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Government Placing Americans on Higher State of Alert

Aired September 10, 2002 - 13:00   ET


KYRA PHILLIPS, CNN ANCHOR: The government is placing Americans on a higher state of alert for possible attacks by terrorists. We're going to go quickly to Washington and CNN Justice correspondent Kelli Arena. She's been working the developing story.
What can you tell us, Kelli?

KELLI ARENA, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Well, Kyra, the Bottom line here is that the threat of a terrorist attack against U.S. targets is increasing. Government officials say that the threat level, as monitored by the Homeland Security Office, will move from yellow on to orange. Now that signifies a high risk of attack, and it is the first time that the level of alert has changed since this system was introduced in March.

Sources tell CNN that there is specific and credible information that led to the change, and that it involves American targets overseas, primarily in Southeast Asia. We do expect more information from the attorney general, the FBI director and homeland security director just in moments from now. Several U.S. embassies and consulates have been ordered closed for parts of this week. Those include facilities in Malaysia, and Indonesia, Pakistan, Vietnam, Cambodia and Bahrain.

CNN has reported that there has been increased information, so- called intelligence chatter, that has been intercepted. Officials have compared it to the levels that were experienced this same time last year, again, about the July 4th holiday. And while officials say that there is no specific information about a threat on U.S. soil, they are elevating the domestic threat level out of a so-called abundance of caution. Now it's important to remember, the information that came in last year at this time also pointed to an overseas threat, not a domestic attack, but yet we did unfortunately go through that domestic attack, and that is why we are seeing the domestic threat level rise up a notch -- Kyra.

PHILLIPS: Kelli, talk to us about intelligence chatter. You and John King and everyone has been talking about that. I am a bit familiar with it. But could you get a little more in-depth and tell us exactly what that means and how that intelligence chatter is honed in on?

ARENA: Right. Well basically, this is information picked up by intelligence community through a variety of means, satellite, intercepts conversations, human intelligence and so forth.

So from a variety of means, you are getting an increased level of information coming in. Some of it is corroborated. Some of it is familiar, talking about, just the sense of intensity, and so that information coming from a variety of sources, either here in the United States, overseas, various places, causing the intelligence community to assume, because of this level of information that something's up, that either an attack is being planned or that a attack could be under way.

Unfortunately, that intelligence that has been gathered has not been specific as to a target. At least that was what we were hearing until the end of last week. Now what we are hearing is that there is specific and credible information coming in from those variety of sources, pointing to Southeast Asia, pointing to U.S. targets in Southeast Asia. That and a variety of other reasons. Just the anniversary of September 11th itself has led to the closing of some U.S. Facilities in that area as we talked about before, and has also led investigators to argue for the raising of the threat level here in United States.

The thing that is important to remember, Kyra, that there has been no specific and credible information about a U.S. target, something happening here in U.S. soil. The thing that has investigators though concerned is that that is about what we've been hearing the same time last year, that U.S. soil was not threatened, that it was a U.S. target overseas, and yet, we did see the horrific events of September 11th. And so, what you are getting now is increased vigilance here on U.S. soil as well.

PHILLIPS: All right, our Kelli Arena there, justice correspondent, thanks so much, Kelly. Great information.

Someone else following on this note of intelligence chatter and security risks overseas and here in United States, our John King at the White House, working the story from there.

John, what do you know?

JOHN KING, CNN SR. WHITE HOUSE CORRESPONDENT: Kyra, we are told the president personally approved raising the threat-level assessment from elevated to high here in United States at a meeting this morning with his top national security team. That was a follow-up meeting to a session here last night, which we're told CIA director George Tenet told the president and other senior officials around the table that there was no question in his mind that a great deal of this so-called chatter, as you were discussing with Kelli Arena, was coming directly from Al Qaeda network.

As Kelly said, where the information is specific, it is directed at threats against U.S. facilities overseas. But there has been, we are told, some discussion in these conversations, monitored, intercepted, by terrorist and suspected terrorists, some discussion about the September 11th anniversary and plans for commemorative event across the United States.

