Transcript: Ridge Discusses Plans for Terrorism Alert System on Fox News Sunday

Following is a transcripted excerpt from Fox News Sunday, March 10, 2002.

TONY SNOW, FOX NEWS CHANNEL: Monday marks six months since September 11, the terrorist attacks. Is the United States any safer now than it was before? For answers we turn to Tom Ridge, director of the Office of Homeland Security. He joins us from Harrisburg, Pennsylvania.

Governor Ridge, welcome.

GOV. TOM RIDGE: Good morning, Tony.

SNOW: Your office now is putting together an alert system, five different colors, we are told. When will that system be ready, up and in operation?

RIDGE: Well, we should have the public announcement shortly, and then the president has directed, because we do need a consensus not just within the federal government but among the state and local communities and law enforcement officials and the like, that there'll be a review period and a comment period. But you'll see the public outlay here in the next couple of days. You'll see it shortly. But we need to make sure we have a consensus so that everyone buys into this national approach.

SNOW: So you haven't yet successfully sold it to governors and local law enforcement?

RIDGE: Well, truth be known, Tony, we've been working with the 50 homeland security directors, actually 50-plus, because we include the territories. We've been working with the governors, law enforcement across the country.

But we do think it would be very, very appropriate because, to impose a national alert system across a federal government, we need to build a consensus with the state and local community. We think it's going to be very, very well received because the architects of this include state and local officials.

But, again, we want to reserve the right for some comment and review as we come up with a final national alert system.

SNOW: Can you describe, at least generally, for us how the five color codes will work, how the system will function?

RIDGE: Well, you should know that the intelligence gathering capacity of this country has improved since September 11, not just domestically, but internationally. And this is going to be an information-based system.

And the most difficult challenge within the system will not only be the threat alert itself, but we're going to ask communities and states in the private sector – based on the information, we're going to assess the level of threat, and we want a certain level of preparedness to accompany that level of threat.

So with five levels of threat, we will want five levels of preparedness.

SNOW: Meaning what? I'm still a little vague on this.

RIDGE: That means that, depending upon the national level of threat or the specific piece of information, that we would give – as the president has said, if we have credible information, we will share it.

If there is a threat assessment to that piece of information, we would expect the community, the company, the region or the state to raise their level of preparedness in anticipation of the possibility of that attack to the next level.

SNOW: All right, let's suppose you've got whatever the highest level of threat is. I presume red is going to be the highest level.

RIDGE: I'm not going to share the colors of the rainbow with you until we release it publicly. But there is a graded system.

SNOW: That's fine. OK, you've got a graded system. You're at the top level.

Is the public going to be in on this, or is this simply going to be shared with law enforcement and emergency personnel?

RIDGE: Well, I think, when you get to the highest level, first of all, the public, we've discovered since 9/11, even when you send out inlets through the FBI, ultimately it becomes in the public domain. But public safety is the primary purpose behind this, so the public is certainly going to know.

SNOW: As part of this system, are you going to be preparing brochures or documents that tell people at home what they can do to help fight terror?

RIDGE: Well, not only will the federal government be involved in this, but as I've traveled around the country, Tony, I've seen it in Charlotte and in Houston and in other communities, they've already taken upon themselves the development of emergency plans. They've taken upon themselves to begin to disseminate information.

And as we develop this national alert system, we develop our ability to share and exchange information, you'll see not just the Office of Homeland Security disseminating information, but, based on state and local plans, you will see states and local officials extending information to people and families and communities around the country as well.

SNOW: So in putting together information, it really is a local rather than federal obligation, in your view.

RIDGE: Well, we'll be working together. The dominant agency in the future, if the Senate and the House within Congress approve the president's budget, will be the Federal Emergency Management Agency. They've got the core competencies. They work with states and communities in response to a natural disaster. And FEMA will be working with the state and the locals as they develop their plans.

And that's the critical component of a national strategy, Tony. We need the local communities and the regional areas to build their plan underneath a statewide architecture. And that way, we can be sure that there are mutual-aid agreements, that communities can rush to the aid of other communities, they can share communications equipment, they can share the ability to respond in the event of a terrorist attack.

SNOW: Let's suppose there were a terrorist attack on some city far away from Washington and New York, somewhere in the heartland. Would towns today be prepared to deal with that and to assist other cities nearby that might be besieged?

RIDGE: I will tell you, Tony, that I think towns today are significantly more prepared since 9/11, because they have really thought about it more extensively and more completely. They've thought about mutual-aid agreements with their neighbors.

