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CNN BREAKING NEWS

Terror Threat Alert Level to be Raised to Orange Today

Aired February 7, 2003 - 10:41   ET

THIS IS A RUSH TRANSCRIPT. THIS COPY MAY NOT BE IN ITS FINAL FORM AND MAY BE UPDATED.

CAROL LIN, CNN ANCHOR: OK, we've got some breaking news now. Earlier, Kelli Arena, out of the Justice Department, was reporting that the government may raise the terror threat alert in the United States from yellow to the higher alert of orange.
CNN's Mike Brooks, with his law enforcement background, is helping us out today. He's got some breaking news and new information on whether -- what's going to happen.

MIKE BROOKS, CNN CORRESPONDENT: That's correct, Carol.

I'm hearing from law enforcement sources that it will in fact be changed sometime today. Now we're going to go from an elevated condition, which is yellow, to the high condition of orange. Now a lot of different things play into this. You know there's -- is there credible threat information, has that threat information been corroborated and it looks like some of that probably has now.

Now coming -- right now on the Homeland Security Web site, just looking at it, they still have it as an elevated condition yellow. They still have, but that again, as we're saying, that is going to be raised.

Now, we look at a high condition. Now what kind of things play into a high condition? Reading right from the Homeland Security Web site, a high condition is declared when there is a high terror -- a high risk of terrorist attacks in addition to the protective measures taken in the previous condition, measures in addition to agency specific protective measures that they will implement it says. And then they talk about coordinating...

LIN: Translate that.

BROOKS: Basically it's a -- they have enough information to say that we should be at a higher level. Last time we saw us at a high level was back during the 9/11 anniversary when we saw around the Washington, D.C. area some additional measures taken, we saw some different batteries put up,...

LIN: Right.

BROOKS: ... antiaircraft batteries put up around. I think a lot of this has to do, and we're hearing this -- most of this has to do with a lot of the threats that are coming in as a result of actions.

LIN: So, Mike, we're just -- just so people have a perspective, we're showing them on the screen right there, that was the actual scale that it's going from yellow, right...

BROOKS: To orange.

LIN: So from elevated...

BROOKS: Exactly.

LIN: ... to high.

BROOKS: Exactly.

LIN: In layperson's terms, as we go to work, go to lunch, visit our friends, make plans for the weekend, what does that mean in terms of what precautions we should take, what kinds of things we should look for and when we see something, who do we call?

BROOKS: Well, Americans historically have gotten a little complacent. If something doesn't happen six months to a year down the road, they start to get complacent. But what -- and law enforcement is telling me what citizens need to do is to remain vigilant. Kind of have -- you know have an increased height of awareness. If you're at a sporting event, if you're at a shopping mall, if you're on -- if you're at your office, on the way to work, if you see a suspicious package, if you see anything that you think that your gut tells you is suspicious, call the law enforcement and let them know.

Now that's one of the other things too that the -- with this increased threat level, local law enforcement will coordinate, as they have been, a little bit more with the federal authorities. As you know, in most of the FBI field offices around the country there are now joint terrorism task forces and those task forces are made up of a number of different agencies to include state, local and federal agencies all working together. And they're -- right now I can tell you talking to some of my sources that in Washington and the other major cities right now, these task forces have been working 24/7, 24 hours a day, 7 days a week, to run down a lot of different leads, which means -- leads in law enforcement terms mean information they're getting in about possible threats.

LIN: Right. Right.

BROOKS: And that's -- well they're trying to run them down to find out if there are any specific threats against the United States in -- apparently the government feels that there have been enough of these threats and there might be some specificity to some of these threats to raise the threat level a little bit.

LIN: Let's find out if in fact there is that specificity.

CNN's Jeanne Meserve reporting in from Washington.

Jeanne, you've been working your sources. What is -- what specifically is prompting the government to raise the terror threat now?

