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Welcome to "Ask the White House" -- an online interactive forum where you can submit questions to Administration officials and friends of the White House. Visit the "Ask the White House" archives to read other discussions with White House officials.

Ms. Frances Fragos Townsend
Assistant to the President for Homeland Security and Counterterrorism

August 6, 2004

Frances Fragos Townsend

Hello, I'm happy to take your questions today. Let's go

Lauchlin, from Dayton, OH writes:
I believe the current color system for terror alerts is quite confusing and a little silly. Why was a color system picked? What were the other options discussed? Thanks for your response.

Frances Fragos Townsend
Hi Lauchlin

Although I was not in this job when this system was developed, the color system helps state and local authorities who have responsibilities in their area for security understand what protective measures need to be taken based on the level of alert.

The state and local authorities are really the primary audience for the system.

We also hope that it helps the public to know when we need their assistance in reporting suspicious activity.

As a mother of two children, I want as much information as possible so I can make the best decisions for my family and I believe that is how most Americans feel which is why we do it.

Luke, from Atlanta writes:
With all the information you must read, does balancing the safety of U.S. citizens and protecting their personal freedoms become a difficult line to walk? And if so, how? Thanks

Frances Fragos Townsend
AS Americans our nation is defined by civil liberties that are enshrined in our constitution. It is critically important that we strike an effective balance between increasing security and protecting civil liberties. This is something we strive to do everyday.

Just to give you an example, the Patriot Act is an effective tool to keep the nation safe but at the same time inside the Justice Dept there is the Inspector General to investigate privacy and civil liberties violations.

Since the passage of the Patriot Act, there has not been a single founded complaint to the Inspector General that I am aware of. But it is important that we have that mechanism in place to ensure that the government doesn't overstep its bounds.

Vaughn, from Huntington. New York writes:
The nation's terror alert system does not seem to be working. Warning levels are raised, apparently, at the whim of the director and are based on data that is up to four years old. Also, they seem to be timed carefully to bolster the Bush Administration's image. Lord knows we're sitting ducks anyway, given such poor security at our ports and the depleted state of our National Guard. Isn't this system really a political tool used to sensationalize terrorism (thereby taking the focus off domestic issues) and to allow the Bush Administration an opportunity to send a false sense of security to the nation?

Frances Fragos Townsend
Thank you for asking this question because I think it is important that we set the record straight.

The recent terror alert was issued on the basis of several streams of credible intelligence reporting including , but by no means limited to, these casing reports.

There is much more recent information that taken in conjunction with these casing reports led us to alert the financial sector in Washington, New York and New Jersey to this potential threat.

Casing and surveillance files from Al Qaida are vitally important for a number of reasons regardless of their age. In the 1998 East Africa bombings, Al Qaida operatives cased 15 potential targets in Kenya in December of 1993.

As we know from the 9/11 Commission Report, planning for the 9/11 attack began more than five years beforehand. So what we have learned is that regardless of how old the casing is, is no indication of when Al Qaida may use it to strike.

Beyond that, it is important to understand how Al Qaida thinks and looks at potential targets so we can close those vulnerabilities at home.

You should also know that the alert was issued within days of our having received those casing reports.

David, from Huntsville, AL writes:
What ooportunities do citizens have at the local level to participate in Homeland Security?

Frances Fragos Townsend
Hi David

There is a great opportunity to get involved in homeland security at a local level by participating in the Citizen Corps program, part of the President's service agenda.

Citizen Corps Councils bring together leaders from law enforcement, fire, emergency medical and management agencies, local elected officials, volunteer organizations and the private sector to strengthen Citizen Corps programs at the state and local level and engage citizens in homeland security.

For more click here:

Jaime, from Elkridge, MD writes:
Ms. Townsend, How is your role different than that of homeland security secretary Ridge? Thank-you for helping President Bush and our country in these extremely frightening times; may God bless you all.

Frances Fragos Townsend
Hello Jaime

Tom Ridge is the Secretary of the Department of Homeland Security. The department is comprised of over 180,000 people with 22 different agencies ranging from the Coast Guard to the Bureau of Immigration and Customs Enforcement to the Transportation Security Administration.

DHS personnel are posted around the country and around the world.

The President, working with Congress, created DHS in response to 9/11 to provide a single federal department to manage many of the key agencies involved in the homeland security effort.

It was the largest reorganization of the federal government since the Defense Department was created after WWII.

While Secretary Ridge is at the Department of Homeland Security, my job within the White House is to run the Homeland Security Council. Just as the President has a national security staff led by Dr. Rice, in the aftermath of September 11 he created a Homeland Security Council and charged it with coordinating all homeland security programs across the federal government, this includes coordinating efforts between DHS, the Department of Justice, the FBI, the CIA, Department of Health and Human Services, and other federal departments responsible for homeland security.

My job is to ensure that the agencies are working well together and to advise the President on all homeland security policy.

