific information that we have, very consistent with the pattern of intelligence activity that was detected prior to 9/11, that the recommendation was made to raise the level of alert.

I might add that I don't think America needs to be reminded that we are at war. However, this announcement is a reminder that there are people around the world who would do us harm. And our response is to continue to be America, but to be alert, to be vigilant. We have persevered through this, we'll persevere now, and ultimately we will prevail.

Thank you.

QUESTION: Attorney General, is there any intelligence to suggest that any attacks are planned domestically or is the concern primarily overseas?

ASHCROFT: I would say that the most recent intelligence which has prompted us to issue this change in our status has focused primarily overseas. And frankly part of our interpretation, or part of the analysis of that, is that's very similar to the circumstances that existed a year ago.

QUESTION: It seems like, you know, with the timing of this announcement, was there new information that came into -- that you came into knowledge of, or is this base on just an analysis -- continuing analysis of information that's been out there?

ASHCROFT: Well, in a way, the answer is yes. New information has fed into an analytic structure which has made us take very seriously both the new information and the analysis which leads us to this conclusion.

So information has become available very recently, which, together with the analysis of the general circumstances and the situation, leads us to make this change.

QUESTION: General, how likely do you think that there -- given the significance of this tape, that there will be a terrorist attempt, whether successful or not? Do you expect that something will happen come tomorrow?

ASHCROFT: Well, we really hope that by being alert and by having elevated security, that we default the attempt of any terrorist activities. The primary aspiration that we have is to prevent terrorist attacks.

And we believe that state and local law enforcement, federal authorities, the citizens of this nation working together are the best effort we can make for prevention.

So there is an anomaly here, that if we are most successful with this announcement, we will prevent the attacks which might otherwise exist. And we think that would be a wonderful outcome.

QUESTION: Some of the information from senior al Qaeda operatives which you've operated on in the past and put out alerts have proven to be -- nothing's happened, and so the question has arisen whether or not these al Qaeda operatives have the opportunity to, sort of, scare us or jerk our chain. And obviously have to have consider that in each case.

Is there something different this time?

ASHCROFT: Well, we believe this to be credible information. And the analysis that has been undertaken by the intelligence agencies leads us to conclude that the steps we are taking are appropriate steps in the national interest.

QUESTION: General Ashcroft, you said this was from a senior al Qaeda operative. Can you discuss who that person is and give us any indication of where they're being held and what kind of information they provide?

ASHCROFT: No. Thank you.

QUESTION: General Ashcroft, you said you don't want to cancel events and people should go about -- the government will go about daily lives. Did you at all consider looking at canceling events? And what made you decide not to do that? And how close did you come to the decision of maybe canceling some events?

ASHCROFT: Well, we believe that there is an elevated risk, and we think the best way to help guard against that risk becoming a reality is to share with the American people, and particularly the law enforcement community of the United States and those who have responsibility for defending our infrastructure, the information that's appropriate in that risk to prevent these activities.

I don't believe that the analysis or the information leads us -- has led us at any time to consider the cancellation of events.

If we believed that was appropriate, we would not hesitate to do so.

QUESTION: General, how long do you expect this new elevated status to continue?

ASHCROFT: You know, if we had the ability to define the times at which risks existed, we would just define the time as zero and not have them.

That's just another way of saying that the assessment of the risk will define the duration at which time we assign this level of risk in terms of public awareness.

And we'll constantly be reassessing, and pursuing the leads that come from the kind of information we've received, with a view toward the evaluation of where we are and at what level the risks exist. Obviously, we'd love to see events transpire in such a way as to demonstrate a substantially reduced risk, but we're not at that point yet.

QUESTION: You mentioned energy and transportation, as two vulnerable sectors. Can you be more specific? And why those two sectors?

ASHCROFT: Well, we know historically that transportation has been dramatic way in which the terrorist community has sought to impose its will as opposed to the values expressed in the culture of freedom, whether you're talking about the public transportation of buses and car bombs in the Middle East, or you're talking about the utilization of aircraft in the United States. They're symbolic. They're high-profile, those kinds of things.

And those things that relate to the success and survival of our culture are things that are obvious targets.

I think if you all care to supplement my answer there, I'd be happy to have you do so. But that's what I could say in response to that question.

RIDGE: I think, first of all, there had been a heightened sense of awareness that I think that was occurring within the private sector, as well at the state and local level, just because of the significance that this country places on the public events tomorrow. And there had been several discussions about the importance of the ceremonies tomorrow as we remember, but also the possibility -- although not based on any credible information, human instincts as they are, I think most Americans concluded even in their own mind that if you were thinking like a terrorist, then perhaps, you know, coming back again over the same date might be something you'd want to do.

Now, we don't believe that they do anything other than operate when they're ready. No particular urgency attached to a symbolic date, but when you attach the symbolic date with specific information that has been corroborated, coupled with a similar pattern of activity almost a year ago, you put those three things together and you say for the time being we best raise the level of awareness in this country.

We have continued to make improvements in the transportation community, particularly with an eye toward aviation and for -- there will be certain things that'll be done. We can't share with you publicly with regard to aviation, but every air marshal available will be available and flying over the next several days. That's just one of the responses that we're going to undertake as we elevate the threat level.

QUESTION: General Ashcroft, you mentioned car bombs. Is that pretty much the worst case scenario or is there a concern, particularly on this date, of a terrorist action that might have far greater destruction?

ASHCROFT: Well, I think we are very concerned about a full range of terrorist activities.

One of the characteristics of the pre-9/11 period from a year ago was that there was a lot of traffic, if you will, that related to conventional terrorist activities, and yet very shortly thereafter, or in the virtual same time frame, dramatically new unheard of activities were engaged in.

