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CNN LIVE EVENT/SPECIAL

Operation Liberty Shield

Aired March 18, 2003 - 10:32   ET

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

CAROL COSTELLO, CNN ANCHOR: Homeland Security Director Tom Ridge -- let's listen.
TOM RIDGE, HOMELAND SECURITY SECY.: ... to increase security and readiness in the United States. This comprehensive, national plan of action will help protect our citizens, our infrastructure and, very importantly, help deter those who plan further terrorist attack.

Liberty Shield is a unified operation that integrates selected national protective measures with the involvement, and I might add terrific support of federal, state, local and private responders and authorities from around the country.

Last night we contacted all state governors, all state homeland security advisers, and leaders from other state, county and local organizations, as well as the private sector, and reviewed these measures with them. I specifically asked the nation's governors to deploy National Guard and other law enforcement personnel at critical locations around their respective states.

Now, Operation Liberty Shield focuses on the following imperatives.

We will increase security at our borders. There will be more Coast Guard, air and sea patrols off our shores and in our ports, more escorts of passenger ships and hundreds of more agents and resources on the border.

We will strengthen security for our transportation systems. There will be more security at airports and rail facilities around the country. Amtrak and other private railroad companies will implement security measures to protect passengers and hazardous cargo. New flight restrictions have temporarily been put in place over certain U.S. cities.

We will continue measures to disrupt threats to our nation. The FBI, the Department of Justice and the Department of Homeland Security are working closely to identify and stop those who would facilitate terrorist activity through fund-raising, logistical support and recruitment.

We will protect our critical infrastructure. There will be increased Coast Guard patrols near our key petroleum and chemical facilities and more security at facilities handling radioactive materials.

We will continue to monitor the Internet for signs of a potential terrorist attack, cyber-terrorism, hacking and state-sponsored information warfare.

And the Department of Treasury has taken steps to protect our financial network and payment systems.

We will increase disease surveillance and food security.

RIDGE: The Department of Health and Human Services has alerted state and local health departments, hospitals and medical care providers to report any unusual disease or disease patterns.

RIDGE: There will be greater inspection of imported food. The Department of Agriculture has alerted employees and representatives throughout the food and agricultural community to take extra precautions to monitor feed lots, stockyards, processing plants, import and storage areas.

And finally, our response and recovery teams and resources throughout our nation are mobilized, in position and ready.

Now, we have taken these actions because intelligence reporting indicates that while Al Qaida and those sympathetic to their cause are still a principal threat -- the principal threat -- Iraqi state agents, Iraqi surrogate groups, other regional extremist organizations and ad hoc groups or disgruntled individuals may use this time period to conduct terrorist attacks against the United States and our interests either here or abroad.

The increase in the threat level is a signal to law enforcement, government officials at all levels and representatives of the private sector to implement specific protective measures, just as they have done on two previous occasions.

In response to the question of individual Americans: What do I do? First and foremost, again, we encourage you to be informed. Some good sources of information to learn what emergency precautions you can take are the ready.gov web site.

Now, in addition, your support and participation in reporting potential threats or suspicious activities to federal, state or local law enforcement authorities add significantly to our defense.

Lastly, during this period of heightened alert there is bound to be misinformation. Don't react to rumors. We will strive to get the facts out as soon as we can.

Let me close by saying your federal government is ready, professionals at all levels are ready, those in your states and in your communities and those in the private sector. And because of this very comprehensive, very coordinated effort, America is ready.

Thank you very much.

Yes?

QUESTION: Can you tell us more about the detentions of asylum seekers, how many (OFF-MIKE) will be detained, from how many countries, and how long do you expect (OFF-MIKE)?

RIDGE: The detention of asylum seekers is basically predicated on one basic notion.

RIDGE: We just want to make sure that those who are seeking asylum, number one, are who they say they are. And two, are legitimately seeking refuge in our country because of political repression at home, not because they choose to cause us harm or bring destruction to our shores.

