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Jeanne Meserve: Warnings sparked alert

Jeanne Meserve
Jeanne Meserve

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U.S. Attorney General John Ashcroft announces an increase in the terrorism threat level to high risk. (February 7)
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FBI Director Robert Mueller says intelligence reports led to the decision to raise the level. (February 7)
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Homeland Security Secretary Tom Ridge says security precautions have been triggered at federal, state and local levels. (February 7)
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Make a plan
for contacting family members in an emergency
Learn about different types of attacks so you will know what to do in an emergency
Do not cancel events or travel plans
Be especially aware of your surroundings and the events happening around you

Source: Homeland Security Secretary Tom Ridge
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Interactive: Terror warning system 

• Interactive: Threatcon levels
• Transcript: Official announcement
• Special Report: War on Terror

(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. CNN anchor Heidi Collins asked correspondent Jeanne Meserve in Washington what lay behind the decision.

MESERVE: The ultimate decision to hike the threat level nationally was made yesterday (Friday) because of an uptick in corroborated information from multiple intelligence sources that an attack on the U.S. or U.S. interests might be in the works. Law enforcement sources say the intelligence points to a possible attack on the East Coast and mentions hotels and subways specifically.

Attorney General John Ashcroft, in announcing the alert, mentioned those sorts of soft or unprotected targets as well as the transportation, energy, and financial services sectors, and symbols of the United States and its power.

As for the means of attack, sources say al Qaeda may be further along than previously thought in procuring elements to make a radiological dispersal device, or dirty bomb, and CNN has learned, after a briefing from officials of the Department of Health and Human Services yesterday, that some state health departments are advising the medical community to be on the lookout for signs of radiation exposure, as well as chemical weapons, like ricin and cyanide.

You may recall that ricin was recently discovered during a raid in London.

The federal government and some cities and states are responding to the move to orange with increased security. In New York, the National Guard Civil Response Team has been deployed. Its specialty is detecting and responding to biological, chemical, and radiological weapons.

Here in Washington, the Joint Operations Center, which coordinates local and federal responses to emergencies, has been activated, and at the borders, at airports, at ports there was increased scrutiny of passengers and cargo.

But some cities say they are already at a high security level and don't anticipate many changes. And in September, when the country last moved to orange, many cities did nothing in response because they didn't have the resources or didn't feel they were in danger. We can anticipate that some will respond the same way this time around.

As for the public, the advice is that we all go about our business as usual and not capitulate to terrorists. But officials are also urging the public to prepare, just in case.

COLLINS: That's exactly what I want to talk to you about, Jeanne. It seems like we have heard these terror alerts before, at least small mentions of them, maybe not to this level. But because we've heard them before, and we don't really ever hear the exact specifics, because they're often not available, it seems like the average American citizen doesn't know what to do, and therefore does nothing.

MESERVE: I don't know if most people do nothing or not, I haven't seen any surveys on that. I can tell you there have been some efforts to reach out. Here in the District of Columbia, for instance, I know the government did distribute a handout to citizens telling them things they can do.

But there are places where you can get more specific information. One place that I think is particularly good is the Web site of the American Red Cross. If you click around there, they have specific ideas about disaster preparedness, which are applicable here.

They advise people to have a place where the family can meet if there is some kind of an emergency, a location outside of the area where you live, the immediate area where you live. Also they'll tell you what sorts of supplies you should have on hand, radios and things of that sort. They also talk about water and food supplies and how much of that it's prudent to have around.

So there are places to get information if Americans choose to do that. The obvious message yesterday was do it.


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