JEANNE MESERVE, CNN CORRESPONDENT: We don't know if there is a specific and credible threat, Carol, that's leading them to do this and what that threat might be. However, we do know in recent days there's real -- really been an uptick in the amount of intelligence that has been coming in. It has been of concern to officials throughout the government. There has been a lot of discussion, in fact, debate about whether or not to take this move. Some people feeling that even if there's no specific threat there was enough in the volume of a threat that might warrant raising the threat level up to the orange level. Others saying unless we have something specific, unless we have something very credible, unless we can give people real guidance on what they should do in reaction to this, perhaps this is not the right thing to do. We do know that the recommendation, according to Kelli Arena's source, did go to the administration to raise it this morning.

To put it in further context, in addition to this uptick in information you have the Haus (ph). That is the Muslim pilgrimage to Mecca and Medina which takes place on an annual basis. That is upcoming. There is some fear that that very important date on the Muslim calendar might inspire some particular actors within the Muslim community to violence. Also, of course, the impending war with Iraq, perhaps that also a cause for heightened concern about the increased volume that they've hearing. Just yesterday, the State Department issued a worldwide caution to Americans abroad telling them to be very careful. If indeed we're going to see this elevated today, that would fit into this.

I wanted to amplify a little bit what Mike was talking about about how we're going to see this played out across American if indeed the threat level is raised. Last time it happened, one thing that happened immediately is you saw an uptick in security around national monuments. Those, of course, have always been regarded as potential targets for terrorists. You could expect to see increased security around those.

Also, all sorts of critical infrastructure will be protected, roads, bridges, power plants, things of that sort. There are specific guidelines that each one of the federal departments has been turned in to the now Department of Homeland Security specifying what steps they're going to take. In addition, there will be a reaching out to the private sector to try and inspire them to take more protective measures. Eighty-five percent of the critical infrastructure in this country in fact in private hands.

But here's an interesting point, Carol, when I have spoken to some local officials about this, they have told me quite frankly that last time the threat alert level went to orange they didn't do anything. Some of them simply felt because of where they were located in the country they did not feel that this threat alert status was relevant to them. And so in fact in some places of the country you'll see absolutely no change in status whatsoever if and when this alert status does indeed go up from yellow to orange.

LIN: Right.

MESERVE: Back to you. LIN: And a good point there, Jeanne, because it hasn't happened yet. CNN's Mike Brooks is working his sources saying that it will happen sometime today. But you make a very good point, Jeanne, about local law enforcement because they're already strapped with so many of the reservists who are on their forces. Some of these departments are losing 10 percent of their work force because they're having to go over to the Persian Gulf, so that's really putting them in a very tough position.

MESERVE: It's not only a question of manpower, it's also a question of financial resources. You've heard it over and over again in recent months from state and local officials that they have not gotten one penny of assistance from the federal government to help with their homeland security efforts. Some will acknowledge to you that what they have had to do was back off their homeland security efforts. They've had to ratchet it down simply because of the financial situation.

Last time we went to orange, it was interesting, there was some talk about how difficult was it going to be to come from orange back down to yellow. In fact, that was something that turned out the federal government was able to do quite successfully. It was greeted by great relief with local officials who were afraid that once it went up to orange it was going to stay there indefinitely and put incredible strains on their budget. And these are, as we know, very tough budgetary times...

LIN: Very tough...

MESERVE: ... for state and local governments.

LIN: You bet. All right. Thank you very much, Jeanne Meserve. Jeanne, please stay there, we still have many more questions about exactly what or when -- what this threat alert may mean and when it might actually happen.

If you're just joining us, the government is now saying that it will be, according to CNN Mike Brooks' sources, will be raising the terror threat alert from yellow to orange which means a state of alert at high.

We are going to bring in right now -- there you can see the chart so you have some perspective. We're going from yellow elevated, right there, significant risk of terrorist attacks, that's where we've been standing now, to high. At some point today the government is going to be raising the terror threat alert. High risk of terror attacks based on a collection of intelligence coming in from different intelligence sources.

