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Explosion at Yale, Probably Not Terrorist-related. National Terror Alert Raised to High Level.

Aired May 21, 2003 - 20:00   ET

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

DARYN KAGAN, CNN ANCHOR: Right now, we want to get the latest from Yale University. Even though authorities say there is no indication of terrorism, the Yale explosion comes just a day after the national terror-alert level was raised to orange -- or high.
Our justice correspondent, Kelli Arena, is standing by. She's in Washington. And Kelli, what's the latest you can tell us about the situation at Yale?

KELLI ARENA, CNN JUSTICE CORRESPONDENT: Well, Daryn, the government officials say that so far there is no indication that this incident is terror-related. There are members of the Joint Terrorism Task Force on the scene. An investigation is underway, but nothing yet tying this explosion to any group or individual.

We do know that local law enforcement has confirmed that it was some sort of a bomb that went off. It was confined to just one classroom, we are told. No structural damage, no injuries, Daryn. That's what we've got at this point.

KAGAN: One thing that makes this so newsworthy, not just the explosion itself, Kelli, but it does come on this day, the first day, full day back to the orange alert. What have authorities been doing today separate from the situation at Yale?

ARENA: Well, Daryn, officials are most concerned, they say, about a possible attack within the next few days, and in big cities across the country, there was a very visible increase in security.

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

ARENA (voice-over): In New York, more patrols at bridges and tunnels. In Los Angeles, air travelers are subject to random searches. The country is on high alert, but officials say there are still no specifics about the threat.

ROBERT MUELLER, FBI DIRECTOR: I want to point out that we have no specificity as to targets. We have no specificity as to exact time.

ARENA: What officials do have is a high level of chatter or intercepted communications about possible attacks against The United States. Officials are hearing similar threat information from interrogations of people in custody. But is an attack imminent?

Officials say Intelligence gathered since the bombings in Saudi Arabia suggest terrorists could strike in the, quote, immediate future. But they quickly add the information points more toward the Gulf region than The United States.

ASA HUTCHINSON, HOMELAND SECURITY UNDERSECRETARY: There is concern worldwide as to the increased terrorist activity. We know that there is an interest in targeting The United States. Our security measures have been somewhat effective, but we know that they continue to try to exploit any vulnerabilities.

ARENA: As a result, flight restrictions in the U.S. are in effect, including the air space over large sports stadiums. There is more scrutiny at the nation's borders and an increased security presence in the nation's ports. A major concern remains soft targets like shopping malls or sports arenas, especially when there are a large number of people gathered.

JIM WALSH, MARYLAND UNIVERSITY: There's an endless number of soft targets. You can't predict -- you can't predict where they're going to strike, and you can't harden every target. There isn't enough money in the treasury to do that. So what you try to do is you prioritize.

(END VIDEOTAPE)

ARENA: The FBI in a bulletin today warned state and local partners to remain vigilant to, quote, "potential indicators of preoperational planning, such as target surveillance and acquisition of explosive materials."

Now, separately, some officials say that they believe it is prudent to keep the level at orange at least throughout the Memorial Day festivities, but that is a decision that is reconsidered daily.

Daryn, back to you.

KAGAN: Kelli Arena in Washington. Kelli, thank you very much.

Well, this is the fourth time since 9/11 that the national terror alert level has been raised so high. So far nothing has happened. But are Americans suffering from what you might call terror fatigue, becoming desensitized to all the warnings coming out of Washington?

A couple of guests joining us now on the set to talk about it -- writer Sebastian Junger and "New York Times" columnist Clyde Haberman.

Gentleman, good evening. Good to have you with us on this rainy New York City night. If there's any indication that this is a little kind of ho-hum -- we have been here before -- reading "The New York Times" today, Clyde, where was even the story? Buried way back --

CLYDE HABERMAN, COLUMNIST, "THE NEW YORK TIMES": We had a reference to it outside on the front page, but indeed, it was buried and to some degree the tabloids played it up a bit, but even they didn't go into sort of high drive the way they have in the past.

I don't know if ho-hum is exactly it, but after a while how excited are you going to get? New York, of course, has been on orange alert since 9/11, and I don't know what the average person is supposed to do -- not go to work, not go into the subway, not take a bus?

KAGAN: Life has to go on.

HABERMAN: I would think.

KAGAN: Sebastian, you travel to some of the most dangerous, crazy places in the entire world. When you see level orange raised here in the U.S., do you get concerned?

SEBASTIAN JUNGER, WRITER: Yes, I do, actually. When I'm working, I've sort of accepted a certain level of risk and ...

KAGAN: Because you're going to dangerous places that you know are dangerous.

JUNGER: Exactly. And I'm very vigilant and very conscious, and I've decided to roll the dice a little bit. No one likes to roll the dice at home. I've done things like not take the subway at rush hour, things like that, when I feel like there's a really high risk, for example, when we attacked Iraq. It may just be reassuring myself. And generally, you know, I wouldn't say I'm particularly worried about it today. But yes, there are things you can do. You may just be whistling in the dark, you know.

KAGAN: Just doing what you can do.

JUNGER: Yes. I mean, there's no harm in it, right? And who knows? Maybe it will help. You know, I should say that had there been an orange alert before 9/11, the day before, I don't think it would have saved any lives. I mean, all the people that worked in the World Trade Center would have surely gone to work that day -- unless there was a specific threat to the World Trade Center that was issued to the public. But short of that, exactly the same number of people would have died. So ...

