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Security Officials Urge Americans Not to Change Holiday Plans Amid Terror Alert - 2003-12-22

The U.S. official in charge of homeland security says Americans should go about their business as normal, despite Sunday's raising of the terror-alert level. The government raised the alert level after new indications that terrorists may be planning attacks to coincide with the Christmas holiday season.

After briefing President Bush at the White House, Homeland Security Secretary Tom Ridge told reporters that Americans should not change their holiday plans because of the heightened alert status.

"If we alter our plans to go visit the family, go visit grandma, if we alter our plans to get on the airplane, if we alter our plans to go to one of those public celebrations, then they [terrorists] have won because they have dislocated activity, they have caused economic loss and made us act in ways simply by threatening us and we cannot be burdened by that threat or fear," he said.

The alert level was raised from yellow, signifying an elevated risk of terrorist attack, to orange, indicating a high risk of attack.

Secretary Ridge says the alert status was increased after the government noticed a sharp increase in intelligence information suggesting terrorists may be planning some new high-profile attacks inside the United States.

"All the strategic indicators suggest, from the volume, really the level and amount of reporting has increased that we have never quite seen it at this level before, and the sources that we could point to that are credible and our ability to corroborate some of this information," he said. "The strategic indicators suggest that it is the most significant threat reporting since 9/11.

At the White House, presidential spokesman Scott McClellan said the change in the alert status is a reminder of the long-term nature of the war on terror.

"So there has been great success but the war continues," he said. "And again, the best way to win the war on terrorism and prevent something like September 11th from ever happening again is to take the fight to the enemy and that is exactly what this administration is committed to doing and seeing through."

U.S. officials say they do not see a connection between the raising of the terror alert level and the recent capture of former Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein.

The U.S. administrator in Iraq, Paul Bremer, was asked about that on NBC's Today program. "There has been a fairly steady suggestion of high terror threat, certainly in Iraq where we are on the front of the war on terrorism over the last weeks unrelated to Saddam's capture," he said.

Around the country, news of the alert-level change brought a mixture of anxiety and apathy. While some people said the announcement made them nervous as the Christmas holiday approaches, others, like one man in New York, said they are not concerned.

"I am not so worried about it. I am just going to put my faith in the government and the people in uniform and hopefully things will be all right," he said.

Raising the alert level has a huge impact on state and local security officials around the country. They are now beefing up screening measures at airports, train and bus stations, and tightening security at key points of infrastructure like, bridge, tunnels, dams, power stations and nuclear plants.

Los Angeles Police Chief William Bratton is asking citizens to simply be more vigilant as they go about their daily lives. "What we would ask of the public is increased awareness. We are increasing our awareness and we would ask they, if they see anything out of the ordinary, give us a call," he said.

Secretary Ridge says some of the intelligence information that prompted the alert level change indicates that al-Qaida is once again seeking to use airplanes as weapons of mass destruction as it did in the September, 2001 attacks on New York and Washington.

Washington-based security analyst Neil Livingstone says that does not surprise him. "We are worried about them infiltrating, right now, people who work at the airports, some of the jobs on the ramp and so on. We are worried about them working in airports and getting access to a plane someway," he said.

The alert level had been at yellow, or elevated risk, since May. The current condition, orange or high risk, is only one step below the top terror alert level, which is red, signifying a severe risk of terrorist attack.