What this also could mean is that public officials have to make some important decisions. If there are major events happening in their cities, will those events at public arenas continue to go on?

We booked David Stern, the NBA Commissioner, to join us today to talk all things NBA. But, Mr. Stern, thank you very much for joining us. I just have to ask you about the All-Star Game this weekend, do you expect that it's going to continue given this higher threat that we're going to be facing?

DAVID STERN, NBA COMMISSIONER: Yes. I'm actually glad or sad to say that we planned the security for this event with the impending prospect of a war at the orange level. And so our security is very much in place and the All-Star activities are going forward. And they're -- as we speak, they're in -- they're in full swing in multiple sites around the city of Atlanta.

LIN: Mr. Stern, when you hear about the threat alert being raised, when you hear the government of the United States saying to public officials that we believe we have enough evidence to warn the public that you may be at a significant, or at the very least, a high risk of a terror threat, what goes through your mind when you are facing an event such as the All-Star Game which is going to have major publicity?

STERN: You know I must tell you that the same thing that goes through my mind in an office of several hundred people for whom we have responsibility every day or I think in companies around the world are focusing on, it's an awesome responsibility. We're doing it to some degree without having a very specific notion of when, where, how, but you have to add the extra expense of all the precautions that employers and event stagers do and hope for the best.

LIN: What sort of security are we going to be seeing then at the game as a result of this higher level?

STERN: It's -- I can tell you that NBA security with Fulton County Police, Atlanta City Police, state police, FBI, Alcohol Firearms Tobacco, Secret Service, I mean there's a vast array of things that are going on that I don't think it, despite the nature of CNN, I don't think it's a good idea for me to be discussing in great detail with you other than to say at some very unusual expense we do whatever we have to do to make our guests as secure as they possibly can be.

LIN: Well I covered the millennium celebrations in Times Square where the security level was extremely tight. In fact, what they compared it to was White House level security. The layers of security that you had to go through within some 50 blocks of Times Square in order to get to that location. I mean would you say that an event like the All-Star Game would be comparable to one of protecting the president of the United States? Can you give people that assurance?

STERN: I think -- I think -- I think that -- I think that when you see what goes on with respect to securing every entrance, to making sure that the guests all go through security devices, to make sure that packages are inspected, all of those things are getting to be more or less routine in what we do. I don't want to tell you what a determined person can do in any place, you know, with the nano (ph) technology and the degree of sophistication that's now available, it would make your -- it would make you, as you look backwards at the millennium celebration, make you understand how vulnerable you really were despite all of that security. So I don't want to sit here and try to kid anybody. And I don't think we should kid ourselves in the context of suicide bombers, we're learning an entirely new way of life...

LIN: Yes.

STERN: ... that I think the Israelis have had to live with for these last several years.

LIN: David Stern, how much we have learned since just the turn of the century...

STERN: It's not a lot of fun and it's not a lot of fun for us to raise generations, to bequeath this to them, but that's the state. And what we owe to them is to make this very much a part of our planning and our budget so that we don't have to second guess ourselves as to possibly not having done enough.

LIN: Yes, you bet. All right, a big and awesome responsibility this weekend, but hopefully a lot of fun, too. Thank you very much, David Stern. I'm sure...

STERN: Can't we talk about -- can't we talk about the fun?

LIN: You know I'd love to talk about the fun, but right now I've got to focus on terror alerts.

STERN: Don't you want to talk about Michael Jordan or Yao Ming?

LIN: I do. I do, it pains me greatly.

STERN: Come on, Carol. All right, I understand.

LIN: OK, you promise you'll come back? Promise you'll come back?

STERN: I promise, even though you guys are spoilsports, you -- yes, I understand, you've got to fill time with...

LIN: I know.

STERN: I got it. Thanks for having me.

LIN: It's the burden of the responsibility here. We've just got to let the American public know what this means.

STERN: I understand.

LIN: It's on people's minds, especially with possible war pending in Iraq.

