Cities brace for possible terror strike
As federal officials warn of a 'large-scale' Al Qaeda attack this summer, officials from Boston to Seattle retool security plans.
WASHINGTON — In Newport, R.I., the high cost of public security is putting this July's Tall Ships festival in question.
In Pennsylvania, state troopers are begging Gov. Edward Rendell to keep funding extra police positions established in the wake of the Sept. 11 terror attacks.
In Arkansas, the state is combining revenue bonds and federal antiterrorism grants to help pay for a statewide wireless public-safety communications system.
All across the United States, authorities are preparing for a summer they worry could be both hot and dangerous.
Their efforts will only be spurred by the announcement by federal officials that Al Qaeda probably has operatives in place in the US who may be preparing a large-scale attack timed to affect the November election.
Given that Al Qaeda's intentions have been long known, Wednesday's added emphasis might be particularly important.
"Either it's political, or they have serious intelligence," says Juliette Kayyem, a homeland security expert at Harvard University's Kennedy School of Government in Cambridge, Mass.
US officials said Wednesday that a continuous stream of new and credible information indicates that the threat of a terrorist attack is high. The attack might be against a high-profile event, such as the political conventions, or even the dedication of the World War II Memorial in Washington this weekend, said officials.
The information is not unlike that seen in the past and consists at least partly of chatter on Islamic websites and other anti-US forums. But the intelligence is thought credible and is backed by high levels of corroboration. A high-profile target is likely in part because terror groups believe that the Madrid train bombings helped influence the Spanish election, bringing to power a government that pledged to withdraw Spanish troops from Iraq.
The more spectacular the attack, the more influence Al Qaeda might have on the November elections - at least, that may be terror groups' thinking.
At the same time the FBI remains concerned that soft targets such as shopping malls offer an easier opportunity to terrorists than, say, a security-conscious political convention.
"My concern is the parallel attack that occurs in the same city at the same time," says Ms. Kayyem of the JFK School.
Raising public awareness of the possibility of attacks during the summer months is important, say other experts. People may be less aware of danger while they're on vacation. And in any case in recent months, the focus on Iraq may have made Americans more complacent about safety in their own country.
"It could be subway stations, malls ... a series where you get the whole country in a panic," says Bo Dietl, a security consultant and head of Beau Dietl & Associates in New York City. "They'll hit different places."
Yet this week's warning may seem a bit superfluous for law-enforcement officials in the most obvious target locations - Boston (due to the Democratic convention), Washington, and New York.
New York, for instance, has remained at "level orange," or a high state of alert, even when the rest of the country dropped a notch to level yellow. Police guard crucial bridges and tunnels, pulling over and searching almost all trucks before they drive the structures.
The security is likely to tighten by late August when the Republicans come to town. Entire blocks of the city will be off limits to anyone who does not work in the area around Madison Square Garden, the site of the convention.
On Tuesday, the states of New York and Vermont announced a pilot program to link state and local law enforcement to the FBI to receive real-time information on terrorism threats, as well as on federal databases.
Former New York FBI chief James Kallstrom says the program, a first in the nation, could help state troopers catch potential terrorists. He notes that on Sept. 9, 2001, one of the 9/11 hijackers was stopped by a Maryland state trooper for going 90 miles per hour. "Although the trooper did everything by the book, he was not able to make a contemporaneous inquiry with federal authorities as to this individual's potential terrorist involvement," says Mr. Kallstrom, now the senior terrorism adviser to Gov. George Pataki.
New York has even recruited the city's 28,000 doormen, janitors, and apartment maintenance workers to provide the police with tips about suspicious activity. They will go through a four-hour security-awareness training program.
Elsewhere, one issue is a possible shortage of security personnel. More than 40 percent of the states' Army National Guard troops are deployed or preparing for deployment to Iraq. The shortage leaves some concerned that state efforts to protect against terrorism will be hobbled.
Some states have tried to compensate by adding new personnel. Washington, for example, spent $200,000 training new firefighters after the state's largest guard unit went to Iraq. Money may also be a problem. A recent study by the Council on Foreign Relations charged that the federal government is drastically underfunding state and local responders, and it recommended adding $98 billion for the task to the US budget, spread over five years.