- The Washington Times - Thursday, February 27, 2003

WASHINGTON, Feb. 27 (UPI) — The United States lowered its terror threat alert Thursday from "high" orange to "elevated" yellow, the mid-range on the five-color alert system.

However, Attorney General John Ashcroft and Homeland Security Secretary Tom Ridge said in a joint statement the country is still under a "significant" risk of terrorist attack.

When the alert was raised to orange almost three weeks ago, government officials could only cite general, unspecified warnings behind the move. Thursday, the reason for lowering the alert was just as vague.

The statement gave no specific reason for lowering the alert, except for the end of a Muslim holiday and general information from "detained al Qaida operatives" that the terror organization would now wait until the United States had lowered its guard before striking again.

Al Qaida and its founder, renegade Saudi Osama bin Laden, are blamed for the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon.

"Based on a review of intelligence and an assessment of threats by the intelligence community, the attorney general in consultation with the Homeland Security Council has made the decision to return the threat level to an elevated risk of terrorist attack, or 'yellow' level," the statement said.

"The decision to raise the threat level (from yellow) on Feb. 7 was based on specific intelligence, corroborated by multiple intelligence sources, received and analyzed by the full intelligence community at the time," the statement said. "Today's decision to lower the threat level was based on a careful review of how this specific intelligence has evolved and progressed over the past three weeks, as well as counter-terrorism actions we have taken to address specific aspects of the threat situation."

It added that the ending of the Hajj period, the Muslim pilgrimage to the holy cities of Mecca and Medina in Saudi Arabia, was one of the factors considered in lowering the alert.

"The lowering of the threat level is not a signal to government, law enforcement or citizens that the danger of a terrorist attack is passed," the statement warned. "Returning to the elevated level of risk is only an indication that some of the extra protective measures enacted by government and the private sector may be reduced at this time.

"We emphasize that the United States and its interests are still at a significant risk of terrorist attack."

The statement said detained "al Qaida operatives have informed U.S. intelligence and law enforcement officials that al Qaida will wait until it believes Americans are less vigilant and less prepared before it will strike again. For this reason, and for the safety and security of our nation, Americans must continue to be defiant and alert. We must always be prepared to respond to a significant risk of terrorist attacks."

The White House established the five-color Homeland Security Alert System by presidential order last March. It ranges from "low" green to "guarded" blue to "elevated" yellow to "high" orange to "severe" red in an attempt to describe the level of terror threat, as evaluated by government agencies.

The country has been on yellow alert since the system was established, with the exception of a brief period at orange on the anniversary of the Sept. 11 attacks and at orange for the past three weeks.

The statement released Thursday said "significant security measures" would remain in place at all federal agencies, including:

— A focus on critical facilities and vulnerabilities, with security and surveillance tailored to meet specific intelligence reports and security needs.

— Continued increased surveillance of terror suspects.

— Random inspections of passenger vehicles entering federal facility parking lots and restricted parking as necessary.

— Continued coordination of emergency plans with state and federal jurisdictions and private sector partners.

— Identification check of all personnel entering federal facilities.

— Screening of incoming office mail and other deliverables at federal facilities.


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