- The Washington Times - Tuesday, December 23, 2003

The nation was put on high alert after officials intercepted phone calls and e-mail between al Qaeda and associates along with newly evaluated intelligence from sources suggesting multiple attacks are imminent, federal law-enforcement officials said yesterday.

Los Angeles and San Francisco are mentioned as potential targets, along with Washington and New York, authorities said. General targets include bridges, tunnels, nuclear power plants and dams.

The communication intercepts originated in several foreign countries and suggest that al Qaeda is seeking to repeat the attacks of September 11, using passenger or cargo jets hijacked from foreign airports to strike unidentified U.S. targets, the authorities said.

Homeland Security chief Tom Ridge on Sunday put the nation on Code Orange, or high alert to a possible terrorist attack that could “rival or exceed September 11.”

However, President Bush yesterday said Americans should “go about their lives.”

“Our government is doing everything we can to protect our country. American citizens need to go about their lives, but as they do so, they need to know that governments at all levels are working as hard as we possibly can to protect the American citizens,” he said.

In addition to the calls and e-mail, new intelligence data was obtained from al Qaeda detainees. A captured Saudi cleric suspected of having ties to al Qaeda disclosed to Saudi authorities that the terrorist network was planning new attacks using aircraft against U.S. targets, officials said.

A separate FBI “Be on the Lookout” advisory to police agencies throughout the United States urged increased security efforts at potentially vulnerable sites.

Early yesterday morning, Mr. Bush convened the Homeland Security Council and was briefed on increased security activities. White House spokesman Scott McClellan said “extraordinary steps” were being taken to protect the nation.

Although airplanes are specifically mentioned in the “chatter” reviewed by intelligence operatives, officials say air travel is safe.

“We’ve taken extraordinary steps to improve and strengthen aviation security, to improve and strengthen our border security, to make sure that our critical infrastructure is protected as well,” Mr. McClellan said.

“There’s close coordination between the federal government and states and local governments as well. I’d say it’s unprecedented cooperation,” Mr. McClellan said.

The Golden Gate Bridge in San Francisco is under increased security, the National Guard was deployed to New York’s airports, bridges and tunnels, and the National Park Service stepped up security on the Mall in Washington.

The State Department issued a warning worldwide that U.S. citizens abroad might be targeted by terrorists, including a note that “al Qaeda will strive for new attacks … possibly involving nonconventional weapons such as chemical or biological agents.”

This is the fifth time the country has been put at orange in the color-coded threat advisory created after the September 11 attacks and the fourth time this year. The nation has never been put at Code Red, for severe threat, which Mr. Ridge said “basically shuts down the country.”

Mr. Ridge appeared on network and cable morning news shows and emphasized that Americans should be alert during the holiday season, but go about their business.

“Keep going, keep going,” Mr. Ridge said.

Mr. Ridge has not disclosed specific targets, but told NBC that terrorists “like to go back to targets that they’ve previously struck; the nation’s capital and New York City [are] certainly included in that list.”

However, nearly every major American city has been mentioned in chatter over the past two years, and Mr. Ridge said it was “very appropriate for us to raise it across the country so that all metropolitan areas increased their level of security.”

Another alert trigger was a statement issued last week from Ayman al-Zawahiri, Osama bin Laden’s chief deputy, saying al Qaeda is “still chasing the Americans and their allies everywhere, even in their homeland.”

U.S. officials believe al-Zawahiri is hiding, as is bin Laden, somewhere along the Afghanistan-Pakistan border.

Notable anniversaries and holidays are also factored into alert decisions. Shoe-bomber Richard Reid was arrested exactly a year ago today on a flight from Paris to Miami.

“We’ve got a lot of friends around the world that are pulling in information about these bad guys. We’ve got a lot of efforts under way ourselves internally,” Mr. Ridge told CBS. “And again, the volume is up. The quality of the reporting is up. The credibility is there.”

The administration was criticized the last time it put the nation at high alert, in May, and indicated afterward it would be more conservative in raising threat levels.

“This new warning reflects a real concern on behalf of the administration that the threat to Americans today is more serious than in the past,” said David Heymann, director of homeland-security initiatives for the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington.

Mr. Heymann put the cost of going to orange alert at $1 billion a week, with most of the burden on New York and Los Angeles.

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