WASHINGTON -- The federal government yesterday raised the nation's terror alert, saying there is a "high" risk of an attack and citing intelligence suggesting potential terrorists were planning a holiday season assault that could match or even surpass the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001.
Homeland Security Secretary Tom Ridge told reporters that intelligence officials had detected an increase in the volume of reports from "credible sources" warning of the possibility of an attack during the holidays and beyond. The raising of the national alert to orange -- the second most serious level after red -- adds an ominous tone to the season and threatens to disrupt the heavy travel and commerce of the holidays.
Ridge said the government had information showing that Al Qaeda continues to consider the use of aircraft as weapons and that the organization's desires to carry out another assault "are perhaps greater now than at any point since Sept. 11, 2001." But he urged Americans to embrace the holiday season and continue to travel if they had plans to do so.
"The information we have indicates that extremists abroad are anticipating near-term attacks that they believe will either rival or exceed the attacks that occurred in New York, in the Pentagon, in the fields of Pennsylvania nearly two years ago," Ridge said at a hastily-arranged news conference. It is the first time the government has raised the terror alert to orange since May. Governor Mitt Romney of Massachusetts interrupted his Christmas vacation in Utah and returned to Boston last night, and law enforcement officials around the country increased patrols at airports and in major cities. Romney said he wanted to oversee personally the implementation of the state's homeland security plan and to get a firsthand assessment from public safety officials of the state's vulnerabilities.
At a news conference when he arrived at Logan International Airport, Romney said he received no specific information about a threat to Boston or elsewhere in Massachusetts. He said the administration has implemented a plan that adds security to critical bridges, tunnels, and buildings throughout the state. The federal government, he added, will reimburse the state for much of the cost of the additional security.
After a briefing with Public Safety Secretary Edward Flynn, Romney said, "I hope this is another false alarm, but we don't want to take anything for granted."
When asked what message he had for state residents, he replied: "My best advice is do what I'm doing. Spend time with your family." Romney said he plans to return to Utah this afternoon.
Ridge did not disclose details on the threatened attacks, although he said it was reasonable to assume that urban areas, particularly the "high-profile" cities of New York and Washington, might be natural targets for attackers.
In New York, Governor George Pataki said the National Guard and State Police will guard airports, tunnels, and power plants.
A senior law enforcement official told the Associated Press that some of the intercepted communications and other intelligence mentions New York, Washington, and unspecified cities on the West Coast. Authorities also are concerned about dams, bridges, nuclear power plants, chemical facilities, and other public works, the official said.
The California Highway Patrol increased its presence on San Francisco-area bridges.
The announcement was a grim reminder that the nation remains at risk for a terrorist attack despite the recent capture of deposed Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein and an agreement Friday by Libya to expose and dismantle its weapons of mass destruction. Both foreign policy successes were touted by the Bush administration as key victories against worldwide terrorism, but Ridge's remarks made clear that the nation is still under threat from Al Qaeda and suspected terrorist cells.
"I think that although he's suffering for it, Howard Dean was probably right -- the capture of Saddam has very little to do with day-to-day security" inside the United States, said Hurst Hannum, an international affairs professor at the Fletcher School at Tufts University. Dean has been harshly criticized by Republican officials and his presidential primary foes for remarking that the United States is not safer because of Hussein's apprehension. "What continues to astonish me is that more of the American public continues to think there's some connection between Iraq and terrorism, which just isn't true," Hannum said.
President Bush has acknowledged that the government has no evidence that Hussein was involved in the Sept. 11 attacks, although administration officials have said ousting Hussein is an important part of stopping international terrorism.
Ridge said yesterday the administration had found no connection between Hussein's capture and the chatter that led to the increased security alert.
Ridge asked Americans to expect heavier security and delays at airports, but he urged them not to abandon their holiday celebrations.
The State Department issued a worldwide caution to US citizens overseas on its website. "We expect al-Qaida will strive for new attacks designed to be more devastating than the Sept. 11 attack, possibly involving nonconventional weapons such as chemical or biological agents. We also cannot rule out that Al-Qaida will attempt a second catastrophic attack within the U.S." General Richard B. Myers, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, who just returned from a trip to Iraq and Afghanistan, said yesterday that officials were trying to determine whether the recent intelligence was a blip or an indication that another serious attack was in the works.
"There is no doubt, from all the intelligence we pick up from Al Qaeda, that they want to do away with our way of life," Myers said on "FOX News Sunday." "And if they could use another catastrophic event, a tragedy like 9/11, . . . if they could do that again, if they could get their hands on weapons of mass destruction and make it 10,000 [deaths], not 3,000, they would do that," he said. On Friday, the Arabic television network Al-Jazeera aired a new statement purportedly from Ayman al-Zawahri, Osama bin Laden's chief deputy. "We are still chasing the Americans and their allies everywhere, even in their homeland," the recording states. The CIA said it believes the tape is authentic.
John Pike, an analyst with GlobalSecurity.org, said the announcement on the alert underscored the danger Americans face even as leaders such as Hussein and Libya's Moammar Khadafy are reined in. Bush and Prime Minister Tony Blair of Britain announced Friday that Khadafy had agreed to allow inspectors into Libya, long a pariah nation, to view evidence of Libya's work toward the development of weapons of mass destruction. The move follows a general trend by Libya in recent years toward a more cooperative relationship with the United States and Europe.
"We might be moving ahead on the Libya front, and we might be stabilizing the Iraq front, but that's not all the war on terrorism," Pike said. "I don't think one has to be overly imaginative to understand that if they can shoot missiles at airplanes in Iraq, maybe they can shoot missiles at airplanes in America."
David Abel of the Globe Staff contributed to this report