- The Washington Times - Monday, August 4, 2003

Top federal law-enforcement officials yesterday extended terrorist threat warnings from airplanes to ferry boats and, in the face of new threats from al Qaeda, cautioned Americans to be prepared for future attacks.

“The potential for us to be hit again is a very real potential,” Attorney General John Ashcroft told “Fox News Sunday.” “I believe al Qaeda wants to strike us. I believe they want to strike us whenever and wherever they can.”

Asked on NBC’s “Meet the Press” whether he was “confident” there will be another terrorist strike on U.S. soil, Homeland Security Secretary Tom Ridge agreed.

“I feel every day that we operate toward the notion that there will be one, and I think we have to,” Mr. Ridge said.

“I don’t think that the horizon we look at should be anything other than accepting the reality that we are a target. And everything we stand for is anathema to all these people who would do us harm,” Mr. Ridge said.

Intelligence officials are reviewing an audiotape played on Al-Arabiya television yesterday and reportedly made by Ayman al-Zawahri, Osama bin Laden’s top deputy, threatening more al Qaeda violence against Americans if detainees at Guantanamo Bay are executed or otherwise harmed.

“America has announced that it is going to start putting Muslim prisoners on trial in military courts, which could impose the death penalty. The crusaders will pay dearly for any harm that comes to the prisoners it is holding,” the recording said.

Nearly 700 prisoners who were captured during the battles in Afghanistan 18 months ago are being held at the U.S. base in Cuba.

Mr. Ridge and Mr. Ashcroft said the tape has yet to be authenticated.

“No conclusions have been drawn,” Mr. Ridge told CNN’s “Late Edition.”

Airlines were warned a week ago that terrorists had planned more suicide hijackings and that the threat was expected to last through the summer.

On Saturday, two programs that allowed certain international passengers to travel through the United States without visas were suspended because of specific intelligence that terrorists were planning to exploit the loopholes to enter the country and U.S. airspace.

The countries expected to be most affected by the cancellation are Brazil, Mexico, Korea, the Philippines and Peru. The program allowed the travelers to pass through U.S. airports, including Los Angeles, Miami, New York, Dallas and Houston. Travelers could not leave secure areas located inside the airports

Mr. Ridge said the ban on those travelers is “necessary in order to protect lives and property.”

Capitol Hill lawmakers said they are convinced from their briefings with Bush administration officials that serious precautions are being taken to prevent more attacks.

“When it comes to combating al Qaeda, I think that is receiving the full attention of the United States authorities,” said Sen. Evan Bayh, Indiana Democrat, on CNN’s “Late Edition.”

Mr. Bayh said he would not, however, caution Americans to cancel travel plans because of the additional threat.

“Unfortunately, apprehensions like this are going to have to just be something we factor in to our daily lives,” he said.

Appearing on the same program, Sen. Trent Lott, Mississippi Republican, said closing the two visa programs was an added protection that blocked a “sliver of opportunity for terrorists to cause some problems.” However, he warned that every loophole cannot be closed.

“If you’ve got people that are willing to take their own lives and do these dastardly things, you never can plug every hole. You just have to do the best you can, and they’ll keep working at that and other areas too,” Mr. Lott said.

The FBI has also issued an advisory to ferry operators to be on the alert for terrorist activity.

Mr. Ridge offered no specific information on that threat, but said there had been “chatter in the system about targeting particular kinds of assets in this country.”

“This is a permanent condition. The terrorists are looking at every phase of our economy, looking at how we operate. And from time to time, we just send out advisories to these people who operate, whether it’s commercial airliners, ferries, power plants, dams, whatever it is,” Mr. Ridge said.

An order restricting overnight stays by air marshals was immediately rescinded last week after MSNBC obtained a memo citing budget shortages.

The Transportation Security Administration (TSA) wanted to cut more than $100 million from the air marshal program to offset the budget deficit.

Mr. Ridge called it an “unusual sequence of events” that the memo would surface one day before the new airline threat of potential hijackings.

TSA officials sought to reprogram funding towards more information-sharing technology, but the money has since been directed “toward other means of adding additional areas of security in other ways around commercial aviation,” Mr. Ridge said.

Despite the increased threats, the terrorist alert level issued by the Homeland Security Department remains at “Code Yellow,” or elevated.

Mr. Ridge said he has been “grateful” there have been no terrorist attacks since September 11.

“There are probably a lot of reasons for it, but I’m grateful. And every single day that we work to do more to prevent a terrorist attack and reduce our vulnerability makes it tougher and tougher for them to assault us,” Mr. Ridge said.

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