Security chief says preparation, not panic, required
WASHINGTON -- Homeland Security Secretary Tom Ridge sought to calm jittery Americans on Friday, saying they should be vigilant but there was no need "to start sealing the doors or windows" against terrorist threats.
After many people spent a week stocking up on duct tape and watched anti-aircraft missile launchers set up around their national capital, Ridge said preparation, not panic, is in order.
He also said officials don't have any conclusive intelligence where, when or how the terrorists could strike.
"I want to make something very, very clear at this point: We do not want individuals or families to start sealing their doors or their windows," Ridge told reporters at his headquarters.
Earlier this week, federal officials recommended Americans put together emergency supply kits as a precaution -- for terrorist attack or disaster. Two items suggested for that kit were duct tape and plastic sheeting, enough to seal a house or rooms from any hazardous materials terrorists could put in the air.
A week after increasing the terrorist alert level from yellow to "high risk" orange, President Bush said that decision had been a "stark reminder of the era that we're in, that we're at war and the war goes on."
Ridge said there were no plans to increase or lower the alert level, although he added the government is constantly evaluating threat information.
Officials, speaking privately, acknowledged that polygraphs suggested terrorist suspects had fabricated some of the information that led to the latest increase. Other officials said the intelligence that led to the increase came from a far larger base of reliable sources.
One official said federal authorities have identified between 20 and 40 people in the United States who trained in al-Qaida camps in Afghanistan. Of those, fewer than a dozen are believed to have had recent contact with al-Qaida operatives overseas, this official said.
Authorities are keeping tabs on roughly 600 al-Qaida sympathizers in this country, said the official, who cautioned that there may be many more who are unknown to authorities.
Also, U.S. officials said technical analysis of a recent audio message from Osama bin Laden declaring solidarity with Iraqis has determined the tape to be "almost certainly" authentic.
Ridge downplayed concerns that al-Qaida would time a strike to the beginning of hostilities in Iraq, though the administration contends the terror network and Saddam's government are linked.
The administration issued three separate homeland security-related reports Friday:
-- The "National Strategy for Combating Terrorism," which focuses on ways to defeat terrorists by degrading their organizations, cracking down on nations that harbor them and diminishing the underlying conditions that lead to terrorism by easing poverty.
-- A plan detailing critical infrastructure that needs protection from terrorists, ranging from agriculture to the defense industry. This recommends the government provide incentives or increase regulations on key sectors of the economy that need to improve protection.
-- A plan to tighten security for vital computer networks, putting the Department of Homeland Security in the role of protecting cyberspace.
Around Washington, other security measures remained in place. Members of Congress are being told to have necessary supplies ready in the event of evacuation while the government warned key industries about potential attacks.
At a news conference on Capitol Hill, Democratic leaders urged the president to send a special request to Congress that would pay for the equipment, personnel and training needs of "first responders," the people who would quickly respond in a terrorism emergency.
"Duct tape is not enough. Neither is empty rhetoric," Senate Minority Leader Tom Daschle, D-S.D., said after he and House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., met with about a dozen firefighters, including some who rushed to the Pentagon after the Sept. 11, 2001, attack.