Wednesday, May 21, 2003

U.S. goes on orange alert
as terror threat heats up

States and cities boost security
at bridges, airports and subways

WASHINGTON >> The Bush administration, concerned that a wave of attacks overseas could spread to the United States, raised the terrorism alert level to orange yesterday and called for increased security nationwide.

A specialist with the California Army National Guard stood watch at Fort Point beneath the Golden Gate Bridge in San Francisco yesterday.

Authorities described the intelligence pointing to a domestic attack as general in nature, with nothing credible suggesting a time, location, method or target. They pointed to last week's bombings in Saudi Arabia and Morocco as part of a coordinated series that could spread.

"The U.S. intelligence community believes that al-Qaida has entered an operational period worldwide, and this may include attacks in the United States," Homeland Security Secretary Tom Ridge said.

Ridge warned of attacks similar to those in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia, where gunmen fought with guards before suicide bombers detonated truck bombs at several lightly defended residential complexes.

State and local authorities began reacting after yesterday's announcement. Police in California began working 12-hour shifts. National Guard troops in New York were called up to protect subways and bridges. In Washington, the Capitol police SWAT team prepared to conduct random patrols.

The decision to raise the national alert to orange, signifying a "high" risk of attacks, from yellow, meaning an "elevated" risk, came after a review of intelligence information by President Bush's homeland security council yesterday, White House spokesman Ari Fleischer said. Orange is the second-highest on the five-color alert scale.

Federal law-enforcement officials said that among the intelligence picked up recently were two electronic transmissions that discussed the possibility of an attack on New York, Washington, Boston and more broadly the U.S. coastlines. The officials, speaking on condition of anonymity, said there were doubts about the credibility of the threats and stressed that they were not the driving factors in the decision to raise the threat level.

Ridge encouraged governors and mayors to deploy extra police and take other precautions, particularly at large public gatherings during the upcoming Memorial Day weekend.

Overseas, U.S. officials also took additional security measures. The United States, Britain and Germany temporarily closed their embassies and consulates in Saudi Arabia yesterday following warnings.

The Federal Aviation Administration is planning to temporarily prohibit flights over sports stadiums and restrict small private planes flying within a 17.25-mile radius of the Washington Monument, said agency spokeswoman Laura Brown.

The FAA will also require private planes flying into three Washington-area airports -- College Park, Potomac and Washington Executive/Hyde -- to first land at Tipton Airport in Maryland so the pilots can be checked, Brown said.

A Saudi official said dozens of Muslim militants linked to al-Qaida were believed ready to volunteer for suicide bombings like the ones in Riyadh.

American counterterrorism officials suspect that al-Qaida leaders in Iran are directing the attacks to demonstrate the organization remains viable despite the loss of several of its top leaders. Iran denies sheltering any al-Qaida leaders.

The Bush administration has raised the terror alert level from yellow to orange three times previously, each time setting off a flurry of increased security measures by cities, states and businesses. Each time, the level was lowered back to yellow after a few weeks. The lowest two levels, green and blue, and the highest, red, have not been used since the system was put in place more than a year ago.

During the earlier alerts, no domestic attacks were apparently attempted. This has led some to question whether the orange alerts do anything more than frighten the public and cost taxpayer dollars, but the administration says they may help deter attacks.

The last time it was raised was during the Iraq war. It went down after most hostilities ended.

The alert system is designed to guide law enforcement agencies, businesses and the general public in their security decisions, and it is mostly up to local governments and companies to decide how.

Changes are driven by world events and information gathered by U.S. intelligence agencies, such as monitored communications between terrorists. This "chatter" sometimes increases before an attack.

The threat level increase came after the FBI, in bulletins sent Friday and yesterday to law enforcement officials nationwide, said the attacks in Saudi Arabia and Morocco could be "a prelude to an attack on the United States."

The FBI added it had no credible information about a specific U.S. threat.

Al-Qaida operatives may be deterred by enhanced security or frequent changes in security routines, the bulletins said. State and local police are urged to remain vigilant for signs of surveillance against potential targets or reports of attempts by anyone to obtain explosives.


Isle terror alert
status stays at yellow

Hawaii's terror alert level will remain at yellow, despite the federal government's raising the national alert status to orange, Gov. Linda Lingle announced yesterday.

Yellow marks an elevated risk of terror attack, while orange marks a high threat of terrorist attacks. The Bush administration took the action yesterday amid fears that numerous terrorist attacks abroad may spread to the United States.

Lingle was informed that there have been no specific threats to the state, according to a news release.

The security alert status at Hawaii's airports, harbors and ports has been elevated to orange because they fall under federal jurisdiction. That heightened alert status may mean delays at airports this Memorial Day weekend, according to Department of Transportation spokesman Scott Ishikawa.

"We're asking people to come a bit earlier and for their patience and cooperation," Ishikawa said.

Additional airport security will be in place by this morning and signs calling attention to the higher threat level will also be posted at airports, Ishikawa said yesterday.

"We're going to increase surveillance, patrols, as well as random inspections of vehicles entering airport parking lots," Ishikawa said.

The National Guard, however, will not be assigned to the airports, said Maj. Chuck Anthony, state Department of Defense spokesman.

The decision to keep the state's alert level at yellow follows the military's course of remaining at the equivalent "bravo" status, according to the Governor's Office.


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