- The Washington Times - Monday, March 17, 2003

WASHINGTON, March 17 (UPI) — The United States Monday began a massive nationwide security operation designed to protect against the heightened threat of terrorism — including that involving chemical, biological or radiological weapons — as a result of the looming assault on Iraq.

The national terror alert threat level was raised from the current "code yellow" — or "elevated risk" — to "orange," or "high risk," and high visibility security was stepped up at airports, ports and border crossings. A new policy of detaining those claiming political asylum from countries where terror groups are active was also announced.

"Our government is on heightened watch," said President George W. Bush in a nationally televised address Monday evening. "Just as we are preparing to ensure victory in Iraq, we're taking further actions to protect our homeland."

"The intelligence community believes that terrorists will attempt multiple attacks against U.S. and coalition targets worldwide in the event of a U.S-led military campaign against (Iraqi leader) Saddam Hussein," said Homeland Security Secretary Gov. Tom Ridge in a statement announcing the raised threat level issued just moments later.

In his speech, Bush gave Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein and his sons 48 hours to quit their country, leaving war almost inevitable.

The security operation, codenamed "Liberty Shield," includes more patrols by coastguard vessels, more intense screening of people and goods at border crossings and increased flight restrictions over New York, Washington and other cities.

In the capital Monday night, roads around the White House were closed.

"Orange" is the second-highest level in the United States' five-stage, color-coded alert system. The country was last put at "orange" Feb. 7 because of warnings of possible terror attacks related to the ending of the Muslim Hajj pilgrimage. No terror attacks took place and the threat level was lowered to "yellow" nearly three weeks later.

"Liberty Shield" also envisages closer tracking of those foreign and U.S. nationals suspected of terror links and indefinite detention of anyone claiming political asylum from 34 countries where terror groups are active.

The Department of Homeland Security said it expected relatively few people to be affected by this last measure. Officials said that last year only 600 people from these 34 countries had applied in person for asylum in the United States. Sixty percent of these were from Iraq, officials said.

However, the detentions might be lengthy. Asylum applications regularly take more than a year to be processed.

The plan, which swung into action as Bush was speaking, envisages additional security measures for the nation's critical infrastructure by both the private sector and the National Guard and other public servants.

But officials said it had been drawn up so as to minimize the economic cost.

"This is a comprehensive national plan designed to protect U.S. citizens while ensuring the freest possible movement of goods and people across and within our borders," said an official from the Homeland Security Department, who asked not to be identified.

The official said that the department was "working with its partners" at all levels to ascertain the cost, but state governments — already tightening their belts as the nation's economic woes bite deeply into their budgets — are unlikely to welcome the extra expenditure that will be required by the more stringent security measures.

In California, for instance, Gov. Gray Davis ordered the highway patrol to immediately begin 12-hour shifts, to double their presence at key locations and to commence 24-hour aerial surveillance of the state's critical infrastructure.

"Liberty Shield" follows a slew of warnings that Iraqi agents or sympathizers might try to attack U.S. targets in the country or overseas, as they did in the run up to the 1991 Gulf War.

At the weekend, Saddam warned that if the United States attacked Iraq, "the battle between us will be waged wherever there is sky, earth and water anywhere in the world."

Speaking of the Iraqi leader, Bush said, "In desperation, he … might try to conduct terrorist operations against the American people and our friends. These attacks are not inevitable. They are, however, possible."

Other warnings suggested that Islamic extremists might try to exploit the fact that any conflict will be massively unpopular outside the United States by launching attacks against U.S. interests.

Of particular concern is the possibility that such attacks might involve chemical, biological or radiological weapons. Ridge's statement Monday echoed those warnings.

"The discovery of ricin production in London raises the concern … that extremists are planning to follow through on longstanding threats of poison plots against U.S, British and Israeli interests — and possibly other targets in Europe," it said.

"Liberty Shield" includes a ramped up public health program to watch for unusual diseases or disease patterns and to improve security at food industry and agricultural facilities.

As reports of plans to raise the threat level surfaced over the past few weeks, experts consulted by United Press International have proved remarkably divided about the wisdom of the move.

Larry Johnson, formerly deputy director of the state department's office of counter-terrorism, dismissed much of the recent talk about the terror threat as wildly exaggerated. He compared al-Qaida to Hitler in his bunker at the end of the war, "giving orders to troops that no longer exist."

Of the possibility that the threat level might be raised, he said last week, "I am sick and tired of this bombast… Yes there are threats and we need to take them seriously, but please let's get a sense of proportion." He said there was a danger of "self inflicted terror, where we buy into the (al Qaida) myth of themselves, and start jumping at our own shadow."

By contrast, Anthony Cordesman of the Center for Strategic and International Studies, saw the authorities as having little choice.

"All these efforts to predict terror attacks are speculative," he acknowledged, "as are any efforts to assign probabilities to them. The fact remains, however," he concluded, "that we have no choice but to prepare for the possibility that such attacks will occur."

Former CIA Middle East analyst Judith Yaphe expressed some skepticism at the suggestion that Iraq might try to use terror groups as surrogates to strike at U.S. interests. "I am very suspicious of reporting about this Iraq-terror link," she told UPI.

"As you know there are people who see the Iraqi hand behind everything, but my own attitude is: 'show me the money!' Where's the evidence?"

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