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Threat Level Raised to Orange

Aired May 20, 2003 - 19:00   ET


BILL HEMMER, ANCHOR: Let's go back to our terror alert right now and take you across the country right now as we continue to examine the fallout from the announcement earlier today. Live pictures today from San Francisco, Seattle, New York, City and in Chicago.
What does it mean to the White House? Chris Burns right now, who can bring us up-to-date there. Chris, good evening.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Hand cue a minute ago.

HEMMER: Chris, if you can hear me, Bill Hemmer. We're on the air. Good evening. What's the White House saying?

CHRIS BURNS, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Bill, this threat level is raised -- is the reason of a number of factors. This level raised as the second highest. It is the orange level, the high level, the second highest, and this is only the fourth time that it has reached that level in the last 14 months of that threat level existence.

Now what is the significance of this? They reached this agreement today in a meeting here at the White House. The Homeland Security Council headed by Tom Ridge. Here is his decision, the one that President Bush signed off on and he reached that because of the elevated chatter among various suspected terrorist groups in Saudi Arabia and elsewhere, pointing to what the officials here say, an elevated amount of activity, in operational activity by al Qaeda.

Also, the attacks happening in Saudi Arabia and in Morocco in recent dates and looking ahead to this next weekend, the Memorial Day weekend in the United States, it will be not only a lot of hard targets, of government targets, but also soft targets, a lot of large gatherings of people, marking Memorial Day. Also a lot of sports events, the NBA playoffs and so forth, and that is what officials are very, very worried about.

Now they say that this chatter does not specifically mention any specific attacks, but they do say to watch out for certain things. And in this threat level announcement they say to watch out for small- arm equipped assault teams. These are attacks that have been done in the past. Large vehicle-borne explosive devices, car bombs, truck bombs and suicide bombers.

These attacks underscore terrorist desires, they say, to attack soft targets, weapons of mass destruction including those containing chemical, biological or radiological agents or materials cannot be discounted. Now we've talked to Ari Fleischer, the White House spokesman, earlier today after the fact that President Bush has said in recent speeches that half of al Qaeda has been wiped out; although the other half remains very active.

Will he be forced to eat his words that the tide has been turned against al Qaeda? Here's Ari Fleischer.


ARI FLEISCHER, WHITE HOUSE SPOKESMAN: What the president said is the tide has turned you know, tides have a way of coming in and going out. And in the next sentence the president said al Qaeda has been diminished, but not destroyed. And that's what we are seeing. We know that there are terrorist organizations, including al Qaeda, that still desire to hit us.


BURNS: Now there's no indication it goes out to state and local governments, as well as the general population being told to be very vigilant coming up on this weekend -- Bill.

HEMMER: Chris Burns from the front lawn. Chris, thanks for that.

The rash of suicide attacks we've seen overseas in recent days could highlight the word, providing a nasty preview of what terrorists could be planning here in the U.S.

The tactics, intelligence officials now worry, will be to go after so-called soft targets. Tonight, David Ensor explains the definition of soft.


DAVID ENSOR, CNN CORRESPONDENT (voice-over): The decision to go on high alert in the United States is based on, intelligence officials say, suggesting al Qaeda is trying to organize another serious attack or attacks in this country.

ASA HUTCHINSON, HOMELAND SECURITY UNDERSECRETARY: Vigilance in and of itself is a deterrent to terrorist activity. Obviously, we urge the American public if they see anything suspicious, to call their local FBI office.

BRUCE HOFFMAN, RAND TERRORISM ANALYST: This, I think, forces the terrorists, in turn, to realize that the United States has ratcheted up the threat level and is more prepared is, in fact, defending itself better than in the normal course of events.

ENSOR: U.S. officials are concerned al Qaeda or others may try to use the tactics so well known in Israel or in India, Britain or Spain. Attacks on so-called soft targets, using vehicles filled with explosives or suicide bombers. It would be the same tactics arriving on American shores that we've just seen used in Saudi Arabia and in Morocco.

HUTCHINSON: When we see a pattern of activity overseas, directed at the United States targets. We certainly have to be aware that there remains that potential of use of those type of tactics here in the United States.

ENSOR: U.S. defense officials tell CNN's Barbara Starr that some of the intelligence leading to the decision comes from intercepted communications. Since the Riyadh attacks, intelligence officials declined comment on that.

HOFFMAN: We know that terrorists are constantly probing, poking, attempting to identify and then to exploit vulnerabilities. So this really is a call that we have to be eternally vigilant.

ENSOR: The decision is, first and foremost, a signal to state and local law enforcement to increase vigilance against terror and beef up protection of key installations and large gatherings. Especially large gatherings.


ENSOR: One knowledgeable U.S. official said the intelligence concerning threats both to the U.S. and to targets elsewhere is not specific, but it is credible. He also called it, quote, "reasonably spooky stuff."

Back to you.

HEMMER: David Ensor in D.C. Thank you, David.


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