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Homeland Security Secretary Tom Ridge Holds Briefing on al Qaeda Plans to Disrupt U.S. Elections

Aired July 8, 2004 - 11:00   ET


DARYN KAGAN, CNN ANCHOR: It is 11:00 a.m. on the East Coast and 8:00 a.m. on the West Coast.
We're at CNN Center in Atlanta.

Good morning, once again. I'm Daryn Kagan.

We're going to begin with an important development this morning in the war on terror. We are standing by for comments from Homeland Security chief Tom Ridge. An administration official tells CNN he's going to tell Americans that al Qaeda is believed to be in a new operational phase and plans to strike the U.S. before the November election.

Operational phase appears to be key in this morning's warning. Congressional correspondent Ed Henry is standing by for what he has learned about the threat.

Ed, good morning.


As we prepare for this briefing from Secretary Ridge, a meeting a short while ago wrapped up in a secure room in the Capitol. All 100 senators were called in to meet with the FBI and the CIA to be briefed about some specifics about the threats that are out there this summer for the conventions in Boston for the Democrats in July and in New York for the Republicans this summer. There has obviously been a general concern for a long time by federal officials that these venues could be a tempting target for terrorists.

But what we're learning now is that senators in the room are suggesting that they were told that it's a little bit more than just suggestions that it might be a target. In fact, one senator I spoke to after the meeting told me -- quote -- "It's more than just a theory." This senator said that there was specific information passed along that he could not repeat outside the room.

I can tell you that another senator went on the record, Chuck Schumer from New York, a Democrat. He said -- quote -- "It's troubling, it's worrisome." Senator Schumer suggested he's been in these briefings before, and what he's heard this morning gave him a little bit more pause.

I also, though, want to point out that Senate Majority leader Bill Frist came out to the cameras after this meeting and suggested that everyone should keep this in perspective.


SEN. BILL FRIST (R-TN), MAJORITY LEADER: There's obviously no reason for panic or no reason for paralysis. But the fact that general intelligence that the country is at some increased risk between now and the time of the presidential election, it is important for people to be aware of that.


HENRY: And, Daryn, I spoke to Senator Frist yesterday, and he said that in addition to the conventions, the concern is in the fall leading up to the November election. Everyone has to have their guard up to be sure and be ready in case terrorists want to repeat what they did in Spain right on the eve of the election there earlier this year -- Daryn.

KAGAN: Ed Henry on Capitol Hill, we'll be back to you.

As well we can see the live picture we're watching from Washington, D.C. When the defense (sic) secretary speaks, we will go live right to that news conference.

Meanwhile, let's go and check on some other intelligence sources and bring in our Kelli Arena to see what she's been able to learn about this latest operational phase of this potential threat.

Kelli, good morning.


Now, the intelligence officials that I spoke to described this more as a continuing belief that al Qaeda is in the operational phase of a possible attack. If you remember, six weeks ago we heard very similar warnings from FBI Director Robert Mueller and Attorney General John Ashcroft when they had a very public press conference and told the American public that they believed that there was something being planned, and that al Qaeda could strike between now and the November elections.

But repeatedly, Daryn, I have been told that there is no specific information regarding time, place or date. That the analysis based on the intelligence that continues to come in does suggest that al Qaeda could be targeting either convention either in Boston or New York. However, there has been nothing specifically mentioned regarding either of those cities, and that al Qaeda could be trying to disrupt the November elections, which they were very successful in doing in Madrid, if you remember.

They expect that the homeland security director today will spend most of his time outlining what the United States is doing to deal with that threat. As you know, there was a special 2004 task force that was set up specifically to deal with this threat situation. Interviews have started that are being conducted by FBI agents across the country, interviewing individuals whose names have come up one way or another in either terrorism investigations or through other intelligence means. People who are already here in the United States on visas, especially from countries in Africa, we're told by U.S. officials, are being re-examined.

