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US Public Grows Uneasy Under Latest Terror Threat - 2003-02-12

New warnings of terrorist threats and the prospect of war with Iraq have put many Americans on edge. The warnings from U.S. intelligence officials about the growing risk of terrorist attacks are getting more explicit.

CIA Director George Tenet provided a sobering assessment for the Senate Intelligence Committee.

"The intelligence is not idle chatter on the part of terrorists or their associates," he said. "It is the most specific we have seen."

FBI Director Robert Mueller told the committee that the greatest threat comes from al-Qaida cells operating in the United States that authorities have been unable to identify.

"FBI investigations have revealed Islamic militants in the United States and we strongly suspect that several hundred of these extremists are linked to al-Qaida," he said. "The focus of their activity centers primarily on fundraising, recruitment, and training. Their support structure, however, is sufficiently well developed that one or more groups could be mobilized by al-Qaida to carry out operations in the United States homeland."

The Wall Street Journal newspaper reports that the country's terror-alert status was raised from "elevated" to "high" last week, in part because of intercepted messages from suspected terrorists that referred to "packages" being delivered to the United States. That term reportedly alarmed U.S. intelligence officials because in the past al-Qaida operatives have used the term "packages" as a code for bomb-making materials.

Private security analysts also view these latest warnings with concern.

"We are collecting information from detainees, from al-Qaida and al-Qaida-affiliated groups, as well as electronic intercepts, their communications with one another," said John Parachini who is with the Rand Corporation. "And the combination of those may provide some intersection that suggests that they are planning to do things."

As part of the terror alert system, federal authorities are suggesting that members of the public might want to stock up on supplies in the event of a terrorist attack.

Terrorism expert Harvey Kushner had some suggestions on CBS television.

"Like you would for hurricane preparedness or any other type of emergency," he said. "Have some basic water, three days supply, three gallons of water, standard food."

Apparently, many Americans are taking the warnings to heart, especially those who live in New York City and Washington, targets of the September 11 attacks.

A New York woman told a television call-in program that her family has begun planning for a possible terrorist attack.

"I am really afraid. I have to admit, I am afraid," she said. "But we did talk about it and we did come up with this little plan of where we are going to try and meet [in the event of a terrorist attack]."

Others find the terror warnings too general and scoff at the preparedness suggestions offered by the Department of Homeland Security on its website.

"There is nothing to do, literally," one man said. "I mean, you can buy water and batteries, but that is about it."

Home supply stores in New York and Washington report shortages of plastic sheeting and duct tape, items federal officials recommend to seal up a room in the event of a chemical or biological attack.

This sense of unease that many Americans feel is not likely to lift any time soon. Public opinion polls indicate many people believe a terrorist attack is more likely if the United States takes military action against Iraq.