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Hostage Tragedy Has U.S. On Guard

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Federal law enforcers are taking a new look at hostage-taking responses to make sure the United States is prepared for an attack like the recent terrorist takeover of a Russian school.

"The president said to all of us: Just make sure you know what you are going to do, who is going to be doing it, where we are going to be doing it, what resources we are going to apply," Homeland Security Secretary Tom Ridge said in an interview Thursday.

In recent morning briefings, Ridge said President Bush had asked his top advisers — including homeland security, FBI and justice officials — to review their strategies for dealing with hostage situations.

Ridge said the U.S. government was still trying to find out key details of how last week's attack in Russia was planned and carried out. He indicated the U.S. government was still relying on press reports and is hoping to learn more from Russian officials.

At the same time, Ridge was somewhat critical of the Russians, saying it appeared that authorities there may have had a disjointed response to the hostage crisis blamed on Chechen rebels. More than 300 people died.

"Preliminary reports suggest there wasn't the kind of coordination and leadership and direction and somebody being in charge," Ridge told The Associated Press.

Russia has in turn criticized the United States for advocating talks with Chechen rebels believed linked to the Beslan school incident and other terrorist atrocities.

Later, Justice Department spokesman Mark Corallo said the FBI and other agencies "are constantly training and refining their techniques based on current threats. They always have and they always will."

As the three-year anniversary of the Sept. 11, 2001, terror attacks nears, recent attention has focused on a pre-election threat. However, echoing a remark made at an April speech in Nevada, Ridge extended the amount of time the United States should be extra vigilant against a possible al Qaeda attack designed to disrupt the democratic process — from the Nov. 2 Election Day to the presidential inauguration scheduled for Jan. 20.

Ridge also acknowledged that U.S. authorities have "a couple different sources" believed to be sharing credible information about the threat.

"You can translate that into anytime between now and the election, now and the inaugural — or any time we conduct business as a democratic society," Ridge said. "Most people think in terms of either the election or the inaugural."

As the United States looks to learn from Russia's experience, the Russians are adopting some counterterrorism measures similar to U.S. policies.

A color-coded alert system, tighter controls on foreigners and restoring the death penalty are among proposals floated by politicians to strengthen Russia's security after the terrorist attack on the school in Beslan.

The color alert system will be among measures considered by the Russian legislature or Duma, Vladimir Vasiliev, the head of the Duma's security committee, said Thursday.

Such a system would "inform the public about the terror threat," he said.

The U.S. system — which has five colors, from green (low risk of terrorist attack) to red (severe risk) — has occasionally been criticized by security experts for being too vague.

As Russia is proposing to do, the United States tightened its checks on arriving foreigners. It also has the death penalty for terrorists, and created a single superagency — the Department of Homeland Security — to coordinate antiterror efforts. Russian ultranationalist Vladimir Zhirinovsky made a proposal for a similar Russian superagency earlier this week.

Russian officials this week were quick to capitalize on a visit to Moscow by Rudolph Giuliani, with Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov meeting the former New York mayor who won widespread admiration for his leadership on and after Sept. 11.