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CNN BREAKING NEWS

Local Law Enforcement Agencies Ramp Up Security

Aired May 20, 2003 - 15:30   ET

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

MILES O'BRIEN, CNN ANCHOR: Breaking news this hour. Law enforcement officials all around the country ramping up security in the face of a possible terrorist threat.
There you see live pictures of some possible terrorist targets. And areas that might very well be affected by this raising of the threat level from yellow to orange. That is high.

Within the past hour, the Department of Homeland Security placed the nation on the higher state of alert, setting in motion a chain of extra precautions around the country.

CNN's John King is standing by at the White House with the latest on all of that.

John, you get the sense that the public reports of all of this so-called chatter got ahead of the announcement -- in a sense?

JOHN KING, CNN SR. WHITE HOUSE CORRESPONDENT: Well, certainly, Miles, there has been a debate in the United States, whether it be in the political circles here in Washington, law enforcement circles across the country -- in the wake, certainly, of the bombings in Saudi Arabia and the obvious, what the government says, increased al Qaeda activity against U.S. interests in targets overseas as to what could possibly be the ramifications here at home.

Today, they came home -- if you will. President Bush, just a short time ago here at the White House, approving this decision.

We then saw the president out on the White House grounds. He came out to say hello to some staff members posing for a class photo on the grounds.

You see orange there. That is high. Now you see the president walking out earlier today. This was a just short time after he had made this decision.

The president deciding, after his homeland security council came to him and told him that based on the latest U.S. Intelligence, they believe there was a good possibility that al Qaeda terrorists were planning additional strikes here in The United States.

Now we should stress to our viewers -- our sources in the government tell us there is not specific information about any specific target, any specific location at all, even what type of attack might be coming. But there was enough of this information, -- intercepted conversations, movements of suspected terrorists and the like -- that the administration decided, based on what they were hearing here The United States and what they were seeing overseas, to err on the side of caution and for the fourth time since the government has had this color-coded system, since March 2002, go to orange.

Now what does that mean? It means the word has already gone out to state and local law enforcement officials across the country, asking them to be more vigilant, especially around what the government calls soft targets. Not government installations. but places where you have large gatherings of civilians -- hotels, convention centers, major sporting sites, and the like.

That word going out now -- we're told there will be an official announcement from the government within a matter of minutes and then Asa Hutchinson -- he is the undersecretary of the new Department of Homeland Security -- he is scheduled to speak to reporters on Capitol Hill about 15 minutes from now.

O'BRIEN: Well, John, I know some of these local and state authorities have already been taxed as they try to protect -- I guess you call them the hard targets.

When you start looking at soft targets, it almost becomes difficult to really get a sense of how big the problem is. There are so many potential places. How do they go about the process of beefing up security when any shopping mall is a potential target?

KING: Well, you're hitting the issue right on the head. That is why so many local law enforcement officials question this system -- the color code.

They say absent specific information, isn't this in some ways a wild goose chase or -- some mayors would say -- a waste of money or at least a drain of money and that they need more help from Washington. But the administration says it would rather be safe than sorry, and it wants to put these law enforcement agencies on notice.

If there is any specific intelligence, even crumbs of it, they will share it. In the past, we've seen tighter security around bridges in New York and San Francisco because there was talk in the intercepted communications about perhaps targeting bridges. We will watch for things like that in the hours ahead.

We were told this time it's not so specific, and much of the decisions about how to implement specific security improvements are left to the mayors and the sheriffs, and we'll watch that across the country in the hours ahead.

CNN's John King at the White House. Stay close. We'll be checking in with you as this announcement is rolled out -- Kyra.

KYRA PHILLIPS, CNN ANCHOR: Well, sources with their ears to the chatter say the hard part is sorting out the actual plotting and scheming from the, quote, wishful thinking and bluster. Let's bring in our national security correspondent, David Ensor, for more on that.

David, how do you know what's credible and what's not when it comes down to this intel?

DAVID ENSOR, CNN NATIONAL SECURITY CORRESPONDENT: It's a very difficult process, Kyra, and the fact is they don't really know for sure. But they do say that they have Intelligence suggesting that terrorists may be planning -- trying to plot a major attack against The United States, and that has got them very concerned. They are calling it reasonably spooky stuff -- as one official put it.

