The move, announced by Attorney General John Ashcroft on Tuesday, is the first time the government has changed the level of alert since the Sept. 11 attacks. Ashcroft cited intelligence from a senior al-Qaida operative warning of possible attacks on U.S. overseas interests. He specifically mentioned the possibility of car bomb attacks on U.S. facilities in South Asia or the Middle East.
The attorney general also said symbols of American power and authority, such as embassies, military facilities and national monuments could be possible targets. He also indicated that terrorists might “lash out in even small strikes,” including car bombings and other suicide attacks overseas.
He said the government had no specific information about threats against sites within the U.S.
“Today we once again call on the American people to remain alert but defiant in the face of this new threat,” Ashcroft said. “We ask that Americans, both at home and abroad, mark the anniversary of last year’s savage attacks with a heightened awareness of their environment and the activities occurring around them.”
Ashcroft did not indicate when the alert would be downgraded, but said officials would continue to reassess the threat status. According to Ashcroft, information received in the past 24 hours was “very, very valuable and significant” to the threat status upgrade.
Homeland Security Director Tom Ridge, who shared the podium with Ashcroft, urged Americans to continue on with their everyday lives despite the high alert.
“Our advice to America is to continue with your plans,” Ridge said. “If … travel’s in your plans, attendance at a public event is in your plans, we would like you to proceed, to do as you had planned to do. But be wary and be mindful…”
President Bush told reporters later Tuesday the U.S. was paying close attention to recently collected threat information.
“We take every threat seriously,” the president said. “The threats that we have heard recently remind us of the pattern of threats that we heard prior to September 11.”
A number of other federal agencies including the U.S. State Department, Navy and FBI have also warned of potential terror threats.
The State Department issued a worldwide statement Monday night, warning of “a continuing threat of terrorist actions, which target civilians and include suicide operations.”
U.S. military bases and diplomatic missions will remain on high alert throughout the week. U.S. officials will also temporarily close some two dozen U.S. diplomatic posts, including embassies in Pakistan, Indonesia, and Malaysia. U.S. officials in Kuala Lumpur said they were shuttering their office after receiving a “credible and specific” threat. “Credible and specific information” also sparked the closing of the U.S. embassy in Jakarta, spokesman Stan Harsha told reporters.
Meanwhile, U.S. Navy officials cautioned that members of al-Qaida might target oil tankers in the Middle East — the first such warning the Navy has issued since the Sept. 11 attacks.
“While the U.S. Navy has no specific details on the timing or means of the planned attacks, and there are no indications than an attack is imminent, the threat should be regarded seriously,” an advisory from the Navy’s Maritime Liaison Office in Bahrain said.
The FBI’s National Infrastructure Protection Center, which monitors threats to key utilities and infrastructure, issued a general warning last week saying that “a large volume of threats of undetermined reliability continues to be received and investigated by the FBI.” The statement said several of the threats made reference to New York City, Washington, D.C. and the Sept. 11 attacks.