So again, the detention will be constructed around that purpose.

QUESTION: And from how many nations will they be?

RIDGE: Pardon me?

QUESTION: How many nations are included in that list of...

RIDGE: Well, we'd be looking, obviously, scrutinizing all asylum seekers at this time. But there are countries who we believe are supportive of Al Qaida or countries where we know there's an Al Qaida network or other terrorist organizations. And it'll be those countries we're looking at specifically.

QUESTION: I'd like to follow up on that. How many people do you know will be affected and for how long? And if you could elaborate a little bit more on what is the precedent for detaining people for when you have no specific suspicion that they are terrorists. And why take that extreme act?

RIDGE: Well, this approach has been done in the past. Last year, I think in 2002, given the category of countries we're talking about, those who where we know there are known existing terrorist organizations, Al Qaida and others, I think there were about 600 people that were temporarily detained and about I think 60 percent of them were Iraqis.

So again, the purpose behind the temporary detention is fairly straightforward. We want to make absolutely certain during this period of time you are who you say you are and you're coming to this country that invites people from around the world, that has been open and welcoming to people around the world, but if you're seeking asylum for political purposes we want to make absolutely certain that that's why you're here.

Yes?

QUESTION: Secretary, state officials last night said that they were told that there was a near certainty of an attack. Do you believe that's an accurate statement, near certainty of an attack? RIDGE: Well, I think the message was, we know we have been attacked before. We know that our interests have been attacked abroad. And we should prepare for potential attacks, either here or abroad at this time.

And if you just need to categorize it as saying that it's our responsibility, whether we're at the federal government, state government or local government, to be prepared for any attempted attack against our interests. And that's exactly what this coordinated national effort is designed to do.

Yes?

QUESTION: Aside from the steps the federal government is taking, a lot of the steps you are asking the states and local governments to take as well as the private sector and Amtrak, for example, are very expensive. It's becoming a refrain over and over again that they can't afford these kinds of steps.

Did you hear that last night? And how much of a concern is it for you about how long they can maintain this kind of security?

RIDGE: The first priority that everyone accepted last night, without hesitation, was the need to work together to make sure that we implemented Liberty Shield. No one asked about additional finances.

Now, the president has said there would be a supplemental. And under those circumstances there may be an opportunity to help the states.

RIDGE: But I must tell you that last night, when we had the conference call with the governors, and then we went back to the individual states and their homeland security advisers, everybody understood the number one priority is to protect America and our way of life.

And we'll see what happens in terms of whether there's an ability to share or defray some of these costs at the federal level at a later time. Time will tell.

QUESTION: Secretary Ridge, you talked about increasing security at petrochemical plants, Coast Guard patrols and so forth, the waterways. The General Accounting Office is coming out with a report today saying, orange alert or not, security at these plants is -- there are no federal regulations requiring as far as anti-terrorism measures, and that it's just absolute abysmal. There are at least 123 that are nearby populations where if a plant was blown up people would be significantly harmed by debris or fallout from those petrochemical plants.

How concerned are you about terrorist attacks on those facilities?

RIDGE: Well, there is no question that when we take a look at a chemical facility, the possibility that terrorists could use that economic asset and turn it into a weapon is something that we need to be concerned about and are concerned about, and it was the subject of conversations last night with governors. But I would share with you that the GAO is concerned about it, and rightly so; so is the federal government; so are the governors; so are the chemical companies.

One of the areas where we are coordinating our efforts is enhanced security around these facilities in the days ahead. So it is a legitimate concern, but it is not unknown to everyone responsible for security measures around those facilities. And additional security measures will be taken.

QUESTION: We're going up to orange again very soon after the last time, but this time we're hearing a lot about security in the food industry, taking extra precautions with feed lots and storage and transportation of foodstuffs. Is there a particular reason why you're concerned about our food?

RIDGE: Well, I think the Department of Agriculture and the food and agricultural industry since September 11 have elevated security and have taken additional precautionary measures. I know it's certainly something that the secretary of agriculture has directed and led. And again, as we put together a coordinated national effort to enhance security, we identified potential problems within agriculture in the community.

