The federal government yesterday ordered tighter security in the nation’s airports and stepped up its worldwide warning for possible anti-American terrorist attacks over the New Year.
Responding to growing concern about terrorism at home, the Federal Aviation Administration announced that airport authorities will increase the use of devices to monitor passengers for trace amounts of explosives and will add more uniformed police officers and bomb-sniffing dogs to patrol airports.
Travelers over the holiday season should also expect stricter enforcement of parking regulations at airports across the country, the FAA said in a written statement.
As for Americans abroad, the State Department said that while some suspected terrorists have been arrested, such activities may be still being planned.
“The U.S. government believes that terrorists may be planning to conduct attacks against official and non-official Americans in and around the New Year period,” the department said in a statement.
It noted the recent arrests in Jordan of suspects believed to be affiliated with suspected terrorist mastermind Osama bin Laden and said “intensive investigative work” had shown their purported targets to be “hotels, tour buses and tourists sites” in the Middle Eastern country.
“We cannot rule out the possibility that attacks still may be planned for this and other parts of the world,” the statement said.
Meanwhile in Washington, D.C., the Metropolitan Police Department and Metro Transit Police were placed on heightened alert yesterday one week earlier than planned.
Treasury Department Officer Lou Cannon, president of the Washington Fraternal Order of Police, said he suspects the paranoia surrounding the new year will cause people to become suspicious of others.
“People’s awareness is heightened,” he said.
Two such incidents occurred yesterday. In one, Federal Election Commission employees were told to evacuate their building shortly after 5 p.m. yesterday because of a threat directed against the FBI building across the street, FEC spokeswoman Sharon Snyder said. The FBI denied there was a problem.
In the other, the Metropolitan Police Department sent out teletyped notices and radio broadcasts yesterday afternoon that officers should look out for a 1989 blue Mitsubishi van.
A law enforcement source said they were alerted to the van after two men bought it in Northeast Washington on Monday. One of the men said he was not concerned about transferring the Texas license plate since they wouldn’t need the van long.
“There is no confirmation of explosives,” the law enforcement source said. “Their activities raised some concerns because they were not worried about the paperwork [for transferring the tags].”
Also in Washington yesterday, the Pentagon said it was preparing to protect U.S. forces overseas. Asked specifically if the Pentagon had taken any new precautions or put any additional military assets on standby, Pentagon spokesman Kenneth Bacon said only, “We’re taking appropriate action.”
Meanwhile, overseas, the U.S. Embassy in Quito, Ecuador, has been closed over concern it might be targeted by terrorists, the State Department’s deputy spokesman, James B. Foley, said yesterday.
Libyan leader Col. Moammar Gadhafi, who is believed by U.S. intelligence authorities to have supported terrorism worldwide, said yesterday the United States has plenty of enemies.
“The U.S. government is hated,” he said from Tripoli in an interview with CBS. “All the people in the world are against it; therefore, there is a threat. I hope it will not happen in this new year. I have no knowledge about this.”
Concern about possible terrorist incidents including those that could be directed by bin Laden has spread to the highest levels of government.
Secretary of State Madeleine K. Albright; CIA Director George Tenet; Gen. Henry H. Shelton, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff; and several other high-ranking U.S. officials met at the White House for two hours Monday to discuss the matter, but no formal statement was issued.
White House spokesman Joe Lockhart declined to describe the meeting, but told reporters there was no “specific or general threats against particular targets in the U.S.” He said only that there was “credible information, information gathered, including information gathered from arrests in Jordan, about potential terrorist threats.”
“We have made the case in the past that the U.S. is not invulnerable to domestic terrorism, but there’s no specific information now about particular targets here,” Mr. Lockhart told reporters at his daily briefing.
“But … as we head into the millennium, it pays for people to be cautious and vigilant,” he said. “We’re telling people … if you see something suspicious, report it.”
Jordan last week said it had arrested 13 members of a terrorist group linked to bin Laden who were planning “terrorist” attacks after training in Afghanistan. Another person was arrested in Pakistan.
Also last week, an Algerian man was arrested while trying to enter Port Angeles, Wash., on a ferry from Victoria, British Columbia. Authorities said Ahmed Ressam had nitroglycerin and other potential bomb-making materials in his car and was traveling on a false passport.
Yesterday, dogs found traces of what could be explosives in a car that carried another Algerian to a tiny border station in Vermont. A search of the car turned up nothing more.
The Algerian, Bouabide Chamchi, 20, and a Canadian woman, Lucia Garofalo, 35, were arrested Sunday evening at Beecher Falls. A federal prosecutor said Miss Garofalo has Algerian and Libyan relatives.
The two were charged with conspiring to use a false French passport and other immigration violations.
Mr. Foley of the State Department said a worldwide caution last week to Americans traveling abroad was prompted by its obligation to inform U.S. citizens of information it has that could impact on their security.
The warning, he said, was based on information developed with the arrest of a terrorist cell in Jordan, the possibility of activities by other groups, and the nature of the bin Laden organization.
“So we felt it was the prudent and responsible thing to inform the American public about this information that was derived especially from the successful closing down of a terrorist cell in Jordan,” Mr. Foley said.
“At the same time, though, we have told the American public that this is a yellow light. It is not a red light. We are urging Americans to be vigilant and cautious as they travel, but we are not recommending to Americans that they change their plans and that they not travel overseas,” he said.
Jim Keary contributed to this report.