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Homeland security chief: No plans to boost alert level

Homeland Security Director Tom Ridge says the lack of specific threats makes it hard to mount a response.
Homeland Security Director Tom Ridge says the lack of specific threats makes it hard to mount a response.

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ERIE, Pennsylvania (CNN) -- Homeland Security Director Tom Ridge on Sunday said he has no immediate plans to raise the nationwide level of terror alert from "elevated" risk to "high" risk, despite the recent rise in terror threats against the United States.

Last week, Al-Jazeera, the Qatar-based, Arabic language television network, said a three-minute audiotape that contains a call to arms to al Qaeda followers was made by Osama bin Laden.

The network also released a six-page statement purported to be from the terrorist group that warns the United States to "stop your support for Israel against the Palestinians, for Russians against the Chechens and leave us alone, or expect us in Washington and New York."

"Do not force us to ship you in coffins," the document states. (Full story)

"We could down the road raise" the threat level to high risk, Ridge told CNN's "Late Edition With Wolf Blitzer." "But when you do that, you have to worry about sustainability. There's enormous cost associated with it, and there are consequences other than financial."

Those consequences include inconvenience and delays at borders and airports, he said. And the costs of such a move, Ridge said, would be "enormous."

But Ridge added, "If there's a need and appropriate threat information that dictates that we take it to orange [from yellow] we will." (More on color-coded warning system)

Though the United States has been receiving more "chatter" about possible threats, Ridge credited the increase to the fact that authorities have detained more than 2,700 al Qaeda operatives worldwide.

But Ridge said the threats are vague.

"There has never been a time and a place and a means associated with those general threats," he said.

Lack of such specifics makes it tough for the United States to mount a specific response, he said.

An editorial in Sunday's New York Times criticized FBI warnings last week about al Qaeda as "Chicken Little alerts," adding, "The only thing warnings this vague are good for is providing political cover in case of disaster."

But Ridge rejected criticism from opposition leaders such as U.S. Sen. Tom Daschle, D-South Dakota, who have cited the administration for its failure to capture or kill bin Laden and defuse the threat from al Qaeda.

"They continue to be as great a threat as they were a year and a half ago," Daschle said last week. "So by what measure can we say this has been successful so far?"

"I think the senator and I have different means of measuring success," Ridge responded. "By the way, we will get bin Laden. We're committed to that. That is a priority of this war on terrorism."

Ridge pointed to the U.S.-led toppling of the Taliban in Afghanistan, the freezing of al Qaeda assets and the detention of terrorists as examples of the administration's success in the war against terrorism.

In addition, officials "have made enormous progress" combining domestic and foreign intelligence gathering and building international support, and the private sector is taking its own measures to protect the nation's infrastructure, he said.

Asked about a New York Times article Sunday that said Iraqi-Americans would be subject to new counterterrorism measures should the United States go to war with Iraq, Ridge acknowledged that in the event of war "additional security precautions will have to be taken in this country."

He added, "Clearly, any of these additional measures would have to be undertaken with an eye toward the limits, very appropriate limits, imposed on us by the Constitution of the United States."

But Ridge would not comment on any details.

He was also reticent about whether he will become the first secretary of the newly created Department of Homeland Security.

"I am prepared to serve the president however he feels that I can serve him best."

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