There is scrutiny going on at every level to try to determine if there is anybody here in the United States that is ready to go. There has always been a belief over the last several months, Daryn, that there are al Qaeda operatives here in the United States, although the FBI has not attached any names or locations to those individuals.

KAGAN: All right, Kelli, we're going to ask you to stand by. Again, we're waiting for that news conference with Tom Ridge to begin.

Meanwhile, let's go to the White House, and our senior White House correspondent John King is standing by.

John, what do you have?

JOHN KING, CNN SENIOR WHITE HOUSE CORRESPONDENT: Daryn, one quick point I'd like to make before we hear from Secretary Ridge.

Already some Democrats are saying that the Bush administration is doing this to distract attention from the new member of the Democratic ticket and all of the excitement around that ticket. And the White House says that is flatly untrue. That is one of the reasons they have had these briefings on Capitol Hill, because they know the Democrats will question their motives for talking about this, especially when the intelligence, as Kelli just noted, does not have a specific time, place or target. That's one of the reasons they're briefing members on Capitol Hill.

You just heard Ed Henry say that Senator Chuck Schumer of New York, someone who can be a fiercely partisan Democrat when he wants to be, came out of this briefing and said he found this information troubling and worrisome.

The White House wanted to have these briefings so that some Democrats will come forward and be part of the debate, if you will, over whether the White House is doing this to legitimately raise public awareness or whether, as some Democrats are already suggesting, that the president is trying to steer attention away from the campaign -- Daryn.

KAGAN: Well, John, that's all well and good, but unless we hear some specifics from this news conference or from some of those senators behind closed doors, it might be more difficult to convince the American people.

KING: It is more difficult, and that is the debate and the delicate balance the administration has faced since 9/11. The administration frames it this way: If it did not hold this news conference and say there was a continuing stream of intelligence saying there might be an attack but I can't tell you where and we can't tell you when, if it did not tell the public that and there was an attack tomorrow, and then the administration said, well, we thought something was coming and we knew something was coming, every one of the American people would say why didn't you tell us?

So, that's the difficult balance for the administration. It does not have specifics should it go public at all. This administration long ago made the decision that it would go public and it would take the inevitable criticism.

KAGAN: All right, John, we'll have you stand by, along with Kelli Arena.

We're waiting for this news conference with Tom Ridge to begin.

Meanwhile, let's bring in our Mike Brooks, who has had a chance to talk with some of the people who actually have to deal with this on the streets, the law enforcement community.

MIKE BROOKS, CNN LAW ENFORCEMENT ANALYST: Well -- excuse me -- I have spoken with some of my local officials and asked them, have you gotten any information from your local homeland security or your state homeland security offices? They say they haven't heard a thing new from what they heard about six weeks ago when the pictures came out, when they also -- when Ashcroft and Mueller also talked about a possible planning phase by al Qaeda.

So, is this going to be another vigilance alert? But as John King just said, I think the administration has been in full disclosure mode since 9/11. Because if there is information, even though it's very, very minor information that's out there and they don't give it to the public and something did happen, then they would be held accountable.

KAGAN: Well, there's the terror fatigue that the public might get. There's also financial fatigue that works into this for the local law enforcement agencies that if they do increase the terror alert -- which right now we're not getting information that that's going to happen...

BROOKS: Right.

KAGAN: ... there has been some balking and some backlash from states and local communities saying we just don't have the funds to cover this.

BROOKS: You're absolutely correct. And in the halls of the Department of Justice and the FBI, they are always talking about if they raise the threat level again talking about alert fatigue. And again, people become complacent. So, you know, is this going to be another, you know, poke with a stick, if you want, vigilance alert? That's what we'll wait to see.

But again, it does cause some of these smaller towns and smaller municipalities a lot of money. New York and D.C., they have been at a modified code orange since 9/11. It won't cause them much heartache, much money. But other small municipalities, they sit back and they look at the state and they look at the federal government and say, what do we do? Instead of just going out and doing it themselves, because they don't have the money and they don't have the manpower. KAGAN: Let's go to -- we're going to bring in an analyst that helps us with a lot of these stories, Jim Walsh from Harvard University, a security expert.