KAGAN: But Clyde, this is a different time. I mean, 9/11 changed all of us. I don't think people might have even understood what an orange -- well, it didn't even exist -- but would have understood what the seriousness of a threat like that was before 9/11. Someone like you, did you change your day to day?

JUNGER: Not really. Although I'm not immune to a certain level of paranoia, either. About a week ago I got on a bus. Right behind me was a guy carrying a cylinder that looked very much like those liquid nitrogen cylinders that you sometimes see on the streets, and I thought it was odd that the bus driver wouldn't have at least asked what was on it. And there was something about the fellow as he sat right across from me on the bus that made me a little bit edgy. So I got off at the next stop. Now, I'm not normally worried at all.

KAGAN: You got off specifically because that guy had that cylinder?

JUNGER: Yes, and this is unusual for me. I too have in my -- when I was a foreign correspondent -- covered an awful lot of dangerous places. My last assignment was in Jerusalem as the bombs are going off on buses all the time. So maybe that was part of it.

It would be nice for me to be very flip and say no, I just stare danger in the face and never pay any attention to anything. That having been said, I don't know, particularly in a city like New York, what you can do to stop anything. If it -- this is, we believe, is going to be Islamic terrorism, for example. You start looking for what -- people who look like they're from the Middle East, people who look like they're from Pakistan? You might as well not leave your apartment, then, in New York. There's just almost nothing you can do.

KAGAN: If you choose to live here, that's part of it.

JUNGER: I can't even explain why I got off the bus that time. It wasn't rational.

KAGAN: Sebastian, on a slightly related note, I need to ask you because you have written so extensively on al Qaeda -- this latest tape to come out by Osama bin Laden's right-hand man -- anything you can make out of that tape? Anything you take from it?

JUNGER: I think it makes perfect sense. After Iraq, I think al Qaeda really is in a position to show the world that they still exist -- not only for their own, whatever sense of honor or whatever it would be, but also because if they're going to get recruits who will fight for them and die for them, no one's going to do that for a losing organization.

KAGAN: Pumping up the troops worldwide. He said there's going to be some kind of good news for Muslims around the world.

JUNGER: Right. If they don't make a pretty strong statement pretty soon, I mean, we've just wiped out the government of Iraq. We're pretty much doing what we want. And if they don't counter that with some show of force, everyone is going to assume, including potential recruits to al Qaeda, that al Qaeda is basically not operational.

KAGAN: Sebastian Junger. Clyde Haberman. Gentlemen, thanks for being here this evening. Appreciate it.

Much more straight ahead. Before we go, we're going to go back to New Haven right now. More on that explosion that has rocked Yale University's law school building. Authorities say it was indeed a bomb. Our Maria Hinojosa is now on the scene in New Haven, and she joins us with the latest.

Maria, hello.

MARIA HINOJOSA, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Hi, Daryn.

We just saw a group of federal FBI agents walk in behind us. The campus is right off to our right. So we know that they are here, they are present. Again, the Federal Joint Terrorist Task Force is saying that they have no reason to suspect, right now, that this has anything to do with any kind of terror-related activity. But of course, yesterday was the first day that the national terror level went up to orange.

We want to talk now to Pablo Sandoval, who is a third-year law school student. He's expecting to graduate on Monday when the commencement is going to happen.

But you were on the fourth floor when this explosion occurred at 4:40 today. What did you hear and what did you see?

PABLO SANDOVAL, LAW STUDENT, YALE UNIVERSITY: Well, you just heard a loud rumble, and it was obviously an explosion. And you know, just -- I was collected about it. I mean, I didn't think it was anything out of the ordinary. I thought maybe something, you know, electrical thing or some steam pipe blew up. You know, there's a steam thing ...

HINOJOSA: Some people had said that it sounded -- it felt almost like an earthquake.

SANDOVAL: Yes, well, that's how it felt like to me, especially being from California. That's your first instinct. But yes, we very soon realized that you're in Connecticut and there are no earthquakes in Connecticut.

HINOJOSA: Then what happened, Pablo?

SANDOVAL: Well, I heard a loud thump, and I was in the middle of taking a final exam, and I went to a window that was near the study carol that I was at and looked outside. I thought something had blown up on the side of the street. And nothing had. So at that moment I thought it was time to leave. I shut down my computer and just exited the building.

HINOJOSA: So the professor who was administering the exam didn't say we've got to evacuate? They didn't have any police coming in?

SANDOVAL: Well, no. It was a self-scheduled -- like -- eight- hour exam. Students just kind of take those on their own.

HINOJOSA: And finally, what -- you've been talking to other students -- what's the mood on campus now? You guys are supposed to graduate on Monday.

SANDOVAL: We're just trying to take it in stride, see what happens, you know. I think everyone's pretty calm about it. Just take it as it goes.

HINOJOSA: Well, good luck on Monday when you graduate. Thank you, Pablo Sandoval, who is a third-year law school student. Again, Daryn, the commencement is supposed to occur on Monday. There were no -- many people are saying that the campus was pretty much empty, but in the classroom where this explosion did occur, there was in fact an exam being administered this morning. And the explosion occurred at 4:40 this afternoon -- Daryn.

KAGAN: Maria Hinojosa, New Haven, Connecticut. Thank you for that.

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