Tara, from Tahoona, PA writes:
Dear Frances Thank you so much for doing a great job. I am a concerned mother of three children. I was wondering whether you feel that America is more secure now than before Sept 11th. I just cannot understand what drives people to hate this country so much.

Frances Fragos Townsend
As the President and the 9/11 Commission have both said, we are safer today than we were on September 11 but we are not yet safe. We have taken the most sweeping actions to increase homeland security since WWII including the largest reorganization of the government since 1947 with the creation of the Department of Homeland Security.

We are transforming the FBI to give it the primary mission of preventing terrorist attacks, we established the Terrorist Threat Integration Center to integrate and analyze both foreign and domestic intelligence on global terror -- giving the President and other senior officials a more complete picture of the threats facing our nation.

We have also, with the USA Patriot Act, strengthened law enforcement's abilities to prevent, investigate and prosecute terrorism.

I'm a parent too and the depth of the hatred that the terrorists have for our freedoms can be frightening to people. That is why we are doing everything we can today to make our country and the world our children will inherit safer.

Ric, from Silverdale, WA writes:
Where, in the White website can I find a copy of the September, 17, 2000 National Security Strategy document?

Frances Fragos Townsend
Hi Ric


Alexander, from New York writes:
What is the time line for implement the September 11th Commission's recomendation? Does the President disagree with any of the recommendations?

Thanks for your time, Alex

Frances Fragos Townsend
Thanks for your question. The 9/11 Commission report is a very helpful document. The Commission did important work and we welcome their findings.

The Commission found that we have already made significant strides in a number of critical areas. But, like the President, the Commission believes that we still have more work to do.

We are actively moving forward to implement many of the Commission's recommendations . For example, earlier this week the President announced his support for two of the Commission's recommendations -- the creation of a National Intelligence Director and the creation of a National Counterterrorism Center.

Some of the recommendations can be done relatively soon. Others will require legislative action working closely with Congress. Congress has already begun the important work of hearings that will lead to legislation.

We're pleased that good progress has already been made and we will continue to work closely with Congress to implement these important reforms.

Julie, from Michigan writes:
I am planning a family vacation next week to the Washington DC with my family.I am not generally an alarmist but the heightened security level has made me wonder whether or not we should still plan to visit the city. I have two boys 9 and 10 who I want to have a great experience learning about our nation and its wonderful history and concerned that now might not be the time to go to visit DC. Can you give me any insight?

Thank you.

Frances Fragos Townsend
Washington is a great place to visit and we encourage you to come. As someone who both lives and works in Washington, I can tell you that the monuments, the Smithsonians and the many other attractions are great for a family vacation. We have a strong working relationship with Mayor Williams and the Washington Police Department.

I can assure you that they are doing a great job in protecting the city along with many hard working federal law enforcement officials.

Tiffany, from Charlotte NC writes:
In the last announcement of terror threats last Monday, there was a great deal of focus on the financial institutions. However, as much as Charlotte is a fixture in the banking world, nothing was mentioned about it. Is it not considered a target or just simply not as big or weak a target as the other places mentioned?

Frances Fragos Townsend
In Secretary Ridge's announcement last week, of the five financial institutions that he referred to the terrorist alert, none were in Charlotte, NC. However, the Department of Homeland Security issued guidance and suggested protective measures to financial institutions throughout the country.

Based on the intelligence DHS suggested specific measures that financial institutions should consider taking to better protect themselves. And we have received very favorable responses from the financial community.

Robert, from Pilot Point, Texas writes:
How will the office of a new "Intelligence Czar" interact with Homeland Security? It appears to me that without good, well understood processes for intelligence within and between the FBI, CIA, DEA, etc. and then to Homeland Security we will have the same problems we have now.

Frances Fragos Townsend
Good question, Robert.

First, we've already done a great deal to strengthen our intelligence capabilities, particularly as they relate to protecting the homeland. President Bush created the Terrorist Threat Integration Center which helps to integrate and analyze the foreign and domestic intelligence on global terror.

These analyses are used by the President, Secretary Ridge and the Department of Homeland Security along with other key departments and agencies to assess the threats that our nation faces.

The new National Intelligence Director will further enhance our ability to integrate the intelligence on the threats to our nation's security. By creating the new Director position, we will ensure that every President has the best unbiased, unvarnished and complete assessment of the intelligence community.

We believe it will enhance the ability of the FBI, CIA and other federal intelligence agencies to effectively do their work.

Ryan, from Hoffman Estates writes:
With the heighten state of alert in Washington D.C., New York City, and Newark are there any plans to raise the alert status throughout the entire country? What are Secretary Ridge's plans after the election?

Frances Fragos Townsend
We constantly evaluate the intelligence reporting and assess the threat level based on that information. One of the interesting things about the alert issued by Secretary Ridge on Sunday is that it shows how we've made the color coded alert system more flexible and targeted based on the information that we are receiving.

Frances Fragos Townsend
I really enjoyed taking your questions today. It was a great opportunity to hear what's on the minds of the public. I look forward to doing this again. God bless you and God bless America.

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