Again, as I travel around the country, and see the work that has been done within the individual communities – as I've mentioned before, the governors and those who lead the territories now have their own homeland security directors. They've been holding seminars and meetings around their respective states. They've taken the money that Secretary Thompson has sent to them from HHS to begin building a bioterror statewide plan. They're going to get additional dollars from FEMA to build a preparedness plan from the local level on up.

So, clearly today they're not where we want them to be a year or two years from now, but they're far better prepared today than they were on September 11.

SNOW: Are you setting a deadline? Are you telling the state and local governments, look, we want you to be prepared by X date? And if so, how long do they have?

RIDGE: The president has outlined in his budget a first- responder initiative that requires the states and local communities to develop the plan. And we would like to get the money distributed shortly after the Congress of the United States approves the president's plan and takes that $3.5 billion and sends it over to FEMA for distribution.

But I know that the states and local communities are not waiting to plan.

That is a process that they've undertaken months and months ago. And frankly, as soon as the money's appropriated, I think the states will be ready for distribution from the federal government down to the local responders.

And the way it's been set up, Tony, is that 25 percent of that $3.5 billion is going to stay with the states, but the primary responsibility in responding to a terrorist attack or the – your first responders, your policeman, your fireman, your paramedics, your EMS – 75 percent of that money's going to go directly to the local communities.

SNOW: All right, Governor, we talk a lot about threats. We are now under an alert that extends to tomorrow, tomorrow being six months since September 11. Exactly what level is the threat?

RIDGE: Well, we will maintain a national awareness consistent with the threat level that the FBI has put out and has been in place for the past several months.

But as of the day we announce the threat advisory system, there will be a more formal designation as to what specific level of threat we're under and what state of preparedness we would expect communities to build up to.

SNOW: But, Governor...

RIDGE: But we are under a general alert right now. We're still at war with Al Qaeda, Osama bin Laden. We still remain concerned about the presence of terrorists within the United States.

So again, until the formal program, this level of alert is put into effect, we have to say be on alert, be wary, we're still under attack potentially.

SNOW: There are Al Qaeda cells in the United States?

RIDGE: We can't say conclusively that there are, Tony, but if you take a look at the fact that this open, trusting, welcoming country has admitted literally hundreds of millions of Americans over the past couple – 100 millions of visitors over the past couple of years, we know that in the Al Qaeda camps, they've trained thousands and thousands, some of them to be soldiers, some of them to be terrorists, I think we should assume and we should operate under the notion that some still are in the United States.

SNOW: There's a lot of concern also about airport safety. One of the things that's aroused controversy is the fact that we don't profile for passengers, instead we select randomly. So as a result, people who may or may not fit a visual profile can march onto planes, a Richard Reid, but we're running a wand over 3-year-olds.

Doesn't it make sense, from a law-enforcement point of view, not to do random searches but to try to put together profiles of people who are likely to be doing this sort of thing and make sure that each and every one of those, even if it's inconvenient, are at least given some sort of security review?

RIDGE: Well, first of all, we have to acknowledge that the aviation industry, with the support of the Congress and the president, is more secure today than the 11th. There's still more work to do.

The very question you raise has come up with both public and private discussions I've had with the aviation community, flight crews, and those who...

SNOW: So, it's subject – is it subject to review?

RIDGE: I think that you should know that I've invited the aviation industry and with Jane Garvey of the FAA, with Norm Mineta and John McGaw (ph) of the Transportation Security Agency, we're going to talk about that and a variety of other issues over the next couple of weeks.

We still have long lines that we'd like to, again, deal with in a more constructive manner. We need to get more and more people back on our airplanes.

I think consumer confidence is rising, but when you're screening 3-year-olds or – at a public meeting, a 67-year-old grandmother got up and talked to me about being screened and detained; flight attendants are being detained. We have to do a better job using our human and technology assets to focus on a more narrow group of people.

SNOW: Senator, you've been invited to testify before the Senate Appropriations Committee; they have a reasonable request. Why aren't you going to go talk them?

RIDGE: Historically, first of all, special assistants, advisers to the presidents, whether they're the chief of staff or the national security advisor, historically don't testify formally.

But you should know, Tony, that I had been and will continue to be on the Hill on a regular basis. Last week I was in both chambers talking to representatives on both sides of the aisle. I'm in frequent telephone communication with members of Congress.

And as the weeks and months roll out in the future, I will stay in contact with the legislative branch of the government. But we view it's inappropriate for someone in the capacity as a special assistant to the president be testifying at this time.

SNOW: Governor Ridge, not senator, I apologize for giving you ...

RIDGE: That's all right.

SNOW: ... giving you the wrong title. Thank you for joining us.

RIDGE: Great pleasure to be with you, Tony. Thank you very much.