Now there has been a warning put out by the FBI earlier today in a notice to state and local law enforcement, which says, quote, "While these attacks in Saudi Arabia and Morocco produced a significant loss of life and destruction, recent Intelligence suggests that the attacks may be a prelude to another attack in The United States."

Talking about Saudi Arabia and the attacks there that created this terrible devastation, that is what is led -- is additional Intelligence suggesting there may be further attacks in Saudi Arabia that has led the State Department to announce that the U.S. Embassy and its two consulates in that country have been closed at least through Sunday. There's been a revised warning put out to Americans who live in Kuwait that they should be especially vigilant.

Now officials are saying, Kyra, that this Intelligence that is causing all this alarm, both in terms of possible attacks overseas and the possible attack in The United States, is not -- it is credible, but it is not specific. It is not -- they don't have any Intelligence on what might be attacked, when, or how -- Kyra.

PHILLIPS: That's difficult. You don't know how to react. We'll continue to check in with you, David Ensor, thank you -- Miles.

O'BRIEN: Even before the government officially raised the threat level, at least one big city was taking extra precautions -- given the drum beat of warnings. New York City was beefing up security around potential targets.

CNN's Maria Hinojosa standing by in that city to tell us what she's seeing there -- Maria.

MARIA HINOJOSA, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Well, Miles, you know New York City has been at the orange level of threat since September 11. In a sense there's nothing new.

Now there was the feeling that counterterrorism was on the minds of the mayor and police commissioner earlier this morning. They had a news conference to announce the appointment of the new head of the NYPD's anti-terrorism bureau.

After they made that announcement, there was a question that says, by the way, Mr. Police Commissioner, are you going to be doing anything given what's happening around the world? And he said that, in fact, has been happening. Let's hear what he had to say.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

RAYMOND KELLY, NYPD COMMISSIONER: When you look at the totality of the events that are going on, we think it's prudent at the consultation with the Intelligence community for us to put some additional protections in place.

MICHAEL BLOOMBERG, MAYOR, NEW YORK CITY: Just because you don't see somebody on the streets doesn't mean they aren't there. Just because we don't talk about fighting terrorism doesn't mean we aren't focusing on it.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

HINOJOSA: What the police commissioner said is that he calls this the surge approach -- where sometimes you see this heightened awareness for terrorism in terms of more personnel. Sometimes you don't.

That's really on purpose. They don't want to be giving any more information out to possible terrorists than they should be. They want this to be something that they don't know where plainclothes or uniformed officers might be at any given time.

They are expecting to have more officers at sensitive locations -- at bridges, at tunnels, more screening at the bridges, more plainclothes officers at sensitive locations. They did not tell us where. More uniformed officers in the subway, as you can see a subway right behind me.

What we've been able to confirm here at CNN in Times Square -- there are two emergency services units, trucks, that are now in Times Square -- one of them in front of the Nasdaq offices there. Another one is parked in the middle of the island there. We also know there was an NYPD van used to perhaps transport officers. That was outside of the Marriott in Times Square.

And anecdotally, we can tell you that as I was coming into work, walking through Penn Station, there were several more of the military police. Sometimes you see them. Sometimes you don't. Again, that's what they are saying. That is part of their approach -- this surge approach.

We've also been told that at 4:00 Governor Pataki will be holding a news conference to give his own updates about what's happening on a statewide level -- Miles.

O'BRIEN: CNN's Maria Hinojosa in Manhattan. Thank you very much.

Let's head back to John King, who's at the White House -- John.

KING: Miles, excuse me, I'm going to be looking down reading off my Blackberry pager here.

CNN has an advanced copy of a statement that will soon be released by homeland security secretary, Tom Ridge, explaining this decision to go from yellow up to orange on the terrorist alert.

I will read parts of it to you. And again, excuse me for looking down.

He says that they made this decision -- let me get to the right point -- "The U.S. Intelligence community believes that al Qaeda has entered an operational period worldwide, and this may include attacks in The United States. In the wake of terrorist bombing in Saudi Arabia and Morocco, al Qaeda and those sympathetic to their cause are still a principal threat, but threats may also emanate from other anti-U.S. terrorist groups, regional extremist organizations, and ad hoc groups or disgruntled individuals not connected to existing terrorist organizations or state sponsors of terrorism."

