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Homeland Security

07 February 2003

Terrorism Threat Condition Designation Elevated

(Attorney general, homeland security secretary, FBI director speak)
Following is the transcript of a press conference given in Washington
by Attorney General John Ashcroft, Homeland Security Secretary Tom
Ridge and FBI Director Robert Mueller on the heightened terrorist
threat status decided upon on February 7:
(Note: In the transcript, "billion" equals 1,000 million.)
(begin transcript)
Threat Condition Designation Elevated to High-Risk
Feb. 7, 2003
ATTY GEN. ASHCROFT: Good afternoon. The United States government
continuously reviews intelligence reporting to assess the current
threat condition designation and to determine whether or not it should
be adjusted.
After conferring this morning with the Homeland Security Council, the
decision has been made to increase the threat condition designation,
currently classified at "elevated risk," to increase that threat
condition designation to the "high risk" category.
This decision for an increased threat condition designation is based
on specific intelligence received and analyzed by the full
intelligence community. This information has been corroborated by
multiple intelligence sources.
Since September the 11th, the U.S. intelligence community has
indicated that the al-Qaeda terrorist network is still determined to
attack innocent Americans, both here and abroad. Recent reporting
indicates an increased likelihood that al-Qaeda may attempt to attack
Americans in the United States and/or abroad in or around the end of
the Haji, a Muslim religious period ending mid-February 2003.
Recent intelligence reports suggest that al-Qaeda leaders have
emphasized planning for attacks on apartment buildings, hotels and
other soft or lightly secured targets in the United States. The recent
bombings of a nightclub in Bali, Indonesia, and of a resort hotel in
Mombasa, Kenya, demonstrate the continued willingness of al-Qaeda to
strike at peaceful, innocent civilians, and their ability to carry out
attacks on such soft or lightly guarded targets.
There are also indications, bolstered by the recent arrests in London,
where chemical ricin was discovered. These indications demonstrate
al-Qaeda's interest in carrying out chemical, biological and
radiological attacks.
Historically, the intelligence community has indicated that al-Qaeda
might also seek economic targets, including the transportation and
energy sectors, as well as symbolic targets and symbols of American
The United States government has specific intelligence and experience,
demonstrating that heightened awareness on our part deters terrorism.
Since September the 11th of 2001, the United States has substantially
improved its capacity to disrupt, deter and prevent terrorist attacks
-- terrorist attacks against innocent Americans. The active
cooperation of the American people -- your cooperation -- has been
instrumental in preventing major terrorist attacks.
Since September the 11th, 2001, the Federal Bureau of Investigation
has evaluated and investigated over 3,000 terrorist threats within the
United States, issued 103 warnings to state and local law enforcement
and announced three, not including today's announcement, three major
nationwide terrorist alerts. The threat condition designation was last
raised to high risk on September the 10th, 2002 and reduced to an
elevated risk standing two weeks later.
Today's change in the threat condition designation from elevated risk
to high risk will trigger a series of security precautions by the
federal government as well as state and local governments and U.S.
citizens to increase readiness to prevent terrorism. I have directed
that Joint Terrorism Task Forces nationwide coordinate their local
response with U.S. Attorneys and local anti-terrorism task forces. In
addition, I have directed that all appropriate information be shared
with the Joint Terrorism Task Forces in order for federal officials to
work effectively and cooperatively with state and local officials.
We are not recommending that events be cancelled, nor do we recommend
that individuals change domestic or work or travel plans.
As we have in the past, we ask that Americans continue their daily
work and leisure activities, with a heightened awareness of their
environment and the activities occurring around them.
As President Bush recounted in the State of the Union address, we have
arrested or dealt with many al-Qaeda key commanders. Three thousand
suspected terrorists have been arrested worldwide. Other terrorists
have met a different fate. We've uncovered and stopped terrorist
conspiracies in the United States, in Yemen, Singapore, Saudi Arabia,
the Straits of Hormuz and Gibraltar. We've broken al-Qaeda cells
around the world. And with the support of the American people, we will
prevail in this war on terror.
It's my pleasure now to introduce the secretary of the Department of
Homeland Security, Secretary Tom Ridge.
SEC. RIDGE: Thank you, John.
Good afternoon, ladies and gentlemen.