So again, it's with the notion that we have a national plan, clearly a basic staple of our existence are food and food processing, and working with the secretary of agriculture and the private sector just to make sure that the preventive measures that they've undertaken in the past are sustained and, depending on the facility, enhanced, is part of our objective.

I think what we need to understand, and hopefully -- that we need to remind ourselves from time to time that bin Laden and Al Qaida and the network of terrorists around the world have historically targeted the broadest possible range of economic interest, national interest, symbolic interest in our country.

RIDGE: I dare say, if you went back and take a look at the list of threats that have -- generic threats, generic targets that we've heard from bin Laden and Al Qaida and the network the past 17 months, you'll find just about everything that we view as assets and very important to our way of life has been included in that on a list somewhere.

And so, again, as we developed Liberty Shield, taking the broadest possible approach to ensuring that there was a level of precaution, a level of prevention, a level of security, again, across all national interest, was at the heart of what we were trying to do.

Yes?

QUESTION: Secretary, you mentioned increasing security in the border. As we get close to a war with Iraq, how vulnerable is the border with Mexico and Canada? And if you will be willing to deploy the National Guard to secure the border, whether it's for 48 hours, for 24 hours, have you considered that?

RIDGE: One of the phone calls we made last night was to our counterparts in Canada and Mexico. And even before last night, my counterpart in Mexico, Secretary Creel, had said that his government would do everything they can, with us or in the interior part of their country, to protect American citizens and American interests. At the present time, we are redeploying assets, personnel and other assets at the borders, but we, at this juncture, don't envision more National Guard. We have more agents there than we had on September 12, 2001, when we had that enormous backlog.

But we believe, working with our counterparts in Mexico and Canada, who volunteered to work closely with us, we're going to do everything we can to minimize the inconvenience. The president of Mexico and the prime minister of Canada, we all want to make sure that we minimize the inconvenience for legitimate people and legitimate goods. But we have two willing partners, and I think we can get the enhanced security we need through continued cooperation with our partners.

Yes?

QUESTION: Sir, you described the expulsion of people you concluded were Iraqi agents. Can you describe how many, when and what your suspicions about them were? Who are these people? RIDGE: I think it's best to let the FBI comment on that. They did, as you know, consider a couple of those assigned diplomatically as persona non grata and exited and showed them the door, and I think they could be better positioned to explain to you the specifics of that.

QUESTION: Mr. Secretary, this Liberty Shield is clearly the most comprehensive response yet. How much of that is due to just the fact that you had a longer time to prepare yourself for this? How much of it is due to specific threat information?

RIDGE: You're right, it has taken a while to prepare, but more importantly, it is executed because of what we've learned through the intelligence community and what bin Laden has said, particularly in recent weeks.

You know, we've maintained an elevated level of threat and on two occasions took it to orange. On those occasions, there was specific credible information; one was we were also concerned about the holiday. Remember, the one-year anniversary of the attack on September 11. The second, there was specific information and the Muslim holy period of the Hajj.

This instance we have again not only continued credible information from within the intelligence community, but bin Laden himself has said in recent weeks that military action in Iraq would be a rallying cry, a potential call to others, not just to Al Qaida, but to others.

RIDGE: So again, I think America wants us to be prepared. America wants us to take precautionary measures. But we need to understand it's all predicated upon what bin Laden and the terrorists have said and what they've claimed they will do under certain sorts of circumstances. And it's our job to be prepared.

QUESTION: Mr. Secretary, this is a long laundry list, but how much of this is actually new? Is this threat level orange different than the previous threat level orange is? And secondly, a lot of this is urging the private sector to do something, asking the private sector to do something. How confident are you that the private sector will do their part?

RIDGE: Well, first of all, as you know, there is a range of activities we call upon government and others to do depending on the level of threat. And historically, on the two occasions we've raised it to orange before, we saw a robust response from government and response from the private sector.

