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US Begins New Year With Tougher Airport, Seaport Screening Procedures

The first full week of the New Year began with tougher screening procedures in place at air and seaports across the United States, part of what the U.S. government says is a program designed to make the nation's borders more secure. The new measures come at a time when Americans are being warned the risk of a terrorist attack on the United States remains high. And, as if to emphasize that point, U.S. officials say it appears the man wanted for the worst terrorist attack on the nation ever has released another audio tape urging more bloodshed against Americans.

Travelers arriving in the United States Monday from most countries began being fingerprinted and photographed, all part of a new program allowing U.S. Immigration agents to instantly check the backgrounds of tens of millions of foreigners entering the country.

"It is part of a comprehensive program to ensure that our borders remain open to visitors but closed to terrorists," said Homeland Security Secretary Tom Ridge, who kicked off the program during a visit to Atlanta, home of one of the world's busiest airports, where the new checks on arriving visa holders have already been in use for more than a month. "If you're a non-immigrant alien, if you're coming in for this purpose, we would like to identify you through a digital fingerprint and a photoscan, so we have an accurate record of who comes into the country and who leaves," he said.

U.S. immigration officials have long been criticized for failing to keep track of people entering the United States, especially those who break the law by over staying their visas. Three of the September 11 hijackers were in the country illegally, on expired visas, at the time of the 2001 attacks.

Travelers at Boston's Logan airport had different reactions to the new security procedures.

I don't think it's a good idea," said one. "I think it's an infringement on peoples' rights to fingerprint everybody. I don't know that you need to go to those precautions really."

"It's great because there's assurance that there's some security. It's more of what they should be doing," said another.

The new procedures are taking effect at a time when the nation is already on a code orange alert, meaning the government believes the risk of a terrorist attack is high. U.S. intelligence officials are examining an audio tape broadcast on Arab television Sunday purporting to be the voice of Osama bin Laden, urging Muslims to wage holy war against what it termed the 'crusaders' in Baghdad.

It's one reason why Tom Ridge wants to keep the nation on a high terrorist alert status. "Preliminary assessment says it is the voice of Osama Bin Laden and whether or not it generates additional terrorist activity around the world really remains to be seen," he said.

Meanwhile, heightened airport security in the United States has prompted the cancellation of at least seven international flights since the Christmas holiday when U.S. officials told foreign airlines they might be required to place armed sky marshals on board some incoming routes.

Some British pilots are refusing to fly with armed marshals, but retired British Airways pilot Eric Moody thinks there may no longer be a safe alternative. "If you're going to do it for one, you should do it for everybody because the terrorists will find the weak link in the chain," he said.

No arrests have been reported in connection with any of the flights that have been canceled during the end of the year holidays. Nor have U.S. officials said whether any terrorist plots have been foiled.