Jim, good morning.


KAGAN: What will you be listening for as Tom Ridge speaks? And again, we're standing by waiting for that to happen any minute out of Washington, D.C. To hear what will be different about this information than what we've heard from some incomplete reports previously?

WALSH: Well, to follow up on the conversation you were just having, I think there is a real question about the national alert system. If they had specific information and a particular timeframe -- that is to say around the Republican or Democratic conventions -- and don't raise the threat level, then I really don't understand what good the threat level is. It's supposed to be for exactly that situation: specific information and a specific timeframe.

I think the other issue here is if, in fact, al Qaeda is planning an attack and coordinating it around the election, there's a real question as to what their theory is. What is their purpose? Do they think that this will help get George Bush re-elected or help defeat him? Most political scientists like myself believe that an attack on America prior to the election will actually help George Bush get re- elected. And then the question is: Is that their intention?

KAGAN: All right, Jim, I want you to stand by. We're bringing in information as we get it, and Kelli Arena has more -- Kelli.

ARENA: Daryn, you know, you mentioned whether or not that there would be fatigue among the public and whether or not they would just start ignoring these press conferences.

And I can tell you that when I talk to agents who work in the many FBI field offices around the country, they report exactly the opposite. They -- after that press conference six weeks ago that was held by the FBI director and the attorney general, there were more phone calls that came in to local FBI offices from citizens reporting what they believed was suspicious behavior or information that the citizens said that they normally would not have called in, but given the information that they heard, very publicly, they thought was the right thing to do.

So, so far at least, Daryn, the anecdotal evidence seems to suggest the public does pay attention, that these types of press conferences actually accomplish what they set out to do, which is to raise the level.

And getting back to whole issue of the threat level remaining at yellow and not raising it, homeland security officials are very clear that that whole situation was a work-in-progress from the very beginning. And the last definitive word that we got on that was that they were really trying not to raise that level on a national -- in a national way, and they really wanted to be industry-specific or location-specific and not have to raise the national threat level overall, for what it's worth.

KAGAN: All right, Kelli, I want to bring Jim Walsh back in here, and, Jim, have you actually comment on something that Kelli mentioned earlier. And this report that al Qaeda could be in the operational phase, and that they're checking on visas from people who came perhaps to this country from African countries. Is it just a given that there are al Qaeda operatives within the country right now?

WALSH: Well, I don't think we can know that for sure, but I think it's an assumption that we should probably adopt. It makes sense. We have big borders, porous borders. You know, the old joke was that if you wanted to smuggle a terrorist in, all you had to do was wrap him in a bale of marijuana. So, I think it's -- the working assumption should be that there are folks who are able, if they work hard enough, to get inside the country.

Let me pick up on Kelli's very good and very important point. She says that the homeland security officials don't want to always be raising the general terror alert level when the particular problem may be industry or location-specific. I think that makes good sense, but they haven't told that to the American people. They haven't actually made a change yet that says we have a color-coding system that applies only to one area or only to one industry. And until they come out and communicate with the American public, then I think there's going to continue to be this confusion about what that color-coding system means.

KAGAN: All right, we're just seconds away from Tom Ridge coming out and making his announcement.

Meanwhile, a couple of seconds with Ed Henry -- well, actually, there's the defense (sic) secretary. Ed, we'll get to you after this announcement.

TOM RIDGE, SECRETARY OF HOMELAND SECURITY: Good morning, all. Sorry I kept you waiting. We spent a little more time with some of our colleagues on the Hill. We briefed the Senate this morning, went a little bit over -- little longer than we anticipated. But it's good to join you this morning.

You have heard me and other senior administration officials, including the national security adviser, the director of the FBI and the attorney general, discuss with the American people the increased risk of a terrorist attack this summer. And I wanted to take this opportunity to update Americans on both the status of that threat, as well as the efforts of the law enforcement and homeland security professionals across the country, under the president's leadership, to increase security.