But if you take a look at, for example, what we would do at ports under an orange, there would be, obviously, an enhancement of patrol activity, there would be a repositioning of assets. We just escalated that somewhat. There's going to be more patrols. There'll be more activity at the ports. At the borders, we do certain things when we go to orange. But this is in addition to the things we would normally do at orange. We're going to reposition people and assets.

Again, we engage the governors and the private sector to work together to protect critical pieces of infrastructure around the country. And we will be monitoring and working with the governors and the private sector to see that these critical pieces of infrastructure, many of which are assets to our economy, but if -- a terrorist attack could turn it into the equivalent of a weapon of mass destruction. We will monitor that activity and make sure the security enhancements we think are necessary are being implemented.

QUESTION: What is going to be the impact on the traveling public and on commerce of these measures? Do you expect long lines at airports, again, long lines at...

RIDGE: We're going to do everything possible to minimize the convenience to citizens and the disruption to commerce. Clearly, many of the things that we've done over the past year-plus, particularly the addition of technology at our borders and at our airports, trained baggage screeners and trained personnel to check the passengers. So we've done a lot of things even prior to this occasion to facilitate travel and to facilitate commerce. And again, as we implement these measures it is with an eye toward doing everything we can to keep that disruption to a minimum.

QUESTION: Mr. Secretary, what is being done different in Liberty Shield at airports and airspace? And do you think that civil aviation is particularly threatened? The airline industry is suffering economically tremendously from the situation.

RIDGE: Again, we build on the foundation that has been built over the past year. If I might, just a little history with regard to the aviation industry. If you take a look at the layered defenses we now have in place or in the process of being put into place to protect the aviation public, we begin the training for the pilots in the cockpits with firearms. Then you've got the hardened cockpit doors. You have training for the flight attendants. You have more federal air marshals.

You come outside the airplane itself and you have technology, 100 percent inspection of baggage, you have new trained inspectors for passengers.

You've enhanced airport security outside the perimeter. There will be additional random inspections of vehicles. And potentially, depending on the airport, some limitations of ingress and egress into the airport.

But by and large, over a period of time -- and that's what America is doing -- over a period of time we strengthen ourselves. And one of the best examples is the aviation industry.

Yes?

QUESTION: Yes, Governor, you mentioned last week some concern about suicide bombers. And I just wondered what in Liberty Shield is specifically directed towards protection...

RIDGE: I mentioned last week in response to a very appropriate question about the difficulty of defending against that kind of attack. And I think we're quite aware of that particular challenge.

And I think the most effective means will be, one, if we have specific information about an individual or location we can respond to it. But I think here's where the public's awareness, the public's alertness, its sensitivity to its own surroundings could be of assistance as well.

I think it's pretty clear, given circumstances that we've all learned about and unfortunately have even witnessed the repercussions on television in international venues, it's one of the most difficult forms of terrorism against which we would be called upon to protect ourselves and our communities.

QUESTION: Mr. Secretary, can you talk a little bit about the situation right now on the mall near the Vietnam Memorial? Are you monitoring the situation? Is there any sign that this is terrorism? And what would you say to people who raise concerns that if a seemingly unconnected lone individual can cause such disruption in Washington that perhaps our homeland security system is not really ready to protect us from a coordinated attack?

RIDGE: Well, first of all, I would say that the local law enforcement, and now in conjunction working with the FBI, are handling it appropriately.

Secondly, there's nothing for us to indicate at this time that it is in any way connected with the kind of terrorism that we're talking about right now.

Thirdly, I would tell you that under any set of circumstances, I suspect that the local law enforcement community and the FBI would have responded to an individual who claims to have an explosive device in a similar fashion.

So the fact of the matter is, is that again the collaboration between or among the different levels of law enforcement since September 11 continues to get better. And when it gets better, our country gets safer and stronger.

Yes?

