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Nation's Alert System Being Left Unchanged

Aired November 18, 2002 - 07:33   ET


PAULA ZAHN, CNN ANCHOR: Despite new terror threats, the nation's alert system is being left unchanged from yellow. The Bush administration is downplaying a new, six page letter allegedly from al Qaeda that warns of more attacks in Washington and New York.
Frank Buckley joins us now live from the White House with more -- but, first, Frank, is there any White House reaction to the arrival of weapons inspectors in Baghdad?

FRANK BUCKLEY, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Well, Paula, not just yet. But we know that White House officials are pleased with the fact that the inspections are soon to get under way, as early as November 27th. The start date could have been much later than that. White House officials believe they will know fairly quickly whether or not Iraq and Saddam Hussein intend to comply with the U.N. Security Council resolution.

As they monitor Iraq, they are also fending off criticism, as you say, about the war on terror, specifically about the terror bulletin that came out late last week and another alert that went to hospitals last week. The "New York Times" editorialized on this over the weekend, saying that the Bush administration was issuing Chicken Little alerts that warned that the sky was falling.

And also over the weekend, yet another threat came, allegedly from al Qaeda. It came through Al Jazeera, the satellite television network. The reporter there who received this, Yusry Fawda (ph), has interviewed top al Qaeda operatives in the past. That letter reads, in part, "Stop your support for Israel against the Palestinians, for Russians against the Chechens. Lave us alone or expect us in Washington and New York."

CNN has no way of verifying the authenticity of that, but Tom Ridge was asked about it over the weekend. He's the homeland security director. He said the threat is nothing new and that Washington and New York are always considered potential targets. With regard to the criticisms, Tom Ridge said that the department is doing the best it can to get as much information as it can to state and local law enforcement agencies and that intelligence is rarely that specific and that if they do have some more specific information, they will pass that along -- Paula.

ZAHN: So, Frank, how sensitive is the administration to this criticism like you -- I know you just pointed out that the "New York Times," the so-called Chicken Little alert -- and charges that perhaps it's just trying to cover its back side. BUCKLEY: Well, that's certainly one of the criticisms that is being thrown in the way of the administration. The administration quite sensitive to it. I had quite a long discussion yesterday with one of Ridge's aides, who was saying that the department is evolving and it's doing its best to try to respond to the state and local law enforcement agencies. You had one of the criticisms from the Baltimore police commissioner just a few moments ago.

They are trying to respond to that by changing the culture of getting information to state and local law enforcement agencies. But this aide was saying that the local departments have to meet them half way on this road, that they, as they give them more information in the form of, for example, the terror alert that went out Thursday that said that there could be spectacular attacks on the U.S., that they have to understand that this is the nature of raw intelligence.

It's, they put out a lot of information. It may not say this is going to happen on this particular day, and if they have that kind of specificity, they will actually stop the attack from happening.

ZAHN: Frank Buckley, thanks so much.

Appreciate the update.

Now, how far should the U.S. government go in the name of security? Well, the "New York Times" is saying that the Bush administration will actually begin monitoring Iraqis living in the United States to guard against terror threats and possibly recruit informants.


TOM RIDGE, HOMELAND SECURITY DIRECTOR: If the president makes a decision to engage Iraq with the military, additional security precautions will have to be taken in this country.


ZAHN: The policy has drawn fire from Arab-American groups, who call it profiling. But is it necessary for national security?

Joining us now to debate that, from Washington, is Jean Abi Nader, president of Ideacom and former head of the U.S.-Arab Chamber of Commerce. And from Atlanta this morning, we are joined by Daniel Pipes, director of the Middle East Forum.

Good to see both of you.



ZAHN: Jean, I'm going to start with you this morning and have you take a look at a little bit of what we believe the plan to be by the administration. It reportedly consists of electronically monitoring potentially, potential threats within our borers, voluntary interviews of Arab-Americans, keeping an eye on money transfers from Iraq as well as recruiting informers.

We're going to leave this up for a second.

What part of this plan bugs you the most, Jean?

JEAN ABI NADER, PRESIDENT, IDEACOM: Well, I don't think it's the plan itself. I think it's the way this administration goes about trying to develop enhanced national security. The Arab-American community from the beginning has been on board. We've met with the Justice Department and we continue to meet with them on a regular basis.

