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The Honolulu Advertiser
Posted on: Monday, December 22, 2003

U.S. preparing for possible attacks

 •  Hawai'i's threat level at orange for the first time

By John Mintz
Washington Post

WASHINGTON — Federal officials said yesterday that because fresh intelligence suggests al-Qaida is planning multiple catastrophic terrorist attacks in the United States, they have raised the national threat alert status to "high risk," or code orange, a step administration officials previously had said they were reluctant to take except in the most unusual circumstances.

At a glance

For air travelers, the Transportation Security Administration says the new "high" terror threat level means:

• More officers with police dogs patrolling airports.

• Parking restrictions.

• The possibility of long security check-in lines, especially during the holidays. To help keep the lines moving, passengers should remove metal items from their pockets and put them in carry-on luggage, take laptop computers out of luggage for inspection, take off coats and be prepared to take off shoes.

The Federal Aviation Administration advises private pilots to check with the FAA because new airspace restrictions are in place.

At U.S. borders, U.S. Customs officials say the elevated threat level means:

• Intensive inspections at airports, seaports and land border crossings.

• Increased examinations of cargo.

— Associated Press

Some of the worrisome new intelligence indicates al-Qaida operatives are exploring security vulnerabilities on commercial or cargo flights originating overseas and flying into U.S. airports, officials said. It suggests the terrorist network is preoccupied with repeating its Sept. 11, 2001, tactic of hijacking aircraft for use as missiles against U.S. targets, they added.

"The strategic (intelligence) indicators, including al-Qaida's continued desire to carry out attacks against our homeland, are perhaps greater now than at any point since September 11th," Homeland Security Secretary Tom Ridge said at an impromptu news conference yesterday. "Information indicates that extremists abroad are anticipating near-term attacks that they believe will rival, or exceed, the attacks in New York (and) at the Pentagon."

Officials said they have no specific information on where or when an attack might be planned.

Raising the alert level to orange or high risk, from yellow or "elevated risk," results in stepped up security procedures across the country to protect government buildings, critical infrastructure such as nuclear plants and railroads, harbors, shopping malls and other locations where people congregate.

At U.S. airports yesterday, security screeners and police mobilized in response to the alarm. Some airports, such as Baltimore-Washington International, prepared to bring out more bomb-sniffing dogs to patrol the terminals. At others, parking was restricted at some garages closest to airport terminals, and screeners were advised by supervisors to be extra vigilant.

Ridge made the announcement of the alert status at his agency's headquarters on a secure naval base in Washington 90 minutes after President Bush approved the recommendation by top officials of Ridge's department, the FBI, CIA, Pentagon, Justice Department and the White House.

Homeland Security and other officials worked all night Saturday, sifting through the intelligence, coordinating with state and local officials and refining yesterday's announcement.

New information analyzed Friday about al-Qaida efforts to penetrate foreign airports and airlines was soon deemed "credible," officials said. That information came from "a reliable source that has been corroborated by other things we know," one official said, declining to elaborate.

But the officials decided to take action upon combining this new information with evidence that al-Qaida terrorists around the globe were saying in telephone calls and e-mails that they expected a series of synchronized attacks in the United States around the holidays, officials said.

"The extremists were expecting a very near-term attack in the United States," one Homeland Security official said. The government picked up "so many credible threats" that officials concluded they had to take action, the official added.

Captured terrorists have said in interrogations that increased security discourages attacks, officials said.

In recent months Homeland Security officials had stated that they would avoid frequent raising and lowering of the threat alert out of fear that Americans would become nonchalant about their warnings. Earlier this year, the government sounded three orange alerts in four months, and many citizens and public officials — especially those living far from the perceived top targets of Washington and New York — simply ignored them.

Government officials said they overrode their skepticism of invoking another orange alert because they are deeply alarmed about the possibility of attacks during or just after the holidays.

"There was a consensus in the intelligence community that we go up" to orange alert, Ridge said.