Ridge: Al Qaeda Still Poses Big Threat

Ridge: Al Qaeda Still Poses Serious Threat

L O N DO N, Nov. 8 — Al Qaeda militants still pose the most immediate threat to the United States and its allies despite the heavy blows Western forces have struck against them, U.S. Homeland Security Director Tom Ridge said.

He echoed earlier comments from America's most senior military officer, who declared the al Qaeda network able to launch a "major terrorist operation," whether its leader Osama bin Laden was dead or alive.

And British Home Secretary David Blunkett, who had talks with Ridge in London, said intelligence from around the globe suggested the radical Islamic organization, blamed for last year's Sept. 11 attacks, was continuing to evolve.

"Al Qaeda remains our most immediate and serious threat despite the damage we have done to their network in Afghanistan and elsewhere," Ridge said Thursday in a speech at King's College, London.

Although hundreds of its members had been killed or captured, last month's Bali bombing, an attack on a French oil tanker off Aden, Yemen, and the killing of a U.S. Marine in Kuwait all showed it retained the ability to strike.

"The modus operandi of this organization emphasizes careful planning, tight operational security and exhaustive field preparations — the prerequisites for spectacular operations," Ridge said.

Blunkett warned Britons to remain vigilant.

"There is a considerable amount of intelligence from various parts of the world to indicate that al Qaeda and the cells associated with them are engaged on a continuing, evolving pattern of terrorist activity," he said in a statement.

"Whatever damage we have done to al Qaeda, they continue to operate. They are dedicated fanatical extremists who have no regard for the loss of human life, including their own," he said. "We cannot be sure where or when they will strike. But we can be certain they will try."

A first draft version of Blunkett's statement — mistakenly sent to some journalists then withdrawn — was even more alarming. "Maybe they will try to develop a so-called dirty bomb, or some kind of poison gas; maybe they will try to use boats or trains rather than planes," it warned.

Earlier on Thursday, Gen. Richard Myers, chairman of the U.S. Joint Chiefs of Staff, told BBC radio al Qaeda's network was so diffuse that even if its leader was dead it could and would strike again.

Ridge agreed, saying that some European sceptics about U.S. action needed to realize that this was a threat unlike any other faced before.

He said the U.S. administration would reshape domestic law enforcement organizations to focus on counterterrorism and was working to break down barriers between its intelligence and law enforcement agencies.

The FBI and CIA were heavily criticized after the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks on New York and Washington in which more than 3,000 people died.

— Reuters

Tennessee Develops Smallpox Immunization Plan

N A S H V I L LE , Tenn., Nov. 8 — Amid heightened concerns about biological warfare, the Tennessee Health Department detailed plans to fight an enemy once thought eradicated: smallpox.

U.S. officials said this week that they believe Iraq is among four nations that have unauthorized samples of smallpox; the others are Russia, North Korea and France.

In the wake of the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks, state health officials already were preparing for a possible bioterrorist attack involving smallpox.

News that Saddam Hussein might possess the often deadly virus only adds to the urgency.

"If Iraq is one of those countries that we're pretty sure has the smallpox virus, needless to say, that serves you to want to have a plan for mass vaccinations as soon as possible," said Dr. Fredia Wadley, state health commissioner.

Health officials from across the state met in Nashville last week to develop plans for vaccinating all 5.7 million Tennesseans in the case of a smallpox attack in the United States.

A mass vaccination plan outlined Thursday by Dr. Wendy Long, assistant state health commissioner, calls for quickly opening and operating 117 clinics throughout the state. The goal would be to vaccinate everyone within 10 days.

Each clinic would serve 5,000 patients per day and require a staff of more than 200 — a combination of public health workers and trained community volunteers.

"To give you some sense of the magnitude of this effort, that means we need over 25,000 people statewide to staff these 117 clinics," Long said.

In coming weeks, local health officials will search for possible clinic sites, such as large high schools, and start recruiting volunteers.

A single confirmed case of smallpox anywhere in the nation would constitute an emergency and prompt Tennessee health officials to put the vaccination plan into action, said Dr. Allen Craig, state epidemiologist.

The last U.S. smallpox case was in 1949, and the last naturally occurring case anywhere was in Somalia in 1977. The United States ended routine vaccinations for smallpox in 1972. The virus was declared eradicated from Earth in 1980.

All stocks of the virus, except those stored at official labs in Atlanta and Moscow, were supposed to have been destroyed.

Smallpox is a powerful weapon: It kills 30 percent of its victims, is highly contagious and has no known treatment.

Top U.S. officials have discussed offering voluntary smallpox vaccinations to Americans before any attack, but no decision has been made.

While the disease is frightening, so is the vaccine. It's made with a live virus called vaccinia that can cause serious damage to people vaccinated and those with whom they come into close contact. Health officials estimate that about 15 out of every million people vaccinated will face life-threatening side effects, and one or two of those 15 will die.

On the positive side, smallpox is typically less contagious than measles, flu or chicken pox and passed by close contact. Also, the virus can be prevented in people vaccinated within three to four days of exposure.

But while public health officials know how to deal with traditional smallpox, they can't account for every possible bioterrorist scenario.

"When you have somebody trying to transmit it in an abnormal way, then that sort of changes the picture," Wadley said. "Instead of talking about one case, you might be talking about a thousand cases."

On top of that, smallpox is far from the only biological threat. Others include anthrax, botulinum toxin, tularemia, plague and ebola.

But Long said Tennessee's smallpox disaster plan would help deal with other threats.

