- The Washington Times - Tuesday, March 18, 2003

WASHINGTON, March 18 (UPI) — Homeland Security Secretary Tom Ridge indicated Tuesday that the federal government might help with costs incurred by cash-strapped states in raising the nation's terror alert status as war against Iraq looms.

"There may be an opportunity to help the states" meet the cost of the latest hike in the threat level through a supplemental appropriations bill the president has proposed, he said. "We'll see what happens in terms of whether there's an ability to share or defray some to these costs at the federal level at a later time. Time will tell."

But he said no one was worrying about paying the bills for the massive security operations codenamed "Liberty Shield" at this stage.

"The first priority, that everyone accepted last night (during a conference call with all 50 state governors) without hesitation, was the need to work together to make sure that we implemented Liberty Shield," Ridge said. "No one asked about additional finances … Everybody understood the No. 1 priority is to protect America and our way of life."

Monday evening, Ridge's department announced a massive nationwide security operation designed to protect the United States against terrorist acts — including those involving chemical, biological or radiological weapons — as a result of any U.S.-led assault on Iraq.

But state governments — already tightening their belts as the nation's economic woes bite deeply into their budgets — did not welcome the extra expenditure required by the more stringent security measures. "(The cost) is the first thing on every governor's mind," Steve Maviglio, a spokesman for Gov. Gray Davis, D-Calif., told United Press International.

He said the reason no one raised the issue in the conference call was that Ridge started out by saying they would discuss that issue another time. "We're putting patriotism first and hoping to get the money back afterwards," he said.

The alert status was increased after President George W. Bush issued an ultimatum that Iraqi President Saddam Hussein leave his country or face military action. The United States has been building up forces near Iraq since the U.N. Security Council passed Resolution 1441, which called for Iraq to rid itself of weapons of mass destruction or face "serious consequences" — usually interpreted as diplomatic code for military action. The United States says Iraq has not met the demands of Resolution 1441.

The national terror alert threat level was raised from "yellow" or "elevated risk" to "orange," or "high risk," and high visibility security was stepped up at airports, ports and border crossings. A new policy of detaining those claiming political asylum from countries where terror groups are active was also announced.

Tuesday, Ridge had briefed reporters at the Homeland Security Department's new northwest Washington headquarters, saying the latest "orange" terror alert had been planned to minimize the effect on the U.S. economy. "We're going to do everything possible to minimize the (in)convenience to citizens and the disruption to commerce," he said.

But the direct costs — mainly in overtime for law enforcement personnel and first responders — are still likely to run into millions of dollars, costs which will be borne by cash-strapped state and local governments.

In California, for instance, Davis ordered the highway patrol to immediately begin 12-hour shifts, to double their presence at key locations and to commence 24-hour aerial surveillance of the critical sections of the state's infrastructure.

Maviglio said Davis estimated the cost of the orange alert at about $1 million every two weeks, but added that the figure did not include expenditure by county and city governments. He said California was already spending about $500 million a year on enhanced security measures.

Maviglio was somewhat skeptical about the possibility of federal cash assistance: "We are eternally hopeful that they will give us the money," he said, "but last year we asked for $398 million to reimburse the cost of previous alerts, and we only got $45 million. We'll wait and see."

Ridge also warned the public to be on guard against suicide bombers, whom he called a "particular challenge."

"Here's where the public's awareness, the public's alertness, its sensitivity to its own surroundings could be of assistance," he said, adding: "I think it's pretty clear, given circumstances that we've … witnessed … on television in international venues, it's one of the most difficult forms of terrorism against which we would be called upon to protect ourselves and our communities."

Ridge promised Americans that the government would get the facts out about any terror threat as fast as possible. "There is bound to be misinformation," he warned. "Don't react to rumors."

"Orange" is the second-highest level in the United States' five-stage, color-coded alert system. The country was last put at "orange" Feb. 7 because of warnings of possible terror attacks related to the ending of the Hajj, the annual Muslim pilgrimage. No terror attacks took place, and the threat level was lowered to "yellow" nearly three weeks later.

"Liberty Shield" also envisages closer tracking of those foreign and U.S. nationals suspected of terror links and indefinite detention of anyone claiming political asylum from 34 countries where terror groups are active.

Bill Strassberger, a spokesman for the Immigration and Naturalization Service, said that the list of countries was not being disclosed for security reasons.

He said authorities expected relatively few people to be affected by the measure. Officials said that last year, of the 9,900 people who had applied for asylum in the United States at a port of entry, 600 were from one of the 34 countries. Sixty percent of these were from Iraq, homeland security officials said.

However, Strassberger acknowledged the detentions might be lengthy. Asylum applications regularly take as long as six months to be processed, and an appeal against rejection can double that time.

Those detained will be held as other immigration detainees are, either in special facilities, or in space leased from state and local jails.

"Liberty Shield" follows a slew of warnings that Iraqi agents or sympathizers might try to attack U.S. targets in the country or overseas, as they did in the run up to the 1991 Gulf War.

At the weekend, Saddam warned that if the United States attacked Iraq, "the battle between us will be waged wherever there is sky, earth and water anywhere in the world."

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