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Thursday, March 20

Amid anxiety over terrorism, Ridge says nation secure

By Ledyard King | GNS

WASHINGTON - As the onset of war in Iraq kindled anxiety about terrorism in the United States, Homeland Security Secretary Tom Ridge said there were no new credible threats Thursday and that precautionary steps taken at ports, borders and other sensitive facilities earlier this week have made the nation significantly more secure.

"We are at a very high level of readiness and high level of security and the challenge is to sustain it," Ridge told reporters after testifying before a House committee on his department's budget request for next year.

Ridge said the decision to raise the national terror alert Monday to orange, the second-highest level, was designed to give governors the chance to increase security to the necessary level. "And we're there," he said.

Both Ridge and White House spokesman Ari Fleischer said there were no plans as of Thursday afternoon to raise the nation's terror alert from orange to red, the highest level. Administration officials earlier this week warned that terrorist attacks directed at U.S. targets around the globe were almost certain to happen once war started.

But even as Ridge sought to allay public angst, he and other federal officials acknowledged that several agencies were responding to a threat received earlier this week against the Palo Verde nuclear power plant near Phoenix. Ridge would not address the nature of the threat to Palo Verde, the nation's largest nuclear power facility, with three reactors, but did say security there had been tightened.

Despite Ridge's assurances of stepped-up security nationwide, Sen. Joe Lieberman, D-Conn., faulted the administration for not adequately assessing the vulnerability of key facilities - from chemical plants to water supplies - which Congress has been asking for since 1996. Without that assessment, Lieberman said proper protection cannot be provided to a slew of targets potentially attractive to terrorists.

"Though much lip service has been given to the importance of protecting our critical infrastructure, actual progress appears to have been exceedingly slow," Lieberman wrote in a letter to Ridge dated March 18 and released Thursday.

Speaking before the House Appropriations Subcommittee on Homeland Security, Ridge outlined the administration's budget request for 2004, which includes $829 million for a detailed threat assessment of the nation?s infrastructure.

A number of committee members told Ridge his overall $36.2 billion budget request - the agency's first since it was created last year - fell far short given the safeguards that need to be taken and the escalating security costs local and state governments have been incurring to maintain readiness.

"In our state, first responders are being cut: fewer police; fewer firefighters; cuts in our public health system," said Rep. Martin Sabo, D-Minn. "We are rapidly moving backward, not forward, in the capacity of our first responders to respond to any national or local emergency."

Ridge said the president plans to send a supplemental budget this year that would include money to reimburse many communities at least partly for what they've spent to beef up patrols, increase surveillance and improve emergency response.

While Ridge was addressing one committee on security measures, the head of the Transportation Security Administration was warning another of the increasing danger of shoulder-fired missiles to commercial aircraft.

"The threat is real," John Mica, R-Fla., the chairman of the House Aviation Subcommittee, declared after a closed-door hearing with TSA Administrator James Loy.

Shoulder-fired missiles number at least 500,000 around the world, and at least 27 terrorist or guerrilla groups possess them, according to Jane?s Intelligence Report. The missiles can be set up and fired in a few minutes. They have a range of several miles and seek out the heat of jet engines.

Last November, suspected al-Qaida members fired one at an Israeli passenger plane in Kenya. It narrowly missed.

(Contributing: GNS correspondent Carl Weiser)