WASHINGTON - The FBI has drawn up a sweeping domestic contingency plan to counter possible attacks prompted by an invasion of Iraq, including monitoring Iraqis and potentially thousands of others who might launch "sympathy" strikes, officials said yesterday.
Bush administration officials also lowered the nation's terror alert yesterday by one level to code yellow, or "elevated" risk of attack, but stressed that Americans remain at "significant risk" of attack.
"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," Attorney General John Ashcroft and Homeland Security Secretary Tom Ridge said in a joint statement.
"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," the statement said.
Hours before the threat level was lowered yesterday, the FBI warned local law enforcement agencies of a new potential danger posed by al-Qaida operatives in the United States, saying they might be engaged in "meticulous planning" for possible suicide attacks and other terrorist acts.
Al-Qaida operatives might be conducting "prolonged static surveillance" of possible terrorist targets by disguising themselves as panhandlers, demonstrators, food or flower vendors and street sweepers, according to the confidential weekly law enforcement alert sent to 18,000 state and local law enforcement agencies.
The FBI and other counterterrorism officials are also concerned about a different terrorist threat, from followers of Iraqi President Saddam Hussein, officials said.
Those attacks, they said in interviews, could be made by "sleeper" agents that might have infiltrated the United States to wreak havoc in the event of war, or by third-party groups that could conduct "proxy" attacks on behalf of Hussein.
In testimony before Congress on Feb. 11, FBI Director Robert S. Mueller III also warned of potential attacks emanating from Iraq. "Our particular concern is that Saddam Hussein may supply terrorists with biological, chemical or radiological material," Mueller said.
The FBI contingency plan was also spurred by a concern that Iraqis living in the United States and some Iraqi-Americans or other sympathizers might become so angered by a military strike on Baghdad that they launch attacks on their own or on an appeal from Hussein, counterterrorism officials said.
As the rhetoric of war has intensified in recent months, FBI headquarters has instructed its 56 field offices to "have a plan in place to make sure we're ready" for such retaliatory counter- strikes.
FBI officials said the nationwide contingency plan includes an intensive effort to find, monitor and, in some cases, survey and detain, potentially thousands of Iraqis who have come to the United States.
The plan is a comprehensive one, which includes "a detailed checklist" of things for members of the FBI's 66 Joint Terrorism Task Forces to do now and in the event of military action.
"Some of those activities have already taken place," a senior FBI official said at a briefing yesterday for reporters at FBI headquarters.
The FBI also is urging Iraqis and other Muslims to come forward in the event of war if they are victims of hate crimes, an FBI official said.
The decision to lower the threat level was made 20 days after President Bush ordered the color-coded threat level raised to orange, the second-highest level on the scale, noting a wide variety of intelligence reports that suggested a "high" risk of terrorist attacks.
"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 counterterrorism actions we have taken to address specific aspects of the threat situation," Ridge and Ashcroft said in their statement.
Neither would discuss what - if any - specific counterterrorism measures were taken to decrease the threat.
Ashcroft and Ridge said, however, that one factor in downgrading the threat level was that the period around the hajj, the annual Muslim pilgrimage that ended in mid-February, had passed. One FBI official said unspecified "intelligence" also led authorities to judge that the threat level could be lowered.
Josh Meyer is a reporter for the Los Angeles Times, a Tribune Publishing newspaper.