This heightened threat level has been or is being communicated to
local and state law enforcement officials, federal agencies, members
of Congress, governors, state homeland security advisers, mayors and
those who share responsibility for the nation's private
infrastructure. Information is also being provided to the nation's
first responders: our fire, emergency, health and public safety
The nation's homeland security advisory system provides a national
framework to inform and to facilitate actions appropriate to different
levels of government and to private citizens, either in their
workplaces or in their homes. The system couples the threat level with
protective measures that should or will be taken to reduce our
country's vulnerabilities.
As a result of the increase in the threat level, as a result of going
from yellow to orange, elevated to high, specific protective measures
will be taken by all federal agencies both to reduce vulnerabilities
and many of them actually will, we believe, serve as a deterrent:
increased security personnel at points of entry, may in fact limit
points of entry and exit; enhanced identification checks; restrictions
to travel around federal facilities and airports, among the many
augmented security measures that will be implemented.
As I mentioned before, it's very important for you all to understand
that we've also alerted the medical and public health communities as
Now, at the same time as the federal government is taking action, I
want to reassure you that governors, mayors, state and local law
enforcement, and private sector managers of the nation's critical
infrastructure will be taking action as well.
We are asking all of these leaders to increase their security and
vigilance wherever necessary, and we remind them that sometimes
varying their security is a good alternative, depending on their
circumstances, to actually enhancing it. It depends on a lot of
circumstances but doing things differently can be a deterrent as well.
Now, as the attorney general mentioned, for individual Americans, we
ask you -- we ask you to remain aware and remain alert. We are not
recommending that events be cancelled or travel or other plans be
changed. We do recommend that individuals and families in the days
ahead take some time to prepare for an emergency.
The thought occurred to me, traveling to join my colleagues for this
public announcement, that when I step across the threshold of the
front door at night, I'm not sure I'm seen as the secretary of the
Department of Homeland Security; I'm a husband and a father, a parent
and a souse. And I know a lot of parents and spouses are saying,
"Well, what should we do? What does this mean for us?"
And all I would say to you as a parent and a spouse is, take the time
now to get informed. There are so many available sources of
information that you could refer to that will give you and your family
and your businesses and your schools some comfort to know that in the
eventuality or the possibility that something might happen, you have
taken some precautionary measures or taken some steps to minimize the
damage, or perhaps to avoid it all together.
One of the thoughts that I would just simply share with you, it's
probably not a bad idea to sit down and just arrange some kind of a
contact plan; that if an event occurred, you want to make sure you can
-- the family wants to get in touch with one another. That's not a bad
thing to do to prepare in advance of any kind of emergency, whether
it's a natural disaster or a terrorist attack. It doesn't take a great
deal of time, and I think it would make family members a lot more
comfortable if they knew they were able to get in touch with one
another in the event something happened.
I think there are ways that parents and adults can certainly be better
informed, because as we've described to you, terrorist attacks really
can potentially take many forms. And so by learning more now about
these kinds of attacks, you and your families can be armed in advance
with the kind of information that you might need and that will be
critical to your health and your well-being.
And I would encourage Americans to log-on to the department's website;
you can log-on to www.dhs.gov to learn more information to become
better informed about steps that individuals can take simply to be
better prepared.
The call that we give today, which Americans have certainly heard
before, is based on our knowledge and our conviction that heightened
awareness and readiness deters terrorism and saves lives. Each of us
in our own ways can contribute to the security of our nation, our
families, and our communities. Today we call on Americans to continue
to persevere in the face of this evil, in the face of this terror,
because we understand that by working together, not only will we
persevere, but we will prevail.
Thank you.
MR. MUELLER: Thank you, Tom.
As already has been stated, recent intelligence reports have led to
the decision today to increase the threat level. And today, as well as
every day since September 11th, the FBI has stood ready to protect
Americans against those who seek to do us harm. And today, as every
day since September 11th, the FBI is fully mobilized to respond
through our Joint Terrorism Task Forces, which are comprised of
federal agencies as well as state and local law enforcement. The Joint
Terrorism Task Forces have been working 24 hours a day, following up
on information we may have received.
But I've got to emphasize also that we believe that an alert public is
our strongest asset. If you observe suspicious activity, I encourage
you to contact your local FBI office or your local police and -- to
report such activity.
Thank you, and let me turn it over to you, General.
Q: Is your knowledge based on specific targets, or is this -- has this
decision been made based on the weight -- more of the weight of
everything that you're looking at?
