Ridge lowers threat alert

Airlines, some facilities, cities asked to continue heightened security

`Not like we're standing down'

Homeland security chief hopes to be more specific in future terror warnings

January 10, 2004|By Laura Sullivan | Laura Sullivan,SUN NATIONAL STAFF

WASHINGTON - After three weeks of intense security measures and canceled flights, the federal government lowered the terror alert level yesterday, saying the potential danger appears to have passed.

Officials cautioned that there is still cause for concern and said they have asked airlines, a few cities and some private facilities such as nuclear power plants to continue with increased security.

Homeland Security Secretary Tom Ridge announced the lowering of the threat level from orange (high) to yellow (elevated) and said he hopes to be able to tailor future alerts more narrowly.

"We are still concerned about the continued threats, but the threat conditions that we've been following have diminished," Ridge said. "I know we are all thankful that nothing happened."

Ridge declined to say which cities had been asked to maintain increased security, but an administration official said New York, Los Angeles and Washington are among them. Other cities have been asked to continue patrols around certain landmarks and gathering spots.

Maryland followed the federal government's lead and lowered its threat level to yellow yesterday. Officials said the change would allow them to reduce the hours of law enforcement personnel who have been working overtime since the level was raised Dec. 21.

"It's not like we're standing down; it's not like we're saying let's take a deep breath and disengage," said Dennis Schrader, director of Maryland's office of homeland security. "All we're doing is shifting gears."

The Baltimore-Washington International Airport will remain at a high level of alert, and the heightened security that travelers noticed over the holidays will continue, Schrader said.

Ridge said the threshold for raising the alert level will be higher in the future and possibly more focused, narrowing the alert to a specific area or potential target.

This latest period of orange was marked by almost frantic talk among intelligence officials that an attack could be imminent. Some intelligence officials said there is almost a sense of surprise in the community that nothing has happened.

Flight concerns

The alert level was raised after officials said they had picked up a steady increase in intelligence pointing to an attack, possibly using an airplane flying into the country from abroad.

Officials canceled 16 international flights, ordered F-16 fighter jets to escort a half dozen others, and delayed a number of planes on the tarmac for additional screening.

Officials were most concerned with flight routes from Paris and Mexico to Los Angeles, and London to Washington.

Homeland Security also enlisted a corps of Energy Department nuclear scientists to traverse New York, Los Angeles, Las Vegas and Washington with devices that scan the air for radiological contaminants that might help uncover a "dirty bomb."

"We were concerned about the specificity, the intensity, the volume, and even at that time the corroboration associated with some of those specific threats," Ridge said.

"And it was, clearly, since we've had the advisory system, probably the most significant convergence of multiple reporting streams about potential attacks - simultaneous attacks - against the country."

Fears were compounded by the time of year, the holiday season, and the large public gatherings that accompany the festivities.

Security's effect

Ridge said intelligence officials have learned from questioning detainees that raising the threat level and increasing security can deter an attack.

He said the individuals believed responsible for the bombing of the British consulate in Istanbul have told U.S. interrogators that they initially wanted to bomb the American consulate, but that the consulate's preventive measures looked too "extreme."

Ridge said it would be weeks or months before officials would know if the latest measures thwarted an attack. Officials are still concerned, though, that terrorists might try to hijack aircraft, saying intelligence suggests a continued threat over the next several weeks.

"One of the most persistent and consistent reports that we have from multiple sources," Ridge said, is "the continued interest by al-Qaida to use aircraft, but particularly commercial aircraft" to attack the United States.

Alert system criticized

Some members of Congress have frequently criticized the color-coded threat system as vague and costly, arguing that the alerts have lost their effectiveness on a public too accustomed to raised alerts during which nothing happens.

Members of the House Select Committee on Homeland Security have called for more tailored alerts that identify specific potential targets.

Ridge said he was hesitant to narrow an alert too greatly out of concern that doing so could cause a panic. But he said he anticipates at least being able to be more specific in the future by naming threatened cities or putting international airports on a higher alert status than small, rural ones.

Costs variable

Homeland Security officials said the cost of putting the nation on orange alert, the second highest of five threat levels, is difficult to quantify and changes with each occasion. Still, some numbers exist.

During the war in Iraq, raising the level to orange for 30 days, coupled with additional wartime security measures, cost taxpayers $3.5 billion, said department spokesman Brian Roehrkasse.

Ridge said they would not know the cost of the latest alert until state and cities submit their expenses for reimbursement over the next two months.

Sun staff writer Stephen Kiehl contributed to this article.

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