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Homeland security chief: U.S. safer, but work remains

Homeland Security Director Tom Ridge said the war on terrorism will continue even if al Qaeda is dismantled.
Homeland Security Director Tom Ridge said the war on terrorism will continue even if al Qaeda is dismantled.  

WASHINGTON (CNN) -- Homeland Security Director Tom Ridge said Sunday that the United States is safer and more vigilant than it was more than four months ago when terrorists attacked the World Trade Center and Pentagon.

"Every single day since September 11, we've made ourselves safer, stronger and more secure," Ridge said in an interview with CNN's Wolf Blitzer. "We still have a lot of work left to do. We're making progress every day."

Ridge said Americans need to be on high alert as the United States attempts to hunt down accused terrorist mastermind Osama bin Laden, cells of his al Qaeda network and sympathizers around the world.

Authorities have been vigilant in cracking down on al Qaeda and disrupting and ferreting out potential terror activities, Ridge said.

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"We do know we are an open, welcoming and trusting country. We do know that we let millions and millions of people into this country every single year," he said. "We should operate under the assumption there are still some sympathizers or cells in the United States."

But even if al Qaeda is dismantled and bin Laden captured, the war won't be over, he said, indicating it will be a continuing operation in the United States.

"It's the responsibility of our staff to plan and prepare this being almost a permanent part of our environment in the future," Ridge said.

When asked if he sees the war against terrorism as equivalent to the war against illegal drugs or the war against crime, Ridge said, "I think that's a fair statement."

Asked about ongoing investigations, Ridge said alleged shoe bomber Richard Reid does not appear to have been acting alone.

"Time will tell if we can directly link him to a specific organization or not," Ridge said.

Reid is accused of trying to ignite plastic explosives in his sneakers during an American Airlines flight from Paris, France, to Miami, Florida, on December 22. Flight attendants and passengers prevented him from doing so, authorities said, and the plane was diverted to Boston, Massachusetts, with a military escort. No one on the plane was hurt.

On Friday, an Egyptian man was charged with making false statements to FBI agents about a hand-held aviation radio found after the September 11 attacks in his 51st-floor room in a hotel across the street from the World Trade Center.

Ridge was asked if there is a direct link between that incident and September 11.

"The FBI is probing in that direction," he said.

On another topic, Ridge said the teen-ager who recently slammed a small plane into a building in Tampa, Florida, appears to have been a "troubled young man" and presumably is not linked to al Qaeda.

As far as the anthrax probe is concerned, Ridge said that the FBI is following significant leads, but thousand of hoaxes have hampered the investigation. He said evidence has been pointing toward a domestic source.

Ridge also responded to an article Sunday in The New York Times that said "months into an expanded war on bioterrorism, the [U.S.] government is still making available to the public hundreds of formerly secret documents that tell how to turn dangerous germs into deadly weapons."

Ridge said officials have to look at the issue of whether such information, perceived as possibly harmful to security, should be made available to the public. Weighing America's freedom and security on such issues is "a priority" for officials in the Bush administration and Congress, he said.

"There are a lot of us who think that some of the information we share with the public probably should be restricted in some fashion," Ridge said. "We may have to take a look at these kinds of issues from a different perspective because of the tragedy of September 11."

Ridge said his office is eyeing some form of a management agency to deal with border issues involving commerce and security. He said the president wants him to consider needs and possible changes.

Ridge said the executive branch hasn't reached a consensus on the matter and indicated there isn't a turf war between agencies that deal with border issues, such as the Immigration and Naturalization Service. There are just differing opinions, he said.




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