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U.S. Lowers Terrorism Threat Level

Passing of a holiday weekend and arrests in Saudi Arabia contribute to reduction. Ridge says Al Qaeda is still trying to exploit weaknesses.

May 31, 2003|Richard B. Schmitt | Times Staff Writer

WASHINGTON — Federal authorities lowered the national terrorism threat level on Friday, ending 10 days of a "high risk" alert that had cities and states across the country resorting to a range of emergency management programs.

Homeland Security Department officials said they decided to lower the threat level to "yellow" -- an "elevated risk" -- from "orange," declaring that the chances of a terrorist attack, although still significant, had eased in recent days.

This month, the department had put the nation on high alert for the fourth time in the last year, after suicide bombings in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia, and growing intelligence "chatter" signaling increasing terrorist activity.

In a prepared statement, Homeland Security Secretary Tom Ridge said the threat level reduction was based on a number of factors including "a review of the intelligence and assessment of threats."

Ridge added: "The U.S. intelligence community has also concluded that the number of indicators and warnings that led to raising the level have decreased, and the heightened vulnerability associated with the Memorial Day holiday has passed."

Besides the passing of the long holiday weekend and the perceived risk of a symbolic attack associated with a major holiday, recent days have also seen many arrests in Riyadh and elsewhere of bombing suspects, some of whom are believed to be members of the Al Qaeda terrorist network. The U.S. embassy in Riyadh, which was closed when the U.S. terrorism alert was raised, has also since reopened.

Ridge added that the lowered terrorism threat level should not be interpreted as evidence that the threat has passed, and that the intelligence community remains concerned that Al Qaeda is "attempting to exploit our weaknesses." He said officials still believe there is "a significant risk of terrorist attack."

The latest decrease in the alert level prompted the retraction of extra public-safety measures put in place in recent days across the country. But the 10-day high alert also indicated how, because of budgetary and other factors, state and local officials are calibrating their responses in the absence of hard evidence that their particular regions might be potential targets.

Washington is a special case because, although it has been struck by terrorists and is home to many potential new targets, it has one of the largest concentrations of federal agents in the nation even though it encompasses a relatively small territory.

Police force officials in Washington remained on generally regular hours throughout the alert, citing budgetary concerns in part for deciding against a different plan. And many of the capital's tourist attractions were readily available for visitors.

The 7,000-member California Highway Patrol, meanwhile, maintained 12-hour days during the alert, including regular added patrols of potential targets such as San Francisco's Golden Gate Bridge. The overtime alone is costing the state about $500,000 a week.

In many communities, people appear to be learning to either live with the higher alerts or just plain ignore them. "It doesn't have the fear factor" that it once had, said Joy Moser, a spokeswoman for the Kansas public-safety department in Topeka.

Los Angeles officials, meanwhile, took a middle-ground approach, choosing not to deploy all the resources used when the terrorism threat was boosted to orange at the onset of the war in Iraq. The most recent threat was received as a "lighter shade" of orange on the color-coded terrorism palette, said John Miller, Los Angeles Police Department counter-terrorism chief.

Los Angeles police chose not to keep their emergency operations center at full strength throughout the period, for instance.

Yet officials said they geared up last weekend after hearing about an Al Qaeda sympathizer trying to recruit a fellow bus rider to bomb police barracks downtown. Police station security was increased until the man was arrested, Miller said.

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