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U.S. News
Ridge senses new public acceptance of terror warning system

Thursday, September 12, 2002

By James O'Toole, Post-Gazette Politics Editor

Tom Ridge, the nation's director of homeland security, said he was encouraged by public response to first-ever escalation under the color-coded threat warning system.

Pounced on at its inception as material for late-night comedians, the warning system was invoked in earnest yesterday. The shift was from yellow -- an "elevated" level of alert -- to orange "high" alert, the second most serious level of concern.

The shift reportedly was prompted by information that militants, affiliated with al-Qaida, were planning an attack on U.S. installations or embassies in Asia or the Mideast.

"It was interesting," Ridge said, moments after speaking at the commemorative service yesterday for victims of United Flight 93. "There are a couple of things I learned from the announcement.

"The country is beginning to better understand that when we get information that is credible, we will share it. Not only are they understanding that that is what we will do, they are learning to accept it and use it."

Ridge professes equanimity at the jibes that initially met the alert system, but he said it reflected the challenge of explaining how the system would translate to practical action.

"Although people made light of the threat advisory system, which is OK, they weren't sure what it meant," Ridge said.

Now, Ridge senses emerging consistency in the way agencies at different levels of government are responding to the system.

"Communities and organizations and some states, as well as the federal government, have begun to develop protective measures consistent with the level of risk and as of yesterday we started seeing that," Ridge said.

"There are still some gaps, there are still some organizations not geared up to do that, but we didn't expect them to be geared up within a year."

Even in the bureaucracies closest to his own operation, "it's only in the last couple of weeks that the federal government has lined up all of its protective measures with the threat advisory system, [but] I felt good about how the information was received and, more importantly, about how it was used."

Ridge, speaking a year after events that propelled him from the governor's office to his current high-profile post, said his confidence in fashioning a response to the country's "enduring vulnerability" was bolstered by the events he had just helped commemorate in Somerset County.

"We know we have a lot of work to do before we prevail," he said. "But we are persistent. We will prevail because the folks on Flight 93 won the first battle."

James O'Toole can be reached at jotoole@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1562.

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