ATTY GEN. ASHCROFT: I think I will stick with the statements we've
made, that intelligence, which is assessed on a regular basis,
provides a very sound basis and a responsibility for us to communicate
what we believe to be an elevated threat to the American people. And
for us to go beyond that is probably not in the interest of our doing
our job successfully or well.
Q: Is this at all tied to the buildup of military presence in the Gulf
and the confrontation with Iraq? Or is it more just a continuing
threat of al-Qaeda cells?
ATTY GEN. ASHCROFT: Well, this is information regarding al-Qaeda,
which has been manifest in a variety of settings around the globe,
very clearly unrelated to the issues that you have otherwise
referenced -- the Bali bombings, the kinds of activities in --
discovered in England, the kinds of activities which were so damaging
in Mombasa.
So when you put it in that context, it's pretty clear that this is a
situation where al-Qaeda is going to strike the United States and at
the interests of free people in other settings. And it's very clear
that they were willing to do that on September 11th of 2001 without
any special provocation. It's their intention to do what they can to
disrupt free people and to destroy the values for which America stands
and which it represents so prominently in the world. It's very clear
to us that we've taken action based on this kind of intelligence and
the kind of information that reflects this as the motivation, which is
the long-continuing motivation of al-Qaeda.
Q: For Secretary Ridge, how confident are you that state and local
agencies know specifically what they should be doing in response to
the threat and that they have specific plans in place?
SEC. RIDGE: Well, first of all, for several months now, every governor
has called upon someone within their own communities to become their
homeland security adviser. And every single state and every single
governor has worked very, very hard to coordinate activity among their
state agencies and, where appropriate, working through their state
agencies down to the local agencies -- law enforcement, public health
and the like.
And so I'm confident that as this country continues to expand its
capacity to prevent terrorist attacks, to reduce our vulnerability,
and then respond to an attack if it occurs, that we get stronger every
day, perhaps not so much because of what federal government is doing
-- and we have a significant role -- but we have to give a great deal
of credit and highlight what the governors and the mayors and the
people in local communities, as well as the private sector, are doing.
Q: Mr. Ridge, we've talked to state and local community people and
they say they're confused about what to do. They don't know what
specific actions they need to take, going from yellow to orange. They
feel that they're already doing everything they can and should be
Can you be more specific about what they should do with this elevated
SEC. RIDGE: Well, I think you'll find that through the efforts of --
particularly of the FBI, I know simultaneous communications are going
out, as we speak, to the 1,700 to 1,800 law enforcement agencies
around the country, that we've given them some information, and they
are professionals and they know how to act on specific information,
and they will. You know, again, we realize and understand that from a
technical point of view, we want and need to build up our capacity to
reduce our own vulnerability and to respond when a terrorist event.
That's one of the reasons that the state and locals are hopeful, very,
very hopeful, that the Congress will send -- make available to them in
excess of -- well, $3.5 billion through the first responders, and
nearly -- a significant part of the $6 billion to combat a
bioterrorist threat, that the president submitted to Congress almost a
year ago. When those dollars are available to these state and local
communities, because these state and local communities have been
developing plans to enhance their capacity to respond, through
training and the acquisition of equipment, they'll be in even better
shape today than they were yesterday.
So, yes, I have confidence that they know what to do. I have
confidence that they know what they need to do to be even better
prepared, and confidence that once they get the money, it will be very
appropriately and effectively spent.
Q: Secretary Ridge, is there any concern that some of our first
responders -- our firefighters, our cops -- may be called to military
SEC. RIDGE: Well, I think, as we well know -- it's kind of interesting
when you have first responders and police and fire, what have you,
that sense of public service often takes those men and women into the
Guard and the Reserve. And clearly, that is a situation that the
country has had to confront several times in its history when we've
had to build up the military presence, and then the community has to
But I -- the extraordinary element within your question is how people
-- there are some Americans, some of our citizens, some of our
neighbors among us just can't find enough ways to serve us. And when
it's at the local level, they want to serve us in a police department
or a fire department, and when their nation calls them, they want to
serve in the Guard or the Reserve. So we just have to adjust to those
Q: How long do you anticipate the current threat level will stay at
this point?
ATTY GEN. ASHCROFT: The threat level designation is driven by
intelligence information analysis. And as long as it remains high, it
will remain high. And if we come to the conclusion, based on
information, based on activity, we'll reduce it.
