Tuesday, December 30, 2003

Black Hawk helicopters, radiation monitors, snipers, police checkpoints, metal detectors, restricted air space and Coast Guard boarding patrols: It’s the Homeland Security Department’s way of saying, “Welcome to the New Year’s Eve party, we’ve got you covered.”

America on high alert for a terrorist attack has military and law-enforcement officials across the country ramping up homeland security to its highest ever to guard New Year’s Eve celebrations in major metropolitan areas.

Air space will be closed or restricted above the District, New York, Las Vegas, Chicago, all college football bowl games and the New Year’s Day Rose Bowl Parade in Pasadena, Calif.

Security is unprecedented at the Times Square celebration in New York City, where 700,000 people must pass through a metal detector to watch the descent of the Waterford crystal New Year’s Eve ball.

“Our police department has done a great job keeping us safe, and we expect tomorrow night to be no different,” New York Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg said at a news conference yesterday. “Members of the police department’s Hercules team, officers assigned to the bomb squad, an aviation unit and mounted police will all be on duty.”

Black Hawk helicopters and radar-equipped Citation jets will patrol the skies, while snipers perch on nearby rooftops and thousands of police officers patrol the crowd. Commercial trucks will be stopped and searched, and boats will patrol the harbor.

The National Guard stands ready in case of a biological or chemical attack, and the festivities will begin after the bomb squad sweeps Time Square for explosives.

Some security measures will be visible, others won’t, said Tom Ridge, Homeland Security chief.

“It’s a national alert, and we’re taking national precautions,” Mr. Ridge said.

With federal officials on high alert, Americans are free to enjoy the festivities.

“They need to go out and celebrate New Year’s,” Mr. Ridge said. “I don’t think there’s a city that has done more and sustained a higher level of security and protection than New York City.”

Federal officials remain concerned that al Qaeda suicide terrorists will hijack a commercial airliner from another country and use it as a missile to destroy a landmark structure and kill numerous civilians. Mr. Ridge said the threat is to “rival or exceed September 11” and prompted him on Dec. 21 to raise the color-coded terror alert level from yellow to orange, or elevated to high.

There also is concern that trained pilots or flight crew members have infiltrated an international airline, and pilots and crews now are subjected to screening by U.S. officials.

“Since we know that they’ve trained pilots before, we take it as a fact that there may be some out there that have been trained — how completely trained, we don’t know. But that’s one of the reasons we continue to add more and more security in the United States,” Mr. Ridge told CNN.

The United Kingdom has intelligence reports containing general threats to Britain’s airliners, and Air France last week canceled six flights between Paris and Los Angeles after passenger names were matched to an FBI watch list.

Los Angeles International Airport is a potential target and additional Biowatch sensors to detect a biological attack have been installed.

An outdoor rock concert in downtown Los Angeles tonight featuring ‘80s pop band the Bangles was canceled because of security concerns.

The Rose Bowl Parade will go on as scheduled, with hundreds of sheriff deputies stationed along the route.

Another terrorist target is Las Vegas, where more than 300,000 people are expected to spend New Year’s Eve — the busiest time of year for the legendary strip. Airspace will be restricted from 9 p.m. to 3 a.m. in a 10-mile radius around the center of McCarran airport.

Metropolitan Police Chief Charles H. Ramsey is asking residents here to be aware of their surroundings or any suspicious activity.

A Washington police spokesman would not comment on police activities downtown tonight because of homeland-security concerns.

However, the spokesman advised that revelers approaching random vehicle checkpoints throughout the night will confront a more traditional form of homeland security — sobriety tests.

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