Ridge - Bush wants plan for school siege

Friday, September 10, 2004

WASHINGTON -- The election-year terrorist threat will extend until after January's presidential inauguration, Homeland Security Secretary Tom Ridge said Thursday.

And he said President Bush has pointedly asked his national security team to re-evaluate hostage crisis tactics in light of the recent Russian school attack.

In recent morning briefings, Ridge said Bush had asked his top advisers -- including homeland security, FBI and justice officials -- to review their strategies for dealing with hostage situations to make sure they are prepared to respond.

Ridge said the U.S. government was still trying to find out key details of how last week's attack in Russia was planned and carried out. He indicated the U.S. government was still relying on press reports and is hoping to learn more from Russian officials.

At the same time, Ridge was somewhat critical of the Russians, saying it appeared that authorities there may have had a disjointed response to the hostage crisis blamed on Chechen rebels. More than 300 people died.

"Preliminary reports suggest there wasn't the kind of coordination and leadership and direction and somebody being in charge," Ridge said.

As the three-year anniversary of the Sept. 11 attacks nears, recent attention has focused on a pre-election threat. However, echoing a remark made at an April speech in Nevada, Ridge extended the amount of time the United States should be extra vigilant against a possible al-Qaida attack designed to disrupt the democratic process -- from the Nov. 2 Election Day to the presidential inauguration scheduled for Jan. 20.

Ridge also acknowledged that U.S. authorities have "a couple different sources" believed to be sharing credible information about the threat.

"You can translate that into anytime between now and the election, now and the inaugural -- or any time we conduct business as a democratic society," Ridge said. "Most people think in terms of either the election or the inaugural."

"We don't really focus so much on the date," he added. "Their intention is well known."

Ridge said he views the war on terror as a series of victories both large and small.

"Every day I count as a victory," he said. "Every 24 hours when something doesn't happen, you have more time to prepare, more time to secure, more time to get information, to share information."

However, Ridge conceded, he doubts the country will return to its pre-Sept. 11 innocence.

"I think it's virtually impossible for the country to ever go back, to ever be comforted by the notion that may have existed on Sept. 10 that we are immune from the kind of attacks that we had witnessed in other parts of the world," he said. "Sept. 11, I believe, fundamentally and for the foreseeable future changed how we view our own potential vulnerability."

On other issues, Ridge said:

-- In looking at the Middle East, Ridge said one country can't be singled out for supporting al-Qaida and similar organizations.

"There is no doubt in my mind that several countries over there have provided safe haven for people moving in and out of Iraq, safe havens for people involved in al-Qaida in plotting," he said.

-- When asked if he agreed with Vice President Dick Cheney's recent comments suggesting a vote for Democrat John Kerry would increase the likelihood of a terrorist attack, Ridge stressed that he is trying to avoid getting involved in the political campaign, but said, "Well, you know who I'm going to vote for."

Pressed on whether that meant he agreed with Cheney, Ridge said: "I'm going to let the voters determine" which campaign can best fight terror.

-- A National Research Council report released Thursday concluded that openly sharing data on dangerous germs to aid research on vaccines and treatments outweighs the danger that terrorists may exploit it. Ridge said he wants to see the entire report, but the country must decide whether to put the recipe for a weapon of mass destruction on the Internet. "Personally, I don't think that's a very good idea," he said.

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