So we believe that we know from our intelligence activities that have been well-reported that the terrorist community has been very active in a wide variety of terrorism potentials, and while car bombs are a very significant part -- car bombs, truck bombs, explosive devices -- we also know that the terrorist community has been interested, and al Qaeda in specific, and their associates have been interested in a wide range of terrorist devices.

QUESTION: (OFF-MIKE)

ASHCROFT: I think they're well-understood. I don't mean to -- if I made any specification today it would not be for purposes of associating them with the elevated alert today.

But we have seen that the terrorist community has done research in biological, evil biology, evil chemistry and the dispersion of radiological contaminants and the like. And those have been the subject of previous endeavors. And, frankly, when we elevate this alert we want to remain cognizant of the fact that we're dealing with a complex capacity, with an organization of international reach, and whose -- while we have improved our capacity to defend immeasurably, and while we have impaired their capacity in some measure, we also realize that they still have the capacity to operate.

QUESTION: If your concern is mainly targets -- U.S. targets overseas, by waiting until the day before the anniversary, are you not cutting it, kind of, close, in terms of the preparation that Americans overseas, or U.S. corporations or others overseas could be doing for the planning?

ASHCROFT: Well, I think I want you all to be cognizant of what prompted this change. I hope that we made it clear that this change is based on an analysis of intelligence that -- some of which very recently became available, which prompted us to work rapidly to make this change.

And we have seen a rather prompt response to this by our own State Department, in its activities regarding its embassies and the various settings around the world. And we'll do everything we can to give the American people, both at home and abroad, a level of notice which will allow them to maximize their capacity to make the adjustments that are appropriate and necessary.

QUESTION: When you say recent, do you mean hours? Do you mean days?

ASHCROFT: Yes.

Thank you very much, thank you.

(CROSSTALK)

QUESTION: Which one?

ASHCROFT: Well, within the last 24 hours, we have had additional information that's been very, very valuable to us, and significant.

Thank you.

PHILLIPS: If you are just tuning in to CNN, you are watching breaking news. We have been following the terror alert code, which has been elevated to high alert, just one below severe, the highest it can go. You had been listening to John Ashcroft, attorney general - also Tom Ridge, director of Homeland Security -- as they address reporters and Americans watching this news conference live on CNN.

The good news is even though the terror alert code has been elevated a level, John Ashcroft making it very clear he wants Americans to go on with their everyday lives as they plan to doing so with regard to events and travel and going to work on September 11.

We're going to it bring in our John King from the White House. He is also monitoring -- was monitoring -- this news conference, brings us more information.

John, I know you have more information about the vice president and how he has been in a secret location. But i find it very interesting in that the event he is canceling tonight, yet John Ashcroft and Tom Ridge going on and telling to us go on with life in normal ways.

JOHN KING, CNN SENIOR WHITE HOUSE CORRESPONDENT: Kyra, a very different set of what they call continuity of government protocols when it comes to the safety and the security of the president and the vice president.

A lot to process from that news conference. Let's give a bit of new information to our viewers as well. We know the president signed off on this this morning after a presentation from the CIA Director George Tenet. Our David Ensor reporting that this new information from a senior al Qaeda operative does not come from a name that has become familiar in recent months. Abu Zabeda (ph) is a senior al Qaeda official in U.S. custoduy, David Ensor reporting that this is new information from another senior al Qaeda operative, who is in the custody of another nation, a frienly government, who as the attorney general said just as he walked out of room in the past 24 hours of so has passed on new information to his government -- to the government in which he is in the custody -- which has then passed it on to the United States. And after analyzing that information, the CIA obiously deems this threat as quite credible.

As you noted, the attorney general and the homeland security director saying everyday Americans should go about their lives. The ceremonies planned across the country tomorrow are not being canceled, becuase they do not believe that greatest risk is here in the United States.

But Vice President Cheney becuase of this increased threat level has changed his routine. The vice president stayed last night at a secure location. He did not go to a public with the president last night because those security protocols say the president and the vice president should not be together at the same time. We are told the Vice president has send a videotape to a group he was supposed to address here in Washington tonight, and he has already left the White House grounds to go once again to that secure and undisclosed location.

And Kyra, all of this playing out a great deal of focus in recent days on the president's lobbying effort to build a new coalition for a future front in the war on terrorism: confronting Saddam Hussein, a telling, compelling reminder today that the first front of that war is still being fought against the al Qaeda network. That was one of the issues we discussed with the president's national security adviser, Condoleezza Rice, as part of your own September 11 anniversary coverage one year later, Condoleezza Rice telling CNN much progress has been made in dismantling al Qaeda, but she also acknowledges much more still to be done.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

CONDOLEEZZA RICE, NATIONAL SECURITY ADVISER: Right now, we're in a phase in which we are helping others to root out al Qaeda and associated organizations. It's also a time when we're dealing with the fact that they scattered into other places, a little bit like roaches. So we are in a hunting phase of having to hunt them down.

But I think that best news is that this coalition, of civilized nations is so broad, and the intelligence and law enforcement network so proud, that we have a lot of partners in this effort.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

KING: One of those partners passing this new information on to the United States, this threat that has forced the United States to lift the threat, to level the assessment of the threat of domestic terrorism here in the United States. Again, though, officials stressing, based on everything they have before them, they believe the threat is focused on U.S. Installations overseas, but because they thought that one year ago, on September 10, they have decided to put people on alert here in the United States as well, out of an abundance of caution -- Kyra.

PHILLIPS: John King, at the White House. Thanks, John.

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