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Opinion: A nation on alert

Wednesday, August 11, 2004

By Tom Ridge ~ From The Wall Street Journal

In the war on terror, information can be our best weapon. Most of the time the threat intelligence we glean -- while helpful -- is frustratingly general and gray.

Last week that was not the case. The information we received was uniquely specific. In spite of that, some have questioned the relevance of the information and the motivation behind sharing it.

There is no question about all the 40-page casing files found on the laptop computer of an al-Qaida operative. There is no question about the detailed surveillance carried out on the New York Stock Exchange, Prudential Financial, Citigroup, the IMF and the World Bank. There is no question about how the discovery of this information fit together with other intelligence streams to form an undeniable picture of a potential terrorist attack.

Information on the types of uniforms worn by guards, potential escape routes, places where employees hang out -- detail after detail down to the incline that exists on one of the underground parking garages -- is shockingly black and white.

And there was no question on the part of the people who received this information on what had to be done. Those directly involved acted upon this intelligence in a swift and decisive manner. State and local officials and private sector leadership ramped up security procedures, employees showed up to work, and citizens continued to go about their daily lives with the same vigilance and fortitude exhibited since the attacks of 9-11.

Some have also questioned the motivation and timing of the recent terror alert. In an election year, there will be those who want to view the release of this information through a political prism. Let me state what should go without stating: There is no place for politics in homeland security. We cannot allow the current political environment to distract government or private-sector leaders from doing what needs to be done to protect public safety.

As we reported in April, gathered intelligence suggests that al-Qaida is planning a large-scale attack on American soil to disrupt our democratic process. Last Friday morning, we first learned of detailed information about specific locations scouted by al-Qaida for possible attack.

These casing operations occurred in 2000 and 2001 and were recently updated in January of this year. But regardless of when al-Qaida did the groundwork, upon seeing the shocking new detail of their plans we were compelled to share this information immediately. ...

As the 9-11 Commission noted, "The biggest impediment to all-source analysis -- to a greater likelihood of connecting the dots -- is the human or systemic resistance to sharing information." It is a tough balance we strike at the Department of Homeland Security between sharing information that makes us safer and sharing information that tips our hand to terrorists. But if we have information that could potentially save lives, we will share it with the American people every single time.

In the end, let's not lose sight of the facts. The facts in this case are that we uncovered detailed surveillance reports from al-Qaida pointing to an operation with the potential to kill many civilians. These reports, coupled with other separate threat information, demanded that action be taken. And, it was. We put out the facts. Government, law enforcement, companies and citizens took the appropriate precautions, put protections in place and have continued on.

And let there be no question that we too will continue to do what we need to as a government and as a nation to defeat terrorism and secure the country and freedoms that we all cherish.

Tom Ridge is secretary of homeland security.


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