But the real answer is working with the community, not dropping these policies out through the press to say we're going to enhance security, and, by the way, we're going to be looking at you for the next couple of months.

We went through this exercise during the first Gulf War. And the real question to me is what have we learned? Do we know who the leaders are that we can go to in the communities around this country and work with them to find out who are the people that are behaving in ways that fit our concerns about threats to national security?

ZAHN: All right...

ABI NADER: But this doing policy by press release doesn't seem to make sense to me.

ZAHN: All right, so you're saying if they had handled it differently and maybe come to community leaders and shared this information with you, you wouldn't have had as big of a problem. I mean is there anything you're opposed to on that list we just showed?

ABI NADER: Well, I think the reality here is, as opposed to during the first Gulf War, is we have all these enhanced investigative procedures under the USA Patriot Act that have very little oversight. So, in fact, if we're going to go ahead with this policy, then we also have to make sure we have oversight, either by local law enforcement officials, by Congress or by the I.G. and the Justice Department, to make sure there aren't abuses, which are very possible underneath the USA Patriot Act.

ZAHN: Daniel Pipes, what is the potential of abuse here given these guidelines?

PIPES: Well, Paula, I think what we have here is not a policy by press release, but a leak. And it is not clear that we know the entire program. Certainly whenever there is enhanced security precautions there is the possibility of abuse. No question. I certainly agree with Mr. Abi Nadir that it's a good idea to work with the Arab-American community. I agree with them that it's a good idea to have oversight.

But I think the key question here is is the federal government doing the right thing by having enhanced security? And to which my answer is absolutely yes. I breathe a sigh of relief when I see that the government is going to look very carefully at Iraqis, at Iraqi- Americans, the sympathizers of Iraq, to be sure that they don't engage in some form of sabotage or terrorism.

ZAHN: So, Daniel, what is your concern, though, down the road about a potential erosion of one's civil liberties?

PIPES: I'm not basically concerned about this, Paula. I look at over two centuries of American history and I see that in war time there is a restriction on civil liberties and I see that those generally have been justified and I see that after the war is over, those are ended.

So if we go through that now, so be it. I mean I don't like it any more than you do or Mr. Abi Nadir does. I've been traveling a lot. I don't like putting my arms out and being frisked. I don't like the enhanced security personally. But I always have to remind myself that it's not my personal sensibilities and delicacies that count here, it's the security of the aircraft or the security of the country.

ZAHN: Daniel, before I let Jean respond here, are you saying, then, that you -- as uncomfortable as this may make all of us, that you are in favor of any kind of racial profiling?

PIPES: I'm absolutely in favor of using all sorts of profiling, whatever is necessary for the police, for law enforcement to intelligently and sensibly approach the problem of preventing terrorism. If that means using their intelligence and looking more at 20 years olds than 90 year olds, looking more at males than females, looking more at people of Arab origin than non-Arab origin, looking more at one rather than the other, I'm absolutely in favor of it. I don't want them to blind themselves in order to protect the delicacies and thereby have an increased chance of terrorism taking place.

ZAHN: John, your reaction to all of that?

ABI NADER: You know, I think the key words are intelligently and sensibly. I think there's a real confusion in the government between those people who are opposed to the war and those people who are pro- Saddam. We went through this exercise 11 years ago. What did we learn from that exercise? And so we don't start a harassment of the Iraqi-American community. Remember, most of the Iraqis who are here came fleeing from regimens in Iraq over the past 60 years. These people are committed to the American society. We have to work with them and understand how they can help us enhance national security, not put them under targets that make them feel intimidated and subject to abuse by their fellow Americans.

ZAHN: John, we have 10 seconds left. Do you believe that if the proper oversight position is put into place that this could be handled, as Daniel said, with sensitivity and integrity?

ABI NADER: We've already lost the initiative on this. We need to go back to the Arab-American community, the Iraqi-American community and say OK, how do we do this in partnership and that the president be very clear that this is not a campaign against Iraqi- Americans, but to enhance our national security with their cooperation.

ZAHN: Jean Abi Nadir and Daniel Pipes, thank you for both of your perspectives -- but I can't talk this morning -- perspectives. That's what I meant to say. I really appreciate both of you dropping by.

PIPES: Thank you, Paula.


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