by Will Lester, Associated Press
WASHINGTON (AP) - Homeland Security Director Tom Ridge told governors Sunday they're responsible for closely coordinating security planning at the state and local levels and promised to provide better information about the terrorism threat to aid those efforts.
"I understand we have to do a better job of information sharing," he told the National Governors Association winter meeting. "I might as well bring this up before you do."
Ridge told the governors that in about two weeks, he would be releasing details of a new national alert system that would provide more information about the seriousness of a threat. He has made references to the new alert system after people criticized the broader terrorist alerts that were issued.
"The broader goal will be that on those hopefully rare occasions when we get information that is of sufficient credibility and corroboration, we will be able to do an assessment and attach a certain level to it," Ridge said. "Right now, you're either on alert or not on alert."
Ridge said the system would give law enforcement and the public a better idea of what credibility professionals put on the threat. "There will be times when it goes just to a state, a governor or a region, and there will be times when it will go national," he said, adding that the alerts often become national news no matter the original plan.
"We would hope and expect an enhanced level of preparedness would be the response," he said.
Ridge said it was crucial that governors coordinate security plans carefully with local authorities and that a planned $3.5 billion intended to support emergency and medical personnel would be funneled through the states, with three-fourths of that money destined for cities and counties.
The federal government will work to improve the tracking of people who come into the country and work for border security that allows the resumed flow of commerce while being more vigilant.
And he noted that President Bush has suggested an additional $6 billion to build up the capacity of the nation's public health system. That money will be used to stockpile pharmaceutical drugs, enhance the capacity of laboratories and build up the public health system generally, he said.
"These changes will make us more secure and a healthier and better country," said Ridge, noting the dual effect of building up public health in general and protecting against bioterrorism at the same time.
Bioterrorism poses a special threat, said Donald Henderson, director of the Office of Public Health Preparedness.
"We're most concerned about biological terrorism," said Henderson, noting the number of laboratories around the world that can make the anthrax bacteria, the continuing threat of smallpox, the availability of information on the Internet and the growing number of people with training in microbiology.
Bioterrorism poses a more difficult threat because it is sometimes difficult to tell when an illness is related to a terrorist attack and difficult to tell when the germs are being transported.
"We're going to have to be well prepared from a preventive side," he said, adding that he wants somebody at the local and state health departments available who have the training to respond quickly in case of a bioterrorist attack.
Henderson said the federal government plans to send $1 billion to states quickly with a portion available for immediate use.
California Gov. Gray Davis asked if states would get money to help cover the costs they have incurred providing additional security so far. Ridge said there would be flexibility to apply some of the money set aside in the budget for states to cover expenses defending against terrorism in the months after Sept. 11.
Oklahoma Gov. Frank Keating encouraged Ridge to develop a system of "trusted fliers" where people could be allowed to quickly move through security screening and to cut back on the screening of people who clearly are not a threat.
"Two thirds of this economy is consumer confidence," said Keating, who noted that much of the nation's economic health depends on efficient air travel.
Ridge acknowledged the governors concerns and agreed at the difficulty posed by general terrorist alerts that have been issued previously.
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He said governors often have responded: "You told us to be on alert. What do you think we've been on since September 11?"