Since September 11th, 2001, we have had intelligence that al Qaeda intends to launch more attacks against the homeland. Credible reporting now indicates that al Qaeda is moving forward with its plans to carry out a large-scale attack in the United States in an effort to disrupt our democratic process.

Now, based on the attack in Madrid -- and we've had several conversations about that -- as well as recent interdictions in England, in Jordan and Italy, we know that they have the capability to succeed, and they also hold the mistaken belief that their attacks will have an impact on America's resolve.

We lack precise knowledge about time, place and method of attack. But along with the CIA, FBI and other agencies, we are actively working to gain that knowledge.

A few weeks ago, I led a classified briefing on the threat for our nation's governors in an effort to keep them apprised as we continue through this period of increased risk.

Last night, I spoke with state homeland security advisers, law enforcement leaders and first responders.

While we are not raising the color-coded threat level today, we are constantly reviewing threat reporting and strengthening the nation's security.

We have permanent protections in place today that did not exist a year ago. For all intents and purposes, some didn't even exist five or six months ago. And these protections make it harder for terrorists to attack us.

As of today, we now have full nationwide connectivity to the Homeland Security Operations Center, a 24-hour-a-day, seven-day-a-week nerve center for homeland security information and incident management. And all 50 states, through our Homeland Security Information Network, are connected to it. This is a goal we've reached five months ahead of schedule.

For the first time ever, this national operations center allows us to receive information in real time and turn that information, when appropriate, into actions that protect the homeland. It helps us to work even more closely with all of our federal partners and those at the state and local level and the private sector, sharing law enforcement and intelligence information about terrorists as never before. We've never had that capacity before.

The most advanced technologies, including the newly created Internet-based Homeland Security Information Network, allows us to maintain up-to-the-minute information, to map that information against our critical infrastructure and known threats, and then share it instantly with the White House, all 50 states, more than 50 major urban areas and thousands of state and local agencies.

And the reverse is true as well. Information flows into the Homeland Security Operation Center from our partners throughout the country. Many of them are physically represented in the operations center itself, including seats for 35 government agencies and local representatives, such as New York and Los Angeles Police Departments.

This is unprecedented communication and cooperation at the national, state, and local levels. This new ability to receive and distribute critical information allows us to make better decisions more quickly and take action that will deter, detect and defuse terrorist attacks.

For instance, we will begin a new pilot program that utilizes technology to track high-risk trucks on our nation's highways in all 50 states. And our Operation Respond will provide homeland security and law enforcement officials with the ability to quickly identify and track locations of rail shipments across the country.

We've also begun to deploy hundreds of handheld radiological detectors, just the size of an average pager, for use by the law enforcement officers to help, for example, in locating and preventing the use of those so-called dirty bombs. Literally thousands have been ordered. Hundreds are in place. We intend to distribute these important resources around the country throughout the year.

And we will be monitoring, via web-enabled perimeter cameras, chemical facilities of greatest concern. The cameras were linked to our Homeland Security Operation Center. They provide one piece of the real-time data that I spoke about earlier. And more are due to come on-line by the end of the year.

In the coming months, the nation will host high-profile events, including those associated with our democratic traditions. We're working very closely with our colleagues, state and local officials in New York and Boston to ensure the security of the Democratic and Republican national conventions.

I've designated these events national special security events, making the United States Secret Service the lead agency for identifying and implementing protective efforts in these locations. I will soon travel to those sites myself to review the security measures being implemented.

In two weeks, we will meet with the security officials from the professional and collegiate sport associations to determine how to increase security for upcoming large sporting events as well.

We live in serious times and this is sobering information about those who wish to do us harm. But every day -- every day we strengthen the security of our nation. And as a nation, we are committed to the absolute protection of our citizens.

Efforts each of you make to be vigilant, such as reporting suspicious items or activities to authorities, do make a difference. Every citizen, using their common sense and their eyes and ears, can support our national effort to stop the terrorists.

We know that their vigilance in the long run can make a difference. And we will continue to work together to ensure that the freedom we just celebrated continues as the hallmark of this great country.