For example, on September the 10th of last year, you may remember that
we moved the designation from "elevated," which is the yellow
category, to "high," which is the orange category. One of the
considerations, I think, that was cited at that time was
terrorist-related activity in upstate New York. There were other
factors as well. Subsequent to that elevation, we were able to
neutralize that cell in upstate New York, and based on an
understanding of that, together with other information about the
threat, we were able to take the threat level back down.
But the level of the actual threat is what, as we perceive it,
understand it and are aware of it through intelligence resources and
activities and law enforcement resources and activities, the constant
investigations and activities here at home as well as our information
collection and our observation of things abroad, that provides the
basis for making these judgments. And so we would say that we hope to
reduce the level of the threat by our activities. We have, I think,
been successful in doing that on various occasions over a substantial
period of time, with, you know, lots of -- substantial numbers of
convictions, lots of apprehensions, not just here but around the
world. And we would look forward to a time when a reduced threat level
makes it possible for us to reduce the designation.
Q: When you first last year talked about the threat of a "dirty bomb,"
when you announced Padilla's capture, what is the current state of
your knowledge about al-Qaeda's ability to construct a so-called dirty
bomb and to detonate it? And how much of that concern fuels your
current thinking and the decision to raise the threat level?
ATTY GEN. ASHCROFT: As I indicated in my remarks, we have seen, both
from the practice of al-Qaeda and from the law enforcement work of
individuals around the world and from the intelligence community, that
al-Qaeda continues to demonstrate a very serious interest in chemical,
biological as well as radiological devices, the impacts of which would
obviously be adverse. It's based on those considerations, as well as
others, that we find this occasion one in which we feel that we should
elevate this designation from elevated state to a high state of alert.
Q: You mentioned that there's no need for individuals to change or
cancel domestic events or activities or work plans. How about
ATTY GEN. ASHCROFT: Well, the State Department made and issued a very
substantial sort of -- substantial is probably the wrong word -- a
significant statement about certain kinds of international travel. We
believe the State Department has gotten that right and individuals
should take into account the kinds of things and the advice given in
the State Department's communication.
Yes, sir?
Q: Was there any hesitation about raising the threat level based on
the anxieties it might cause? Or was it purely an intelligence-driven
ATTY GEN. ASHCROFT: Well, we believe -- first of all, this is an
intelligence-driven decision. And we believe the American people have
the ability to accommodate this kind of information-sharing as a
strategy in which they participate for being successful in the fight
against terrorism. We believe that when the American people have
elevated levels of alertness and when the American public servants
engage in activities, as well as individuals in the private sector, to
secure the country more effectively, this deters terrorists in their
activities and plans. So, we believe that the announcement of this can
help in the prevention of terrorism.
The secretary has clearly -- made what I consider to be a profound
point. Sometimes changes in the way in which we secure things, changes
in routines, also can be disruptive. And one of the strategies about
security in which some, not only governmental entities involve
themselves, but private entities, is that they bury the security from
time to time so that these who would observe their activities and
think they could count on a particular security strategy to always be
in place, would be -- would find themselves surprised. And surprise is
not the friend of those who want to do things in secret.
STAFF: Last question.
Q: Yes, a question for Secretary Ridge. Secretary Rumsfeld took nine
of your Coast Guard cutters and two port security units, all of these
involved in port security, and sent them to the Gulf. Is this a good
idea, in light of this increased risk?
SEC. RIDGE: One of the remarkable qualities of the United States Coast
Guard is their ability to adapt to a change in mission status and to
rely upon their Reserve component in times of national crisis, when
part of their operation is pulled in to support a Department of
Defense initiative.
Commandant Collins and I have had several conversations about this. He
has a definite plan as to how he and his colleagues within the Coast
Guard can back-fill with the reserves and others to make sure that we
don't lose any of the capacity to help protect the homeland.
So again, it's -- for those folks who don't know too much about the
Coast Guard, and probably one of the most under-appreciated
organizations in the federal government, their ability, an historic
ability to adapt to this kind of change in mission and move quickly
and responsibly is one of their unique qualities. So we don't lose any
force protection. They will adapt.
ATTY GEN. ASHCROFT: Thank you all very much.
(end transcript)
(Distributed by the Office of International Information Programs, U.S.
Department of State. Web site: http://usinfo.state.gov)

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