"I think it's very, very important to send a message to the terrorists of good will and resolve,"
"I think it's very, very important to send a message to the terrorists of good will and resolve," said Tom Ridge, making the rounds of nationally broadcast morning news shows. He said the Bush administration wants people to "be vigilant and have a good communications plan under way."
After briefing President Bush today, Ridge reiterated to reporters that the intelligence community considered the new threat "the most significant threat" to the country since the terror attacks of Sept. 11, 2001.
"We've never quite seen it at this level before," Ridge said.
U.S. officials, citing sharply increased terrorist communications in recent days, acted with urgency to move the alert status from yellow to orange -- from "elevated risk" to "high risk."
At a hastily called news conference Sunday, Ridge urged government officials and average citizens to be vigilant. He said the intercepted messages from suspected terrorists suggested attacks of large proportions might be planned.
"Information indicates that extremists abroad are anticipating near-term attacks that they believe will rival -- or exceed -- the scope and impact of those we experienced in New York, at the Pentagon, and in Pennsylvania [more than] two years ago," Ridge said.
Appearing on ABC's "Good Morning America," Ridge was asked if the host of warnings and changes in warning status over the past two years had made the public somewhat nonchalant about such alerts.
He replied that it has been six months since the terror alert was changed, saying "I don't think we've got to worry about threat fatigue. We need to be on the alert and America needs to know that those who need to do things are doing them, that their government is working 24-7 to protect them against terrorist attack."
Interest in using aircraft
Ridge said Al-Qaida terrorists remain interested in using aircraft in its attacks -- a particularly troubling warning during the holiday season, when millions of Americans travel by air.
Officials warned that the increased security might cause airport delays, but a Chicago official said people departing O'Hare and Midway airports should continue to show up two hours before their flights, as recommended previously.
A senior U.S. official, speaking on condition of anonymity, said Sunday night that New York, Washington and Los Angeles remain priority targets for the terrorist network.
This official said the decision to increase the threat level came Sunday morning after a series of high-level discussions that began to intensify Friday involving Ridge's office, the Justice Department, the FBI and the White House.
Spike in 'chatter'
The official said "chatter," or communications, in extremist circles had spiked in the roughly 48 hours leading up to Ridge's announcement. Reports have led the intelligence community to believe the next two weeks are the time of maximum peril, the official said.
The official said international flights into the United States remain a top concern, as well as cargo flights.
The country's alert level had stood at yellow, an elevated risk and in the middle of the five-color scale, since May. Ridge said today that the change in the alert status was the result of information from "many sources," but said he could not be more specific.
For at least the past two months, officials have been operating on the assumption, backed by what they say is credible intelligence, that Al-Qaida has put off plans to conduct small-scale operations inside the United States in order to avoid a massive security crackdown. Leaders of the terrorist group feared that such a crackdown would make it impossible to attain the real goal: a mass-casualty attack on par with Sept. 11, according to senior U.S. officials.
The State Department, in a worldwide caution issued Sunday to U.S. citizens overseas, predicted attempts by Al-Qaida to mount assaults "more devastating than the Sept. 11 attack, possibly involving nonconventional weapons such as chemical or biological agents."
Concern for aviation
Homeland Security officials have worried about the vulnerability of the aviation industry, especially because of its vital role in the U.S. economy. Ridge said Al-Qaida was evaluating aviation procedures "both here and abroad to find gaps in our security posture that can be exploited."
Despite greatly increased airport security, there have been highly publicized breaches. Earlier this year, a North Carolina college student was able to sneak box cutters and other suspicious material aboard several Southwest Airlines planes. There was also the New York man who stowed away on a cargo airplane by hiding himself in a crate.
Terrorist experts are worried, however, that the greatest threat to the U.S. aviation industry may come from outside the aircraft in the form of portable, shoulder-fired missiles.
Such missiles have been fired at Western aircraft in Iraq and were responsible for the fatal crash of at least one Army helicopter. In Kenya last year, an Israeli airliner narrowly averted disaster after two missiles were launched at it after takeoff.
Security beefed up elsewhere
The Homeland Security Department, while concerned about aviation, is ratcheting up vigilance in other areas as well. Ridge said the federal government would be redeploying personnel to beef up security at the nation's borders, ports and coastal waters.
A senior Pentagon official said today the Defense Department is helping beef up security, but declined to give details. In past times of high threat, officials have increased combat air patrols by military jets over U.S. cities and deployed missile launchers outside the Pentagon and at other locations in the capital.
Interviewed on CBS' "The Early Show" today, Ridge said of the intelligence reports: "The volume is up. The quality of the reporting is up. The credibility is there." Earlier, he contacted counterparts in Canada and Mexico about increasing border security.
The Bush administration's action Sunday was the fourth time this year it has raised the terror threat advisory to orange from yellow.
The administration has been under pressure to limit the frequency of high alerts. Such increases add significantly to law enforcement and other costs of state and local governments, which must pay overtime in order to increase security at possible target sites.
"The increasing of the threat level is significant," said David Heyman, director of homeland security studies for the Center for Strategic and International Studies, in an e-mail sent by his Washington think tank. "Every time we go to orange, it costs $1 billion a week to put in place enhanced protective measures across the country."