Thank you very much. QUESTION: Sir, do you have any specific credible intelligence that terrorists are targeting either the Democratic convention or the Republican convention?

RIDGE: We do not.

QUESTION: Sir, once again you're saying that al Qaeda wants to disrupt the democratic process. There are some, you know, who will interpret that as the administration sending a subtle message that a vote for John Kerry is a vote for Osama bin Laden. How do you address those concerns? People who think that this is political...

RIDGE: Well, I think, first of all, it's a wrong interpretation. We are basically laying out before the general public the kind of information that we've received. And it's not us -- these are not conjectures or mythical statements we are making. These are pieces of information that we could trace comfortably to sources that we deem to be credible.

QUESTION: Mr. Secretary, in what way do the arrests in England, Jordan and Italy tell us -- what do they tell us about -- you said the capability or capacity of terrorists to carry out these attacks. What do these overseas arrests tell us about that?

RIDGE: I think -- and again, I will defer more detailed explanation later on to the analysts that accompanied me this morning.

But what we are alluding to there is not only did they have individuals in place but they had the means to the end that were part of the plot. They had the people ready to operate and they had the munitions and the ability to conduct the terrorist attack. That was all part of the apprehension.

And it is an international network. There are cells and sources that are international. And here, consistent with an effort to disrupt democracies and to further their cause against democratic countries, particularly the -- we've apprehended individuals who had the means to operate.

QUESTION: Can you give us some indication of how -- since the last big, serious concern around the holidays...

RIDGE: Right.

QUESTION: ... compared to that, what is the volume of the kind of information you're following here? Is it at those kinds of levels?

RIDGE: I will let the analysts comment more specifically. The only thing I can say to you is that we are very comfortable with the credibility of the sources themselves.

Obviously, how credible some of the information is is something we continue to try to corroborate. But in terms of the sources we have, they are deemed by everyone involved as credible.

QUESTION: Secretary Ridge, one question I have deals with timing. There's been a steady stream of this kind of information coming in since, roughly, March or so. Why now? Why give all these briefings at this particular time?

RIDGE: Well, we actually started this process several months ago. I think there was a -- I gave a speech at the National Association of Broadcasters some time ago.

I thought in the post-Madrid environment, would be very important, on a periodic basis, to frankly, just give Americans an update as to where we are and what we are doing. And you can fully anticipate that in the weeks and months ahead we'll ask you to convene again for another update.

QUESTION: Mr. Secretary, are you concerned that the public is going to become complacent? Is that why we keep hearing the same message?

RIDGE: One of the advantages I have as secretary of this department is the opportunity to travel around the country and to talk to the security and law enforcement professionals, as well as individual citizens. And I can say without a doubt that the level of security is higher and level of vigilance, really, in my mind has never abated.

And frankly, whenever I have an opportunity to speak publicly to you, but as well, to America, remind them as part of our national effort, individual citizens, using their common sense and their eyes and ears, can help us stop terrorists. I'm absolutely convinced that one of these days that we're going to be able to trace either a report or interdiction to a citizen or a local law enforcement officer.

QUESTION: With Senators Kerry and Edwards living so close to each other in Georgetown, are there any plans to make any extraordinary security measures down there, closing streets, et cetera?

RIDGE: As you know, under the law, both the men and their families are entitled to Secret Service protection. As a matter of fact, the day that Senator Kerry announced that his running mate would be Senator Edwards, we received a formal communication requesting that support. And the same day, within hours, we communicated back: "We'll have the Secret Service knocking on your door to set up the arrangements to give you additional security."

And we'll leave those kinds of decisions to be discussed with both the candidates but not to be revealed publicly.

QUESTION: Mr. Secretary, a prominent member of the Elections Assistance Commission has expressed his concern that with all the flurry of information about the election, Homeland Security has made no provision about rescheduling or possibly what to do with the elections in the event of a terrorist attack.

