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Ridge: Alert to remain orange through the week

Homeland Security Secretary Tom Ridge
Homeland Security Secretary Tom Ridge

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Acts of terror
Tom Ridge
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WASHINGTON (CNN) -- U.S. Department of Homeland Security Secretary Tom Ridge on Tuesday said the recent heightened terror alert from elevated to high has prompted officials to raise security to unprecedented levels.

On Monday, Ridge said Washington was asking non-U.S. airlines entering the United States to increase security by placing armed air marshals aboard some flights that might be targets of terrorist hijackers. Ridge discussed the situation Tuesday with CNN's Bill Hemmer.

HEMMER: What is different about this threat that forces you to make such a significant order so suddenly?

RIDGE: We had begun conversations with some of our partners around the world about putting armed, well-trained sky marshals on flights of interest, but we decided to take a more comprehensive approach and just alert the world community -- and to remind them, I think, in a very polite but very appropriate way -- that international travel is everyone's concern and when we get specific information about flights coming into the United States, we hope we can have their cooperation so they can add another level of security to those flights.

HEMMER: You say this is just an alert -- is this only tied to Air France or is there more behind the story that we don't know?

RIDGE: Well, there's a continuous stream of threat-reporting that we've seen now for two years that al Qaeda continues to look at commercial aviation -- passenger traffic -- as either a target or as a weapon. And given the fact that millions of people travel around the world with dozens and dozens of airlines, we decided to just put the world -- not necessarily on notice -- but remind them that we're all in this together and when we get information about a flight coming from one of these countries we hope they cooperate with us and secure the flight -- put on air marshals.

HEMMER: Secretary Ridge, how credible are these reports about the possibility that al Qaeda may have infiltrated some staffs on international carriers working on behalf of the airline, maybe as a pilot, perhaps as a flight attendant -- how credible do you think those reports are?

RIDGE: Well, we know that they're interested in -- obviously -- in aviation and we know that some of the individuals involved in 9/11 had flight training. Whether or not the reports demonstrate that they're able to take off and land these flights, we're not real sure. But there are ways we can combat those reports and we have to assume in part that they are credible. And for that reason we deal with the reality of getting our international friends to help us secure these flights.

HEMMER: Is there proof that that's the case?

RIDGE: You know there's a lot of speculation, there's a lot of discussion about al Qaeda having pilots and since we know they've trained them before, we have to presume, whether or not the source is credible or not, that there may be some out there and it's precisely that concern that leads us to asking our international partners to do more with us to protect commercial flights.

HEMMER: You said "just speculation." Do you leave it at that or is there proof?

RIDGE: The credibility of the source is one matter, but since we know that they've trained pilots before, we take it as a fact that there may be some out there that have been trained -- how completely trained, we don't know. But that's one of the reasons we continue to add more and more security in the United States. We continue to look for partners around the world to add security.

HEMMER: Why do you believe that al Qaeda is so obsessed with airplanes? Is it easy? Is it dramatic? What's your answer?

RIDGE: Well, I think it's no longer easy given the comprehensive, layered series of security measures we've put in, but it's very dramatic. And there is no doubt that within the past two years since 9/11 some of the information that we've received from credible sources suggests that they're still very interested in commercial aviation.

But we're interested in adding levels of security. And so from the curbside through to the cockpit, where we're going to arm some of the pilots, we've hardened the cockpit doors, we've got thousands and thousands of air marshals, we've got baggage screeners and passenger screeners, we're going to see even greater improvements in technology, we've got hardened cockpit doors on international flights coming into the United States, we have Transportation Security Administration inspectors going around the world to see what additional measures other countries are taking to screen people and cargo and baggage. So I think that every single day the international aviation community takes additional steps to improve safety around the world.

HEMMER: We're at orange alert right now. What's the possibility we go one step higher, the highest alert, red, before the holiday weekend's over?

RIDGE: Right now we think that the level of threat is appropriately at orange and we have ramped up in an unprecedented way levels of security around the country and I think you're going to see it remain there through the balance of the week.

HEMMER: There's about a half-million people that may plow into Times Square on New Year's Eve. Are they safe?

RIDGE: Oh, they're safe. I will tell you that you start with your [New York Police] Commissioner [Raymond] Kelly and [New York] Mayor [Michael] Bloomberg and [New York] Gov. [George] Pataki and I don't think there's a city that has done more and sustained a higher level of security and protection than New York City. We're obviously working with them and providing some additional assistance upon their request. We've got a good partnership with the city of New York and I hope everybody has a lot of fun in Times Square on New Year's Eve.


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