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Threat of Terrorist Attacks Remains High, warn US Officials - 2003-08-03


U.S. officials say the threat of terrorist attacks in the United States and elsewhere remains high, but that efforts to protect the public are being constantly upgraded and reinforced.

A little over a month before the two year anniversary of the September 11, 2001, terrorist attacks in New York and the Pentagon, U.S. Attorney General John Ashcroft gave a sobering assessment of what the future may hold. Speaking on the U.S. television program Fox News Sunday, Mr. Ashcroft said there is no reason to doubt that further attacks are being planned. "I believe that the potential for us to be hit again is very real. And the efforts we are making, the information we are sharing with the American people, signals that we believe there is such a potential, but that we minimize the potential whenever we are alert," he said.

Mr. Ashcroft said the Bush administration is working to minimize the threat of terrorist attacks. He noted that transit visa requirements have been tightened for people making connecting flights at U.S. airports.

The policy change followed an intelligence assessment that terrorists continue to plot attacks that could involve hijackings, as well as a controversial directive that would have cut back on federal air marshals assigned to commercial flights. On NBC's Meet the Press, U.S. Homeland Security Director Tom Ridge was quick to state that the directive never went into effect, and that the air marshal program is fully staffed. "All air marshals are deployed. That order was rescinded," he said.

Mr. Ridge added that, as part of the war on terrorism, numerous security measures have been enhanced to protect the flying public. "Let's go back in the history of the air marshal program. Its primary purpose is to prevent a breach of the cabin [of an aircraft]. For that reason, the program grew from a couple hundred air marshals to several thousand air marshals. In the meantime, we are in the process of arming pilots; we have secured cockpit doors; we have passenger screeners and baggage screeners and new technology. So, on balance, the federal air marshal program is a critical program, but there are other assets and other layers of protection that I think give us enhanced security," he said.

Attorney General John Ashcroft was asked on Fox News Sunday about an audiotape purportedly from the al-Qaida terrorist network that threatened retaliation if harm comes to detainees from Afghanistan currently being held at the U.S. Naval Station at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba. "It is ironic to say that they would wait until we did something to one of them before they would do damage to the United States," he said. "They did great damage to the United States on September 11. I believe al-Qaida wants to strike us. I believe they want to strike us whenever and wherever they can."

Mr. Ashcroft said the United States and its allies have disrupted dozens, perhaps hundreds, of terrorist attacks around the world since September 11, 2001.

He added that, like many Americans, he and his family will be traveling by commercial airplane in the weeks ahead, and that he is confident of the security measures in place.