RIDGE: Well, I read the letter. I don't exactly agree with his conclusion. But there are constitutional and security questions that are certainly involved. And we're working on them. And certainly, that individual and that group will be involved in the process.

QUESTION: Mr. Secretary, you mentioned the Homeland Security Information Network, also known as JRIES, that now operates at the sensitive but unclassified level as being expanded to the secret level.

RIDGE: By the end of the year we'll have the fire walls in place to get that done.

QUESTION: Meanwhile the TTIC online system, which operates at the top secret level, is being expanded downward to the secret level for an additional capability. Doesn't this mean there are two stove- pipe systems in this arena of information sharing so we're looking back at the same problem we have seen for many years?

RIDGE: Well, I'm going to let John Brennan, who heads TTIC here, respond to that when I've concluded.

But the Department of Homeland Security, both as a department, but the professionals involved, including our chief information analyst, General Pat Hughes, have as good a day-to-day working relationship as any other members of the intelligence-gathering community.

And to the extent that we have and will continue to collaborate to make sure that the messages that we send out to law enforcement or citizens or the private sector are consistent with our analysis, it's what we've done in the past and we plan on doing in the future. We work very closely with them.

And the statements that we communicate to our partners at the state and local level and within the private sector is always coordinated with them.

QUESTION: Can I ask you a question about the conventions?


QUESTION: Both Boston and New York seem to have a lot of concern about subway or rail bombing, particularly in light of Moscow and Madrid, and they're taking a lot of precautions.

Is there anything that indicates that there's a particular concern on your part about rail as opposed to any other means?

RIDGE: Well, I think the concern, both at the local level at the convention sites, but actually at the national level within our department, is based upon precisely the kind of targets that they have been in the past.

Al Qaeda and other terrorist organizations have targeted mass transit. Remember the sarin gas incident in Japan as well. You alluded to the incident in Russia, the Spanish incident. And as part of the overall comprehensive security plan, the Secret Service is working with those mass transit agencies. But I should tell you that as part of our overall national plan we're not just working with the mass transit authorities in the convention cities, we're working with mass transit authorities in every community that has one.

But clearly, given the particular venues that have been selected and the proximity to railroad and mass transit, that is of a concern, but we feel we can adequately address it.

And one of the reasons we've been able to draw that conclusion is because of the extraordinary cooperation with state and local law enforcement.

QUESTION: At this point, what would it take the raise the alert to orange?

And have you heard from any state or local leaders that are telling you, "We just can't afford it"?

RIDGE: Well, we wouldn't necessarily broadcast to the terrorists what it would take for us to raise it to orange, but we know internally that there are a couple of trip wires that might cause us to pull everybody together to begin that whole process.

We share with you a -- I've said this on many other occasions -- we churn information daily. We begin discussing that information in the White House, then twice a day the intelligence community, by secure video, goes over not only the threat information of the day, but the threat information that's been accumulated over a period of time. And I think we all know internally the kind of environment, which includes perhaps the nature of reporting or the amount of reporting -- but we have in our own minds what the trip wires might be for us to begin that process.

But, again, we have more protective measures in place at yellow today than we did six months or a year ago. And there'll be more put in place on a day-to-day basis every single day, for as long as the department exists, which means, hopefully, we get smarter and better about integrating people and technology all around the country.

But be assured that on a daily basis, several times a day, we take a look at what we have received and what we have gained to make a determination as to whether we ought to raise it. And you should know that -- and I mentioned in my remarks -- the CIA and the FBI and Homeland Security put together their multiple task forces that are trying to secure more, additional information about this threat reporting stream.

Thank you very much.

KAGAN: We've been listening in to Homeland Security Secretary Tom Ridge at a news conference, where he is announcing that his department -- actually I see he wraps it up. Good timing there. He is announcing that his department believes and the U.S. government believes that al Qaeda is working on a large-scale attack here in the U.S. in an effort to disrupt and affect the upcoming U.S. elections. However, he said there will not be a rise in the threat level, and he said the government lacks information on a date, a specific time and a specific site of this potential attack.


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