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Ridge warns attacks possible

(The following story by Shannon McCaffrey appeared on the Philadelphia Inquirer website on April 20.)

WASHINGTON, D.C. -- Worried that terrorists have been emboldened by the recent train bombings in Spain, Homeland Security Secretary Tom Ridge warned yesterday of possible strikes against Americans at coming events, from the debut of the World War II Memorial to the national political conventions.

"With so many symbolic gatherings in the next few months, we must be aggressive," Ridge told radio and television broadcasters in Las Vegas.

Other "targets of opportunity" that terrorists might be eyeing, Ridge said, are the Summer Olympics in Athens, the U.S. presidential election, the International Monetary Fund meeting in Washington, the June economic summit of wealthy nations in Sea Island, Ga., the July 4 holiday, and the 2005 presidential inauguration.

He cautioned that there was no specific, credible intelligence pointing to an attack. "But we do have common sense," he said. "And we don't need a change in the threat level to improve security."

To help ratchet up defenses, Ridge announced the creation of a working group to focus on key vulnerabilities, such as rail and air travel, chemical facilities, the transport of hazardous materials, and the nation's electrical grid. Members of the group will come from Ridge's department and nine other cabinet-level agencies.

The group will reach out to local officials, police and the private sector to review and, in some cases, speed up the instituting of security measures.

Critics dismissed the move as more empty rhetoric.

Michael Greenberger, a Justice Department counterterrorism official in the Clinton administration who leads the University of Maryland's Center for Health and Homeland Security, said the administration appeared to be "running scared" after the Sept. 11 commission hearings showed that little was done in the summer before the 2001 attacks as threats mounted.

"It's shocking to me that they're only doing this now," he said of the working group. "This is the kind of thing people thought that Homeland Security was doing all along."

Later yesterday, Ridge announced the expansion of Homeland Security's counterterrorism communications network that delivers secure, real-time information. Ridge said the computer network would be expanded to all 50 states, five territories, Washington, and 50 other major urban areas.

National security adviser Condoleezza Rice said Sunday that terrorists might try to replicate the success they had bombing commuter trains in Spain in a bid to influence this country's elections. "We are actively looking at that possibility," Rice said on Fox News Sunday.

Nearly 200 people were killed in the March 11 attacks in Madrid. Spain's ruling party was voted out three days later and replaced by a Socialist rival who has ordered Spanish troops from Iraq.

Since the attacks in Spain, the United States has announced a pilot program to test ways to screen rail passengers.

The economic summit in Georgia and the summer political conventions in Boston and New York have been classified as National Security Special Events, subject to intense security organized by the Secret Service.

The unveiling of the World War II Memorial on the National Mall over Memorial Day weekend is also prompting a major security effort. And FBI Director Robert S. Mueller has traveled to Greece to check on security preparations for the Olympics.

In the Philadelphia area, James B. Jordan, SEPTA's assistant general manager in charge of safety, said that in recent weeks, federal agencies had stepped up their warnings about the potential for terrorism but that the bulletins had involved "generalized, uncorroborated" information.

The most recent alert, sent to transit agencies April 8 by Homeland Security, did not specifically spell out the possibility of an attack around the election or the conventions, "but it was a fairly obvious inference," Jordan said.

On another front, officials in Washington said yesterday that the military would release an invisible nontoxic gas into the air around the Pentagon in coming weeks as a part of an effort to develop defenses against a chemical or biological attack.

The release of the odorless sulfur hexafluoride, expected during three days in early May, will allow sensors to trace its flow in and around the building, the Pentagon said in a statement. It said the gas was safe.

Tuesday, April 20, 2004

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