"With only minor modifications, for example, a smallpox vaccination clinic could be adapted to provide for the mass distribution of antibiotics to respond to ... anthrax or plague," Long said.

— The Associated Press

Bush Seeks to Strengthen Relations With Muslims

W A S H I N G T O N, Nov. 8 — Seeking to strengthen relations with Muslim Americans even as he heads toward possible war with Iraq, President Bush opened the White House on Thursday to Muslim leaders for a Ramadan-season dinner.

As he courts an estimated 7 million U.S. Muslims, Bush's efforts to discourage a backlash over the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks are coming into conflict with increasing antipathy to Islam shown by core supporters among conservative Christians.

He also faces deep concern among Muslim Americans over what they see as heavy-handed law enforcement tactics used in the campaign against terrorism, and unbalanced U.S. policies in the Middle East.

"We've seen a significant absence or silence on the rising tide of anti-Muslim rhetoric [from conservative Christians]," said Ibrahim Hooper of the Council on American-Islamic Relations.

"It's good in a way for him repeat the mantra of Islam is a religion of peace, but I think it would have more impact if he spoke specifically to those who are his constituents and supporters and told them to basically knock it off," he said.

Asma Gull Hasan, author of American Muslims: A New Generation, said she thought Bush had done well promoting tolerance for Muslim Americans and supporting their faith.

"The government is another story," she said. "I have more problem with his attorney general, John Ashcroft."

Bush was to host diplomats from Islamic countries and Muslim American leaders for an Iftar dinner, the traditional meal breaking daily fasts during the holy month of Ramadan, which started this week. He held a similar dinner last year, just weeks after the attacks blamed on Islamic militant Osama bin Laden.

"Islam is a peace-loving faith that is practiced by more than one billion people, including millions of American Muslims," Bush said in a Ramadan message this week.

Although Bush has made many such statements, a single act — a visit to a Washington mosque soon after the attacks — had powerful resonance across the American Muslim community. In keeping with Muslim tradition, Bush slipped off his shoes before entering the mosque.

He said there that Islam was a religion of peace, and denounced attacks on veil-wearing Muslim women. "Everything he said was something I could have said," Hasan said.

"I know that he's a religious person himself and I know that he respects religious beliefs in others that he sees are sincere," she said.

The mosque visit helped him recover from early miscues, including his description of the U.S. battle against terrorism as a "crusade," which evoked the Christian warriors who fought against Muslims in the Middle East.

But Bush has lost support among Arab-Americans, particularly among those who are Muslim, said James Zogby, president of the Arab-American Institute.

A poll commissioned by the institute last month found that 46 percent of Arab Americans were satisfied with Bush's conduct toward them, compared with 38 percent who were dissatisfied, and down from 90 percent who were satisfied in October 2001.

Zogby said key factors in the decline are concerns over detentions of American Muslims, and a White House failure to denounce anti-Muslim comments by conservative American religious leaders including the Revs. Jerry Falwell and Franklin Graham, referring to Islam as a religion of violence.

White House spokesman Ari Fleischer, asked last month about such remarks, said Bush "has repudiated such statements every chance he can."

Hooper said the possibility of a U.S.-led war against Iraq was another source of friction. "I think American Muslim opinion is pretty much universally opposed to a war that does not include U.N. sanction," he said.

But Hasan was more equivocal, saying she was uncomfortable with the prospect of war but many Iraqi refugees in the United States would be happy to see Iraqi President Saddam Hussein go. "Saddam Hussein has still done worse to Muslims than George Bush could ever dream of doing," she said.

— Reuters

Ex-Airport Screeners File Discrimination Suit

P O R T L A N D, Ore., Nov. 8 — A group of former Portland International

Airport screeners have filed a federal lawsuit claiming they were

not given a fair chance at new, federalized screening jobs.

Congress last year required that all airport screeners become

federal employees.

The suit, filed Thursday in U.S. District Court in Portland,

also claims that some former screeners were discriminated against

on the basis of their gender, race and age.

The suit asks the court to require immediate retesting of all

former screeners for the new jobs and the hiring of all who pass

the required test.

It also asks the court to certify it as a class action so it

covers about 140 former airport screeners who were not hired to the

federal jobs.

Former screeners have made similar complaints in Los Angeles,

Salt Lake City, Cincinnati, Orlando, Fla., and other cities, said

Don S. Willner, the Portland attorney who filed the case.

The six named plaintiffs worked for Huntleigh USA, which

employed 337 Portland International Airport screeners before

November 2001, when Congress required that all screeners be federal

employees.

It was one of several measures designed to improve airport

security after terrorists with box cutters passed through security,

hijacked airplanes and crashed them into the World Trade Center and

the Pentagon during the Sept. 11, 2001 terror attacks.

Federal transportation officials promised to give preference to

experienced Huntleigh employees who passed the test but hired new

screeners before testing the former ones, the suit says. When

Huntleigh screeners were tested, the suit says, most of the jobs

were filled.

At least two former screeners, both military veterans, were

denied preferential hiring treatment for veterans in violation of

federal law, according to the suit. In addition, screeners who were

women and minorities were failed by testers at a higher rate than

white male screeners, the suit says.

Transportation officials also discriminated against former

screeners who were older than 45, the suit asserts.

The suit maintains that federal transportation officials and NCS

Pearson, the company that screened the testers, devised ways to

discriminate against former screeners by making the test subjective

and giving them less time to complete it than other applicants.

— The Associated Press