QUESTION: Mr. Secretary, you talked about strengthening borders and putting more agents out there, but for the past couple of years the Border Patrol has had a lot of trouble filling its ranks, even hiring people the Congress authorized. Where are you getting these agents? And how well are they trained to be able to handle the borders?

COSTELLO: We're going to break away from Tom Ridge and go to our reporters live in the field. We have three standing by right now, Suzanne Malveaux at the White House, Patty Davis at Reagan National Airport, and Jason Carroll, who is live in New York.

We're going to begin with you, Suzanne Malveaux.

In essence, what Tom Ridge is saying is that citizens will see more National Guard troops at monuments, maybe at airports. Can you see any increased security around Washington right now, Suzanne?

SUZANNE MALVEAUX, CNN WHITE HOUSE CORRESPONDENT: Absolutely. It was a huge change just walking to the White House, all of us in the White House press corps, as well as staffers, had to present our press passes about a block away from the White House complex, the grounds here. We have noticed that the perimeter, essentially, has been moved back about a block, so you're talking about Pennsylvania Avenue now blocked off between 15th and 17th Streets, as well as you have the other streets as well, East Street blocked off. This is essentially so that pedestrians are not able to get around the perimeter of the white house.

This is clearly something -- it was blocked off to vehicular traffic after the Oklahoma City Bombing, Pennsylvania Avenue. Now not even pedestrians can walk through. We have also been told that the White House tours have been suspended until further notice. So it is quite obvious that just overnight things have radically changed.

COSTELLO: Yes, just like after September 11th. Suzanne Malveaux, many thanks.

LEON HARRIS, CNN ANCHOR: Well, now to our Patty Davis, who's standing by at Reagan National Airport, a place where folks are used to, or at least accustomed to making changes in their travel schedules due to security schedules.

Patty, what are you seeing there? Due to travel concerns, what are you seeing here?

PATTY DAVIS, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Well, we are seeing additional security measures here at the Reagan International Airport, because of this orange alert. Specifically as you drive into the airport, what you see is a big lighted sign, "all vehicles subject to inspection." That's part of the TSA's beefing up of security under the orange alert. All vehicles at all airports are subject to random inspection. You also see here at the airport more police patrols inside, probably just in one little area, about the USAirways counter area, plus seven additional police officers.

You will see at other airports in increased canine patrols, those bomb-sniffing dogs. And something new that they're adding this time under the orange alert here at airports across the country, temporary signs are going to go up warning passengers to be alert for threats, watch for suspicious behavior, watch for luggage that looks suspicious to you, that's unattended. So look for all those things and report them to the airport authorities.

Now, TSA says, though, that it is ready to boost these measures or change them and depending on what the threat level is.

You will also see today additional airspace restrictions in Washington D.C. and New York City. The FAA has not yet issued those. We're expecting those at some point this afternoon -- Leon.

HARRIS: Good deal. Thanks, Patty. We'll watch for those.

Patty Davis, reporting live from Reagan National Airport in Washington -- Carol.

COSTELLO: Let's take you to New York City and Jason Carroll.

What do you see there, Jason, as far as security measures go?

JASON CARROLL, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Well, New Yorkers have been seeing added security for quite some time. We have been under the equivalent of a heightened state of alert since 9-111, but they have an added security plan called "Operation Atlas." A senior law enforcement official telling CNN that certain portions of Operation Atlas went into effect right after President Bush's speech last night. What it basically does, is it provides for several hundred additional police officers to monitor sensitive sites, such as the one where we're sitting right now. This is an entrance to a tunnel here, so what they're going to be doing is, you can see there's a checkpoint right over there. We've been seeing any checkpoint before.

Under Operation Atlas, you would see even additional officers out there. So in addition to the tunnels, there will also be added security at the bridges, at the subways, also at the major avenues leading inside Manhattan. Officers from Operation Atlas come from several different departments within the New York City Police Department, including counterterrorism, as well as transportation.

Back to you.

COSTELLO: Jason Carroll, reporting live for us from New York City. Thanks.

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