Homeland Security Secretary Tom Ridge

This is a partial transcript of Special Report with Brit Hume, Dec. 30, that has been edited for clarity.

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JIM ANGLE, GUEST-HOST: The nation is on high alert ... the Homeland Security Department says because terrorists are threatening to create another national tragedy. But some congressmen, namely presidential candidate Dick Gephardt, are worried the alert system itself is threatening to create a national financial crisis. What about that? And are officials prepared to stop another attack?

Homeland Security Secretary Tom Ridge taking time out of his busy day to talk with us now about those and other questions.

Mr. Secretary, welcome.

HOMELAND SECURITY SECRETARY TOM RIDGE: Jim, good evening. Nice to join you.

ANGLE: Thank you. Now, as I understand it, there are newly imposed, temporary flight restrictions in a couple of places, Las Vegas and New York City. And over all the bowl games on New Year's Day -- those are on New Year's Eve. And all the bowl games on New Year's Day, as well as the Tournament of Roses Parade (search). Are these any specific threats that led to this? Or is it just an abundance of caution?

RIDGE: Well, I think it's an abundance of caution. And again, securing these sites is a joint responsibility of the federal government, state government and local government. And the mayors and law enforcement officials in those communities asked for these temporary flight restrictions. And we were more than willing to oblige. It's just an added precaution, an added security measure to ensure that those public celebrations are conducted the way we want them to be conducted. And that's with hundreds of thousands of people enjoying New Year's Eve and New Year's Day.

ANGLE: Now, that affects general aviation, private aircraft but not commercial airliners and that sort of thing?

RIDGE: That's correct, that's correct.

ANGLE: Now, let me ask you about the order you announced yesterday. That the U.S. will require sky marshals on some international flights where a threat has been found. Do you have to have -- what is the threshold for identifying a flight that needs sky marshals? Do you have to have specific information about a specific flight or a specific route?

RIDGE: Jim, it may be a combination of those factors and even a few additional factors. There may be information about the flight, about the route, about a passenger or passengers or just a general threat associated with any one of those. And clearly cancellation of flights is absolutely the last resort.

And so when we have specific credible information that we want to act upon, again, looking to add another level of security to commercial aviation; not just because it's an American priority. But it is an international priority that we keep the skies over all countries safe. We're going to ask those countries, where we do have specific information to put these air marshals on these flights.

ANGLE: Now, if you do have specific threats there would be a cancellation of the flight?

RIDGE: If we have a situation -- a factual situation that we cannot resolve, involving the flight or a passenger or passengers on the flight or anything else, then of course, the ultimate weapon we have to combat that threat is just to cancel the flight.

ANGLE: Now, if you do have some information that there may be people on a plane or maybe people hoping to take advantage of a particular passenger route. If you don't cancel it, but step up security, that raises the possibility you might actually be able to catch some terrorists before they're able to pull off their plans.

RIDGE: Well, one of the things we try to do is to make absolutely certain that when we have information about a particular flight that we get the crew manifests and we get the passenger manifests. And then we match it against a variety of different information sources that we have. We certainly like to clear all crews and passengers. If there are passengers that are suspect or of concern, they will be detained and questioned, perhaps not let on that flight.

But there may be occasions, even when we clear the crew and the passengers, that again to add another level of security about and around that particular flight, we'll ask them to put some air marshals on. And I will tell you that the response from our allies in Great Britain and in France and in Mexico, as we've made this request of them, has been very, very positive.

ANGLE: Now, not every nation has its own sky marshals. What happens if you go to a an airline from a country that doesn't have air marshals, and say you've got a threat, you need to have some armed people onboard that plane?

RIDGE: Well, I think fist of all, Americans should take great comfort that a couple of years ago, and that's just a couple of years ago, we had a couple of hundred air marshals on our flights and now we have several thousand. I think if the situation arose where we needed to contact a country that did not do not have air marshals, we'd like to first make ours available to them. And in the longer term, work with them to develop a training program so they could develop a small cadre of professional, well trained government government-sponsored law enforcement agents on those planes.

ANGLE: Now, one of the things that was mentioned by a number of aircraft experts, some in Europe, was the concern about having armed people on an aircraft, people talking about having a gunfight in the aisles of a passenger airliner. I've talked to some experts about this. There seems to be a sense in Europe that if a gun is fired on the plane that it is likely to bring down the plane or in some way jeopardizes the flight itself. And would be an even greater danger than the terrorists. I gather from experts that is not the case.

Can you explain to us what would happen if there was an incident onboard and gunfire erupted?

RIDGE: Well, first of all, I think those individuals with whom you talk that have had more experience with ballistics and in flight have reached the conclusion that we certainly have. Rare would be the incident where a firearm discharged in a cabin would result in the destruction of the aircraft or bringing it to the ground.

And if you have seen, as I have, the incredibly, rigorous training that our air marshals go through in this country, and with the hope that we could work with other countries to develop this same kind of rigorous training. You would feel -- should feel not only confident that if they had to discharge the firearm, it would not result in the aircraft loosing power or otherwise being unable to continue on the flight. But you see how selectively they are trained to use it and other alternatives they have at their disposal before they use it.

ANGLE: Yes. So, if you had even 15, 20 rounds that pierce the skin of the aircraft that does not mean that you lose pressure and the aircraft starts to crash?

RIDGE: That's correct. Again, there's always the possible event that if somehow a particularly, sensitive wiring or something like that was destroyed, it could potentially affect the operation of the aircraft. But the people you talked to are correct, the discharge of firearms on an aircraft are not going to bring it down.

ANGLE: Let me ask you one last question and we have about 30 seconds. In some ways it is amazing that we have not had another terrorist attack since September 11 on American soil. It is obviously not because the terrorists are not trying. How successful have we been? In other words, how many terrorist plots have we been able to foil over the last 2 or 3 years?

RIDGE: Well, we know from discussing -- interrogating, excuse me, detainees that when we ramp up security as we do when we go to orange. And then we increase surveillance and then with the added support of extraordinary efforts of state and locals that has a tendency to deter terrorist attacks. We've been told this by detainees.

So I think if you take a look at the combination of the extraordinary success of the military, and the CIA, the day-to-day operations of the FBI, the involvement of the Homeland Security and the partners at the state and local level, those are several aspects. I think we've probably been lucky from time to time. We don't mind admitting to that. Maybe a little divine intervention.

I think on day-to-day basis, we're doing a better job. We're getting more secure and better prepared to deter and detect and respond to an attack. and we take it one day at a time.

ANGLE: Homeland Security Chief Tom Ridge, thank you for joining us, sir.

RIDGE: Jim, nice talking with you. Thank you very much.

ANGLE: Thank you.

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