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Feds consider adding another terror risk level

From Kelli Arena and Jeanne Meserve

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WASHINGTON (CNN) -- U.S. government officials are discussing the current five-color terror threat alert system to determine whether a higher level of risk should be added before a possible war with Iraq, government sources tell CNN.

The debate is not over whether to add a new color, sources said. Instead, a slightly higher warning level may be added within orange.

Currently the highest level of alert is for a "severe" risk of terrorist attack, indicated by the color red. Below red is orange, meaning a "high" risk of attack exists.

For now, each level of risk has its own color. Yellow, blue and green follow orange and stand for "elevated," "guarded" and "low" risks of attack, respectively.

Sources said the current discussion was prompted by the belief of some in the government that if the U.S. takes military action against Iraq the threat level should be raised above orange to indicate an even greater risk of retaliation against Americans and U.S. targets overseas. But there is fear that raising the risk to the ultimate warning level would do serious harm to an already-shaky economy, the sources said.

Steps taken during a red alert include closing public and government facilities. Suggestions for an orange alert include taking additional precaution at public events and being prepared to work at an alternate site or with a dispersed work force.

A Homeland Security official denied that there are discussion to change the current system and said the government already has the option to take different degrees of action within each color code.

Law enforcement sources said the conversation centered on adding another level.

Some officials present during a Thursday discussion of the threat level said they declined to weigh in. They said that changes to the threat warning system would be a political decision, not a law enforcement matter.

The current threat level is yellow as it has been since February 27 when it was lowered from orange. The alert had been moved to orange on February 7 because what federal officials said was a credible threat that the al Qaeda terror network was planning attacks on American targets.

In another sign that officials are closely watching the terror climate, sources told CNN there was a meeting Friday morning in Washington to discuss whether "suspicious activity" has increased in Washington, D.C. recently. Sources say the law enforcement officials are concerned the level of suspicious activity has increased, but they also concede law enforcement and normal citizens may just be much more aware lately of any behavior beyond the norm.

Sources say the kinds of activity they would consider suspicious include people taking pictures at bridges and subway entrances, and people sitting on train platforms who appear to be monitoring the timing of arrivals and departures.

A number of agencies took part in the meeting, including the FBI, local police and the special police forces that cover the U.S. Capitol and the metro transit system.

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