Originally Published: December 22, 2003 6 p.m.
WASHINGTON — The head of the Department of Homeland Security urged people today to "just go about your business" despite the decision to raise the national terror-attack warning to its second-highest level.
"I think it's very, very important to send a message to the terrorists of goodwill 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."
Ridge's comments came a day after he announced that the government was elevating the national terror alert warning to "Code Orange." The upgrade from "Code Yellow," or "elevated" status, followed warnings that the terrorist organization al-Qaida may be plotting attacks against the United States during the holidays. The new designation indicates a high risk.
"The information we have indicates that extremists abroad are anticipating near-term attacks that they believe will either rival or exceed" the Sept. 11, 2001 attacks, Ridge had said in announcing the upgraded alert status on Sunday.
Some of the intelligence information indicates that Osama bin Laden's terrorist network, al-Qaida, is seeking again to use planes as weapons, he said. Ridge said the terrorists are "constantly evaluating procedures ... to find gaps in our security posture that could be exploited."
Ridge said today that the change in the alert status resulted from information the United States received from "many sources," although he said he could not be more specific. "I think over the course of my two plus years (as head of homeland security), there has probably been some reference to just about every major metropolitan area," he said.
An official speaking on condition of anonymity had said Sunday that some of the intercepted communications and other intelligence mentioned New York, Washington and unspecified cities on the West Coast. Authorities also are concerned about dams, bridges, nuclear plants, chemical facilities and other public works.
Thousands of state and local law enforcement agencies have received an FBI advisory urging special notice of sites that could be a conceivable target and potential security upgrades, the official said.
Interviewed on CBS's "The Early Show" today, Ridge said of intelligence reports: "The volume is up. The quality of the reporting is up. The credibility is there."
Earlier, Ridge had contacted his counterparts in Canada and Mexico about increasing border security.
At a hastily arranged news conference Sunday, Ridge said credible intelligence sources "suggest the possibility of attacks against the homeland around the holiday season and beyond."
He said the government decided to raise the alert level after U.S. intelligence agencies "received a substantial increase in the volume of threat-related intelligence reports."
Hours after Ridge's announcement, the State Department issued a worldwide caution warning U.S. citizens overseas that they may be terrorist targets. Echoing Ridge, the caution said officials "expect al-Qaida will strive for new attacks designed to be more devastating" than the Sept. 11 attacks.
Ridge said officials did not see a connection between the recent capture of ousted Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein and the heightened security alert, and L. Paul Bremer, the U.S. administrator in Iraq, backed that up today, telling NBC he saw no connection.
"No, I think as Secretary Ridge pointed out, there's been a suggestion of high terror threats certainly in Iraq where we are on the front of the war on terror over the last weeks, unrelated to Saddam's capture," Bremer said.
Ridge tried to reassure Americans traveling by plane for the holidays. "Make no mistake about it, aviation is far more secure than it's ever been in the history of the country," he said. At the same time, Ridge said that security at airports can be ramped up a bit more.
As a result of the change in threat level, all federal departments and agencies were putting action plans in effect and stepping up security at airports, border crossings and ports, Ridge said.
"Extensive and considerable protections have been or soon will be in place all across the country," Ridge said. "Your government will stand at the ready 24 hours a day, seven days a week, to stop terrorism during the holiday season and beyond."
And he urged Americans not to disrupt holiday plans. "If you've got travel plans, travel," he said.
On Friday, the Arabic television network Al-Jazeera aired a new threatening statement from Ayman al-Zawahri, bin Laden's chief deputy. The CIA said Saturday it believes the tape is authentic.