Thank you very much, David Stern, of the NBA.

STERN: Thank you for having me.

LIN: And say hi to Yao Ming for me.

STERN: I will.

LIN: OK. The tallest Chinese man in the world I think.

In the meantime, we're going to have much more on this upgraded terror threat alert that we're expecting to happen sometime today, what it means, where it's coming from, what exactly is the threat that you might be facing and what can you do? We'll try to answer all those questions for you as we expect it to go from elevated to high.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

LIN: We do have breaking news this morning that President Bush is going to be raising the national terror threat level from an elevated status of yellow, that's the code color, to high and that is the code color of orange.

CNN's Jeanne Meserve is coming to us live from Washington with more about this.

Jeanne, when is the government going to make this official?

MESERVE: Carol, we believe they will make it official at 1:00 this afternoon. Government officials telling CNN that there will be a press conference at that time with Attorney General John Ashcroft and the Secretary of the Department of Homeland Security Tom Ridge, 1:00. But we may glean some details before that. I have been told by some state level homeland security officials that a conference call that is or was scheduled for yesterday afternoon at 4:30 was postponed. This...

(AUDIO GAP)

... call takes place. We may find out more of the specifics of why this threat level is being raised at this time.

As I mentioned before, in the past they have said we need to have a specific and credible threat to raise the level from elevated to high. However, unclear at this point if they have that or it's simply the volume of information that they've been receiving in recent days, a very high volume of traffic. Some counterterrorism officials telling CNN's Kelli Arena that they have not seen this sort of traffic since 9/11. So we wait to hear more details. Of course we'll bring them to you as soon as we have them -- Carol.

LIN: Right. And in case our audience is just joining us, towards the top of the hour, Jeanne, we just want to tell you that this will be made official at a press conference with Homeland Security Director Tom Ridge, as well as John Ashcroft, who will be holding a news conference at 1:00 Eastern this afternoon. And we're going to bring that announcement to you live.

Jeanne, if you're still there, I'm just wondering, this is based on, as you said, a body of evidence being presented, no specific credible threat, but a lot of chatter in the international community. Can you explain to us what that is, what they're hearing, what's the wording that worries them so in the Bush administration?

MESERVE: First to -- first to clarify, I don't know if there is a specific and credible threat. That's what we're going to be finding out as a result of these conference calls and the press conference at 1:00 if there is something very specific.

Sorry, some of my people calling me back right now.

LIN: Jeanne, you want to go ahead and take that call? Why don't you go ahead and take that call?

MESERVE: Well, I just cut them off,...

LIN: OK.

MESERVE: ... so we might as well talk here.

LIN: All right. Go ahead.

MESERVE: Excuse me, refresh my memory, where was I going with that?

LIN: Well we were talking about in terms of chatter that they're hearing...

MESERVE: Right.

LIN: ... in the intelligence community.

MESERVE: Right.

LIN: What does that mean and what sorts of things are they hearing that concern them so?

MESERVE: Well, of course intelligence gathering is going on all the time. They have human sources of intelligence, they're monitoring signals intelligence, all this stuff comes in to the federal government. In an ideal world what's happening is that as this comes in, they're evaluating this to see if it's credible, to see if it's specific, to see what the gravity of the threat is and they're comparing notes. They're trying to figure out if things mesh, if dots connect, if they can see a pattern. If something they hear from one source that might not be the most credible source in the world does in fact coincide with something they're hearing from other sources and if they should upgrade the value of that intelligence.

So this is going on, this sifting, this evaluation going on really on a -- on a minute-by-minute basis in the federal government. It is reviewed, synthesized, taken to the top officials. They, on a daily basis, make a recommendation to the president on what to do with this and whether in fact the threat level should be raised. In this instance, a recommendation going to the president saying yes, let's raise it up to threat level orange.

LIN: All right. Well, Jeanne, the more you know the more we know, so I'm going to go ahead and let you return your phone calls and work your sources.

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