U.S. official stress that they believe this is what they call circular reporting, when we at CNN say security has been increased at the Golden Gate Bridge, in the next few days you hear conversations in this group that is closely monitored by the intelligence community about security at the Golden Gate Bridge.

So U.S. official say no specific threat here in the United States, but they describe this conversation, briefing by the CIA director last night, as a -- quote -- "tipping point," convincing the president that out of an abundance of caution, he should approve the increase in the threat-level assessment from elevated to high. We'll get details on that in a few minutes.

And because of this, this is one of the reasons that we're told the vice president's routine has been changed. It was decided at that very same meeting last night, Mr. Cheney would not go out to a public event and accompany the president to a concert here in Washington.

Instead, he spent the night at a secure location outside of Washington. Look form more of that over the next several days. Officials say they don't want not want to alarm anybody, but they feel it is their responsibility to put the public on alert and to take extra precautions when it comes to the president and the vice president -- Kyra.

PHILLIPS: John, when talking about flow of information, as intelligence sources are listening to this intelligence chatter, and if something comes across they can confirm that there is a target that is being talked about here no states, how quickly do we all find out about that?

KING: Well, we have learned a great deal about this, in part, due to reporting of your own team, especially David Ensor over the last year, about the National Security Agency, actually having recording in its hands about the September 11th attacks, but not being able to translate them until after the attacks.

You can be clear that this administration insists it is now moving more quickly and has more people involved, and priority been placed on overseas terrorism and domestic terrorism, as opposed to other law enforcement investigation. They administration can act very quickly, and says that is an example of that, that the CIA director -- been a concern for several weeks. They have been discussing the planning for the anniversary. They had been discussing the recent uptick. We had one around the July 4th period. We have had another uptick in the past two weeks in this so-called chatter.

We are told when the CIA director came here last night, with new, credible information, drawing a direct line back to Al Qaeda, that the president decided to act quickly, and that in fact that was evidence that the CIA and other intelligence agencies are able to process this information much more quickly.

PHILLIPS: John, you have refreshed my memory and you bring up a really good point, and that was the report that David Ensor did bring to us about those tapes, about the intelligence chatter, and that there was talk about September 11th, but that it did not get translated in time, unfortunately.

How have systems changed from -- since David came out with that report, and the buzz was there had to be a systems in place to make translating a quicker process. Indeed has that happened?

KING: They have changed in a number of ways that we can see with the naked eye. This very color-coded chart that we have about the threat level here at home. That was put in place by the office of homeland security. The president asked for a new Department of Homeland Security. He also has retasked the Federal Bureau of Investigation to make its number one priority not white collar crime, as it was on September 10th of last year, but fighting and winning the war on terrorism here at home in the United States.

We have been told, there is more money for the CIA. Now much of the CIA's budget, the National Security Agency's budget, the military's intelligence budget, much of that is classified. We do not know what it is being spent on, but we are told billions more being put into that, more people hired, and from the top, from CIA Tenet and others, a priority placed on processing any information about the terrorist threat before you might get to any other areas of interest. And there are many -- business, corporate interest, other economy espionage, if you will, that goes on around the world.

Terrorism is priority one, and we are told that the government is much better at it. We don't get to see it because so much of it is classified and out of our range of vision.

PHILLIPS: Understandably. Now, John, I am hearing the choppers overhead. Is this a part of increased security, or possibility just a news chopper?

KING: No news choppers allowed in the air space around the White House -- Kyra. We notice that chopper just a fewer minutes ago ourselves. It's very rare to have a police chopper up in area over the White House. I would view this as a routine precaution, though the president is due to leave the White House about an hour from now for an even here in Washington, when the president's motorcade is to be on the streets of Washington. Oftentimes, you do see some increased surveillance of the of the area. In fact, the security perimeter around the White House has been stretched out a bit in recent weeks. So we'll get a specific answer, but I would draw the line to the fact this president is going out in public in his motorcade in just a short time.

PHILLIPS: John King at the White House. Thank you so much, John.