Official: Credible threats pushed terror alert higher
FBI seeking Pakistani man for questioning
WASHINGTON (CNN) -- Citing credible threats that al Qaeda might be planning attacks on American targets, the U.S. government raised the national color-coded threat level Friday to orange, indicating a "high" risk of a terrorist attack.
The change is only the second time the alert level has risen above yellow, an "elevated" risk, since the system was put in place in the aftermath of the attacks of September 11, 2001. (Security up a notch across the country)
Attorney General John Ashcroft said reports indicated that so-called "soft" targets -- those more lightly guarded, such as apartments, hotels, sports arenas and amusement parks -- are at an increased risk. (Transcript)
"The intelligence community has also indicated that al Qaeda may seek economic targets, transportation and energy, and targets symbolic of America's power," the attorney general said. "[The reports] demonstrate al Qaeda's interest in carrying out chemical, radiological and biological attacks."
Ashcroft cited recent arrests in Britain of terrorism suspects with the chemical agent ricin, in France with cyanide compounds and in Spain with other chemicals in announcing the higher threat level. (Full story)
Sources said recent information suggests that al Qaeda might be further along than previously thought in procuring elements to make a so-called "dirty bomb" -- a non-nuclear device that would spew radiation upon exploding.
Al Qaeda "communicate with each other about really big things" they hope to achieve, a knowledgeable official said, citing "specific and credible" information gathered from several continents.
Recent intelligence suggests that terrorists could target sites on the East Coast, law enforcement sources said, adding that intercepted messages mention subways and hotels but no particular city.
Attacks may be imminent
Homeland Security Secretary Tom Ridge said the information "suggested an attack on the United States and the United States' interests -- both within the United States and outside -- is imminent." (Warning to Americans abroad)
Sources said al Qaeda could be aiming at soft targets in Saudi Arabia.
Meanwhile, the FBI asked for the public's help in locating Mohammed Sher Mohammad Khan. Although the agency says it has no specific information that the Pakistani man is connected to any potential terrorist activities, it wants to question him based on information developed in ongoing investigations.
The information on Khan was part of the decision to raise the alert level, but not the only factor, an FBI official said.
Ashcroft cited recent reports that al Qaeda cells are "still determined to attack Americans" and could be planning strikes coinciding with the Muslim Hajj pilgrimage to Mecca, Saudi Arabia.
By the end of the day Friday, the Joint Chiefs of Staff were expected to raise security measures at military bases across the United States.
Ashcroft, Ridge and FBI Director Robert Mueller said the elevated risk will trigger security precautions at federal, state and local levels.
The Department of Health and Human Services and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention increased staffing at their command centers after the alert level was raised.
The District of Columbia Health Department sent letters to hospitals, doctors and other health care providers urging them to be aware of the possibility of chemical or radiological attacks and warning them to be on the lookout for possible exposures to ricin, botulinum and a broad range of chemical agents. (Full story)
State officials said security will be increased at main bridges and tunnels. They said they would be calling on the private sector to heighten security at key pieces of infrastructure such as nuclear power plants, railroad lines and ports.
Ridge has contacted officials in 13 sectors of private industry that control 85 percent of the nation's critical infrastructure, including energy, finance and transportation.
Ridge told people to be diligent, aware and alert but to not change their routines. (What to do)
"We do recommend that individuals and families in the days ahead take some time to prepare for emergency," Ridge said. (Red Cross on preparedness)
Ashcroft and Ridge said they would not recommend that public events be canceled but said security will be more intense at those activities. National Basketball Association Commissioner David Stern said security is already high for events connected to this weekend's All-Star game in Atlanta, Georgia.
"I'm actually glad or sad to say that we planned the security for this event, with the prospects of war, at the orange level," Stern said. "The All-Star activities are going forward."
• The U.S. State Department cited "increased security concerns" when issuing a warning Friday to Americans traveling or living in Israel, Gaza and the West Bank, Lebanon, Jordan, Syria and Iraq.
• The department is also reducing staff in Israel, Jordan, Syria and Lebanon in response to a "clear uptick in threats," and as war with Iraq becomes increasingly likely.
• Sources said this week that the FBI is watching people believed to be Iraqi intelligence officers in the United States. At least several hundred Iraqis living in the United States who are thought to be supporters of Iraqi President Saddam Hussein are under surveillance.
CNN correspondents Andrea Koppel, Sheila MacVicar, Barbara Starr, Mike Brooks, Kelli Arena, Dana Bash and Jeanne Meserve contributed to this report.