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Homeland Security

09 August 2004

A Nation on Alert

Op-ed by Secretary of Homeland Security Tom Ridge

(This column by Tom Ridge, who is Secretary of Homeland Security, was published in The Wall Street Journal August 9 and is in the public domain. No republication restrictions.)

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A Nation on Alert
By Tom Ridge

In the war on terror, information can be our best weapon. Most of the time the threat intelligence we glean -- while helpful -- is frustratingly general and gray.

Last week that was not the case. The information we received was uniquely specific. In spite of that, some have questioned the relevance of the information and the motivation behind sharing it.

There is no question about all the 40-page casing files found on the laptop computer of an al Qaeda operative. There is no question about the detailed surveillance carried out on the New York Stock Exchange, Prudential Financial, Citigroup, the IMF and the World Bank. There is no question about how the discovery of this information fit together with other intelligence streams to form an undeniable picture of a potential terrorist attack.

Information on the types of uniforms worn by guards, potential escape routes, places where employees hang out -- detail after detail down to the incline that exists on one of the underground parking garages -- is shockingly black and white.

And there was no question on the part of the people who received this information on what had to be done. Those directly involved acted upon this intelligence in a swift and decisive manner. State and local officials and private sector leadership ramped up security procedures, employees showed up to work, and citizens continued to go about their daily lives with the same vigilance and fortitude exhibited since the attacks of 9/11.

Some have also questioned the motivation and timing of the recent terror alert. In an election year, there will be those who want to view the release of this information through a political prism. Let me state what should go without stating: There is no place for politics in homeland security. We cannot allow the current political environment to distract government or private-sector leaders from doing what needs to be done to protect public safety.

As we reported in April, gathered intelligence suggests that al Qaeda is planning a large-scale attack on American soil to disrupt our democratic process. Last Friday morning, we first learned of detailed information about specific locations scouted by al Qaeda for possible attack.

These casing operations occurred in 2000 and 2001 and were recently updated in January of this year. But regardless of when al Qaeda did the groundwork, upon seeing the shocking new detail of their plans we were compelled to share this information immediately.

The 9/11 Commission outlined in great depth how al Qaeda operates. In the commission's own words this is "an enemy that is sophisticated, patient, disciplined, and lethal." And in their report, they detailed the long casing operations this organization undertakes to carry out its attacks.

Additionally, the commission found that the "casing" for the Nairobi embassy bombing in 1998 began in 1993 and that the planning for the horrific attacks of 9/11 began to take shape as early as 1996. Imagine if we had uncovered schematics for flying commercial airliners into the World Trade Towers in early 2001. Would we have dismissed the information because it was from 1996?

No. We would have given anything to have known what the terrorists were planning -- given anything to have been able to warn Americans -- given anything to have had a chance to stop the terrorists from succeeding.

As the 9/11 Commission noted -- "The biggest impediment to all-source analysis -- to a greater likelihood of connecting the dots -- is the human or systemic resistance to sharing information."

It is a tough balance we strike at the Department of Homeland Security between sharing information that makes us safer and sharing information that tips our hand to terrorists. But if we have information that could potentially save lives, we will share it with the American people every single time.

In the end, let's not lose sight of the facts. The facts in this case are that we uncovered detailed surveillance reports from al Qaeda pointing to an operation with the potential to kill many civilians. These reports, coupled with other separate threat information, demanded that action be taken. And, it was. We put out the facts. Government, law enforcement, companies and citizens took the appropriate precautions, put protections in place and have continued on.

And let there be no question that we too will continue to do what we need to as a government and as a nation to defeat terrorism and secure the country and freedoms that we all cherish.

(Mr. Ridge is Secretary of Homeland Security.)

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(Distributed by the Bureau of International Information Programs, U.S. Department of State. Web site: http://usinfo.state.gov)

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