- The Washington Times - Friday, February 7, 2003

WASHINGTON, Feb. 7 (UPI) — The U.S. federal government Friday raised the national terror alert level to "high," warning that "recent intelligence" suggests al Qaida is targeting "apartment buildings, hotels, and other soft or lightly secured targets" in the United States.

The action was authorized by President George W. Bush after a meeting with the Homeland Security Council at the White House and was announced by Attorney General John Ashcroft, Homeland Security Secretary Tom Ridge and FBI Director Robert Mueller at a joint news conference.

"Recent intelligence reports suggest," Ashcroft said, "that al Qaida leaders have emphasized planning attacks on apartment buildings, hotels and other soft or lightly secured targets in the United States."

Ashcroft said "there are also indications, bolstered by recent arrests in London, where chemical ricin was discovered. These indications demonstrate al Qaida's interest in carrying out chemical, biological and radiological attacks."

Within hours of the national announcement, New York Gov. George Pataki and Mayor Michael Bloomberg held a news conference and announced heightened alerts in both the state and the city where the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks took their greatest toll. They said they had particularly alerted health authorities as well as police and National Guard units.

At all levels of government, officials urged Americans not to change their plans. "We are not recommending that events be canceled, nor do we recommend that individuals change domestic or work plans," Ashcroft said.

Ridge said that the federal government decision was being sent to homeland security chiefs in every state, to some 1,800 local police departments, to medical and first responders across the country and to "private sector managers" of high-risk industries and sites.

Today's announcement raised the color-coded alert level from "yellow" to "orange," Ridge said. The alert system has green for "low" level, blue for "guarded," yellow for "heightened," orange for "high" and red for "severe." Ridge and his agency have been criticized for the alert system, which from the beginning has cause confusion among authorities and the public. One Washington police official asked a reporter Friday what the colors were.

Ashcroft said the threat level was last raised to "high" on Sept. 10, 2002, for fear that the anniversary of the attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon in September 2001 would be repeated. It was reduced later in the year. But some parts of the country have their own alert systems. New York City, for instance, has been at "high" alert since Sept. 11, 2001, but Friday, Pataki said he ordered New York state to go from "heightened" to "high."

From the beginning of the national alert system, the Bush administration has been criticized for the unspecific nature of the warnings that many said left the public perplexed as to how to respond. The White House has been studying whether to issue the alert for the past several days.

One consideration in announcing the alert was the end of Hajj, the holy period during which Muslims make a pilgrimage to Mecca in Saudi Arabia. Some U.S. officials felt dangers might increase in that time of religious fervor.

Ridge said that the Bush administration held a "conviction" that "heightened awareness and readiness deters terrorism and saves lives."

He was asked whether local and state agencies knew what their role should be in the higher alert. Ridge said that every state has designated a special homeland security office and that "we continue to expand our capacity" to prevent terrorist attacks.

Though Ridge did not suggest specific defenses private persons should take, he said families ought to work out some sort of contact system, so parents and children could get in touch with each other on an urgent basis. He said families should make themselves aware of the threat levels and other public warnings.

Mayor Bloomberg told New Yorkers to "leave the worrying to the professionals" and that everything was being done to protect them against another attack. New York City has ordered increase security in places like hotels where crowds congregate.

British Police arrested several men last month on terrorist charges and discovered traces of ricin a deadly poison made from the castro bean, the same plant from which castor oil is made. Searches of al Qaida caves in Afghanistan in 2001 found evidence that they were experimenting with ricin. Ricin was used in a KGB plot to kill a Bulgarian dissident in London in the 1970s and can be delivered as an aerosol, dust-like substance or indigested with food. Recently the United States developed a vaccine for ricin.

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