Ridge plans task force to coordinate security

Posted in United States | 20-Apr-04 | Author: Brian Knowlton| Source: International Herald Tribune

Bush to campaign to renew Patriot Act

WASHINGTON - The director of Homeland Security said on Monday that he was creating a government task force to better coordinate public and private security with an eye to preventing possible terror attacks in the United States in a year replete with high-visibility public events.

President George W. Bush, in the meantime, is devoting several speeches this week to a defense of the Patriot Act, which expanded law-enforcement prerogatives against terrorist suspects.

The week's focus on terror comes after members of the independent commission investigating the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, suggested that the Bush administration, and the Clinton administration before it, could have done more to stop terrorist threats.

Tom Ridge, the Homeland Security director, announced the new task force in a speech in Las Vegas, a day after the administration said that it was taking seriously the possibility of a major terror attack aimed at influencing the Nov. 2 elections. But Ridge said the task force did not flow from the warnings of such an attack.

"We know we are the No. 1 target," he said.

As possible targets for terrorist groups, Ridge cited the dedication of the new World War II Memorial on the National Mall in Washington at the end of May, the two political nominating conventions, the July 4 celebrations, and several other public events.

"We are rich with opportunities this year for terrorists to shake our will," he told The Associated Press in an interview previewing his Las Vegas speech. "We are going to increase our vigilance."

The task force was to bring Homeland Security officials together with those of eight other federal agencies to improve antiterror coordination.

Ridge said officials had no specific intelligence on possible attacks.

Another event that has drawn intense security planning is the early June summit meeting of leaders of the Group of Eight industrialized nations, on Sea Island, Georgia. The island will be effectively sealed off during the summit.

Along with the party conventions in New York and Boston this year - in crowded urban areas more challenging to protect - the Georgia summit meeting has been declared a National Security Special Event. That designation originated with the 1996 Atlanta Olympics and brings heightened coordination by the Secret Service.

In his appearance in Hershey, Pennsylvania, meanwhile, Bush was to call again for a renewal of portions of the Patriot Act that are set to expire next year.

The act, passed weeks after the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, greatly expands law-enforcement prerogatives in dealing with suspected terrorists. But while the administration has called the act invaluable, it has mobilized angry opposition across an unusually wide political spectrum. Four states, as well as more than 275 cities and towns, from Tampa, Florida, to Manchester-by-the-Sea, Massachusetts, have passed resolutions or ordinances asking Congress to narrow its scope.

Critics in groups from the American Civil Liberties Union to the National Rifle Association say the act permits a level of governmental spying on individuals that squarely offends American values and traditions. The act makes it easier for law enforcement and intelligence agencies to share information on terror suspects. It also, however, allows government agents to search homes or businesses without advance notice; to monitor telephone and Internet use; to take Americans into military custody without access to legal counsel or judicial review; and to monitor political or religious groups.

Bush made clear Saturday that he planned a concerted effort to pressure Congress over the Patriot Act; he planned another speech on the topic for Tuesday in Buffalo, New York. Allowing parts of the act to expire, he said in his radio address Saturday, would demonstrate a "willful blindness to a continuing threat." Because the portions of the act set to expire represent only about 10 percent of its provisions, and are valid through next year - and because Pennsylvania is a crucial electoral swing state - Bush's visit was seen to have an undeniable political component.

Among the act's critics is Senator John Kerry of Massachusetts, Bush's presumptive rival in the presidential race. He has supported central provisions of the act but called for restrictions on, for example, government access to library and business records. A Kerry spokesman, Phil Singer, charged that Bush was using the act "to distract attention from the fact that his administration has done a woefully inadequate job of fixing the intelligence system." But the White House spokesman, Scott McClellan, said that Bush would continue to discuss the issue - one, he said, that offers voters "clear choices."