This next point is critical to our viewers.

"While there is not credible specific information with respect to targets or method of attack, the use of tactics similar to those seen in recent terrorist attacks overseas include small arm-equipped assault teams, large vehicle-born explosive devices, and suicide bombers. These attacks underscore terrorists' desire to attack soft targets. Weapons of mass destruction, including those containing chemical, biological or radiological agents or materials, cannot be discounted."

So, quite a sober message, Miles, from the homeland security secretary, Tom Ridge. CNN obtaining a copy of this statement that will be released shortly by the government, then Secretary Ridge's top deputy, Asa Hutchinson, due to speak to reporters on Capitol Hill just moments from now.

O'BRIEN: John, any sense -- as we watch live pictures of that podium where Asa Hutchinson will make the statement. We, of course, will bring to you live.

Is there any sense out there, as we look forward here, as to what's going to happen, first of all, with a holiday weekend coming up and what groups out there might be making up this group of copycats. Is it the usual suspects?

KING: Well, there are a number of suspected terrorists or terrorist sympathizers here in the United States that the FBI has been keeping track of.

You mentioned the holiday weekend. One of the reasons I was lookingf own is to get to a point in this where Secretary Ridge specifically mentions that. Let me scroll back -- and my apologies. This is a little bit awakward.

Governor -- Secretary Ridge now says he has spoken to governors throughout the country today to relay the increased threat and to ask them to review their own current security measures and deploy additional measures, particularly going into a holiday weekend where there will be many other large public gatherings. Other state and local and private sector leaders are also being contacted to engage their support to increase the nation's security.

O'BRIEN: CNN's John King at the White House. Asa Hutchinson now appears to be approaching the podium. We'll send it over to Kyra briefly and then as soon as he begins talking, we'll of course bring it to you live -- Kyra.

PHILLIPS: As we wait for the undersecretary of homeland security to step up to that podium and address the nation, let's talk about from Maine to Maui this hour and how authorities are taking new steps to secure their portions of the homeland.

CNN's Mike Brooks live from Richmond, Virginia (sic) now to talk more about this. Mike, kind of take us back to when you were with the FBI, the counterterrorism department, and how you actually reach a point like this, gathering intelligence and being able to come forward to the nation and say, "Hey, we've got to change our alert status."

MIKE BROOKS, CNN LAW ENFORCEMENT ANALYST: Well, Kyra, we don't know any specific information on any threats, the delivery methods, anything at all of that nature.

But the joint terrorism task forces, of which there are 56 in United States right now, associated with the 56 different FBI field divisions -- they are in excellent conduit from the intelligence community to the people in apartment buildings, for instance.

Back a number of months ago, if you recall, we had a threat against apartment buildings, hotels, banking establishments. The FBI's joint terrorism taskforces were the conduits that would take the information that they did have and get it out to these people and tell them exactly what they needed to do.

I think when you have something going on like this where the threat level is raised, they can be your conduit where the rubber meets the road. So they're the ones that are going to be the ones out there in the community relaying the information to the local first responders to let them know exactly what kind of things they can do.

Now, here in San Francisco, for instance, we just spoke with the representative of the Golden Gate Bridge District, Mary Curry (ph), and she said that the governor's office had not called them. But we know the official chain is now enrolled and the information is flowing, and what may happen here and what has happened last time the threat level went to orange is two access roads, one on the north side and one on the south side of the Golden Gate Bridge, were shut down, because these are vulnerable parts that go underneath the bridge. They will be shut down. The California Highway Patrol may, in fact, start up truck inspections again of trucks going across the Golden Gate Bridge.

So we're going to see things like this across the country, people trying to protect different icons, different critical infrastructures. I just spoke with the metropolitan police department in Washington, D.C., where we have some of our biggest icons, other than New York City, and...

PHILLIPS: Mike -- Mike I'm going to ask you -- I'm going to ask you to hold that thought. Undersecretary of Homeland Security Asa Hutchinson stepping to the podium now. Let's listen.

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