U.S. warns of possible new terror

Attacks may happen soon, Ashcroft says

details again few

Agencies put on top alert

Bush names panel to tighten limits on student visas

War On Terrorism

The Nation

October 30, 2001|By Gail Gibson | Gail Gibson,SUN NATIONAL STAFF

WASHINGTON - Attorney General John Ashcroft issued a new warning yesterday about possible terrorist attacks against the United States over the next week, but he said authorities again have no details about the timing, targets or method.

It was the second time this month that the Justice Department had issued a stark but vague public warning about potential new terrorist violence. As with the alert Oct. 11, Ashcroft offered only the most general warning, saying simply that the administration had "credible" information about a possible attack.

"We urge Americans in the course of their normal activities to remain alert and to report unusual circumstances or inappropriate behavior to the proper authorities," Ashcroft said at a hastily called late-afternoon news conference.

After the FBI issued its first warning nearly three weeks ago, some lawmakers and police officials said it only unnerved an anxious nation and left local authorities unsure how to respond. But FBI Director Robert S. Mueller III said yesterday that the tightened security response to the earlier warning "may well have helped to avert such an attack," and he said the new warning was prudent.

"We are asking [local police] and, through them, local communities to remain extremely vigilant," Mueller said. "Doing so gives us a force multiplier that could well prevent another terrorist attack."

President Bush - who was announcing a new task force to try to close gaps in the immigration system that allowed several of the terrorist hijackers to move freely through the country - was told about the new threat early yesterday, Ashcroft said.

The White House did not comment directly on the FBI warning.

Earlier in the day, in discussing the creation of the Foreign Terrorist Tracking Task Force, Bush said the United States would not allow terrorists to prey on the openness of America. Asked about previous warnings of new terrorism, the president said the country "must stay on alert."

"Our enemies still hate us," Bush said at the first formal meeting of his new Homeland Security Council. "Our enemies have no values that regard life as precious. They're active and, therefore, we're constantly in touch with our law enforcement officials to be prepared."

Based on the information received yesterday, the FBI directed 18,000 police agencies across the country to move to "highest alert." Several federal agencies, including the Federal Aviation Administration, the Energy Department and the Nuclear Regulatory Commission, were also ordered to tighten security.

Tom Ridge, the new director of homeland security, had notified governors about the warning in a conference call yesterday before the Ashcroft news conference.

Michael E. Morrill, a spokesman for Maryland Gov. Parris N. Glendening, said the governor directed state police and agencies - already on heightened alert - to ratchet up security measures further.

"We're on a heightened alert right now that we're going to continue," Morrill said "Vigilance is the norm right now, and it's important that we all play a role in that right now."

In a statement last night, the Baltimore Police Department said it remained on highest alert.

"All personnel are directed to remain aware and observant," the department said. "We ask all citizens to do the same."

The FBI warning issued Oct. 11 was the only other instance since the Sept. 11 attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon that the FBI has publicly warned of possible new violence. Privately, the bureau routinely relays to local authorities threats that are deemed "credible"- such as the warning Oct. 17 that Baltimore could face an anthrax attack, which did not occur.

Soon after the national alert Oct. 11, the United States was hit by a series of anthrax incidents that have left three people dead and disrupted ordinary life - particularly in Washington, where new reports of anthrax traces in government buildings have become a frightening aspect of the capital's daily rhythms.

Yesterday, the Supreme Court met off-site for the first time since its building was constructed in 1935 because anthrax traces were found at the postal facility that handles the court's mail. The court building was to remain closed today because traces of anthrax were also found yesterday in the building's mailroom.

Justice Department officials have said that investigators have found no link between the anthrax attacks and the suicide hijackings that killed thousands.

Mueller, speaking to the U.S. Conference of Mayors last week, raised the possibility that the vague information that generated the FBI warning Oct. 11 could have been related to the anthrax attacks - but he stressed that authorities do not know for sure.

Asked yesterday whether the latest warning was related to anthrax-tainted letters, Mueller said, "I have no reason to believe at this point in time that it is related."

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