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Ridge: Terror threat 'chatter' down

Outgoing secretary says Cat Stevens would still barred

From Mike M. Ahlers
CNN Washington Bureau

Tom Ridge
Acts of terror
Judiciary (system of justice)

WASHINGTON (CNN) -- Homeland Security Secretary Tom Ridge said Thursday the amount of terror threat information intercepted by U.S. intelligence has declined in recent months, down from peak levels during late 2003 and spring 2004.

"The decibel level is lower," Ridge said, adding that he suspects the reduction was because of U.S. military activity, the "hardening" of American infrastructure and steps to restrict terrorists' access to money.

Ridge's comments came during a wide-ranging conversation with reporters on Thursday, just three weeks before he is scheduled to step down as the nation's first secretary of homeland security.

Ridge also announced the release of a wide-ranging National Response Plan to coordinate U.S. government response to large-scale emergencies, including terrorist attacks. (Full story)

During the conversation, Ridge expressed satisfaction with the job the Homeland Security Department has done during his tenure, implored Congress to consolidate oversight of the department into fewer committees and defended the decision to refuse entry into the country to singer Yusuf Islam, formerly known as Cat Stevens.

He said that while pilots' sensitivities to possible laser-beam attacks were legitimate, "aircraft and the pilots are at very low risk" of being harmed by lasers. (Full story)

Concerning threats against the United States, Ridge said, "There certainly is a diminution, reduction in the amount of intelligence and the decibel level is lower.

"There have been this year probably more videos and audios from [Osama] bin Laden and [his deputy, Ayman al-] Zawahiri than we've had before, but it's not news that we're the No. 1 target, they'd like to undermine the economy. ...

"Whether or not any of the military activity, the destruction of their leadership -- obviously I think they've been moving around quite a bit -- access to money, the hardening of America.

"It can be any of those and it can be none of those. I suspect it's probably all of them," he said. "And plug in the fact that they're long-range actors as well."

David Heyman, director of the homeland security program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington, told The Associated Press that the significance of the drop in "chatter" was unknown.

"We had a lot of chatter and there were no attacks," Heyman told the AP. "Now that there's no chatter -- does that mean there will be no attack, or is there something else we should be concerned about? I don't think we have enough information to conclude what it means."

Ridge brought up the topic of Yusuf Islam, the singer whose London-to-Washington flight in September was diverted to Maine after it was learned he was on a terror watch list. Islam was returned to England. (Full story)

Ridge noted that the British-born singer was one of eight people to be turned away that day but, because of his celebrity, was the only one to receive widespread publicity.

Ridge was asked if he stood by the decision and would prevent the singer from coming to the United States today.

"Yes," Ridge replied, saying the intelligence concerning him had not changed.

Authorities said at the time that Islam had financially contributed to known terrorist organizations.

Ridge expressed satisfaction that no terrorist incidents had occurred in the United States during his tenure. But when asked if he could identify any specific terrorist incidents that had been averted, he said he could not.

He noted that the Justice Department, assisted by the Homeland Security Department, had arrested members of several terrorist cells in the United States.

Change in oversight wanted

Ridge, who represented Pennsylvania in Congress before becoming the state's governor, was perhaps most emphatic about his belief in the need to limit the number of congressional committees with oversight over the omnibus department.

He said congressional demands are extraordinarily time consuming and labor intensive.

"There are literally hundreds of reports that have to be filed, thousands of questions that have to be answered. We had in excess of a thousand briefings last year," he said.

"Wouldn't the country be safer, wouldn't our priorities be harmonized and wouldn't the fiscal situation be clearer, if we had just one group of senators and congressman working, as they do within the Defense Department?"

Ridge said Congress "responded quickly, collectively to the 9/11 commission's call for the restructuring of the intelligence community." (Full story)

"I'm hopeful that one of these days in the near future they'll bring that same collective will and enthusiasm to the same report that also talks about their own oversight [of Homeland Security]," he said.

Ridge brushed aside suggestions that security at the upcoming presidential inauguration would be inordinately greater than at previous ones, saying inaugurations have always been high-security events. (Full story)

"There will be more technology deployed, and probably additional aviation restrictions and more bodies [security officers] on the ground," he said. "But no, it's not going to be so totally disproportionate that I can say it's the most expensive, most elaborate.

"It's probably more expensive than 2000 just because there's more people, more technology."

Ridge said he plans on leaving office as scheduled February 1, but that he would stay on longer if asked by President Bush.

"But I think they're well into the process," he said. "And I'm absolutely convinced they're going to have a successor identified long before February 1."

He said his top priorities upon leaving are to brief his successor, step back and "exhale."

Bush nominated former New York City Police Commissioner Bernard Kerik to replace Ridge, but Kerik withdrew in December after admitting he had not paid all required taxes for a housekeeper. He also acknowledged "a question with regard to her legal status in this country." (Full story)

Bush has not named a nominee to replace Kerik.

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