The Department of Homeland Security raised the terror threat assessment to high, or “orange,” following President Bush’s ultimatum to Saddam Hussein, and officials warn terrorists may already be planning major new attacks.

An alert sent to thousands of homeland security and law enforcement agencies across the country last night stated the U.S. intelligence community believes terrorists will attempt multiple attacks against U.S. and coalition targets worldwide in the event of a U.S.-led military campaign against Saddam Hussein.

“Al-Qaida may be in the last stages of planning for large-scale attacks … There are many recent indications this planning includes the use of chemical, biological, and/or radiological materials,” said the bulletin, citing the recent discovery of ricin production in London.

Secretary of Homeland Security Tom Ridge said in a statement that the capture of senior al-Qaida operative, Khalid Sheikh Mohammed will not necessarily affect attack plots that are ready or nearly ready for execution.

He also divulged there have been reports of suspicious activity in and around military facilities, ports, waterways, general infrastructure, and targets that are considered symbolic to U.S. power and influence.

WorldNetDaily reported earlier this month that federal investigators arrested two Middle Eastern brothers after one of them was spotted taking pictures of the Norris Dam in East Tennessee.

Secretary Ridge explained the specifics of what’s being called “Operation Liberty Shield” at a press conference this morning. He said there would be hundreds more agents at the borders, more Coast Guard, air and sea patrols off U.S. shores and in ports and more escorts of passenger ships.

Security at the nation’s transportation systems, including airports and rail facilities has been stepped up. Flight restrictions have been imposed over certain cities, including New York and Washington, D.C., and governors have been asked to deploy National Guard and law enforcement personnel at “critical locations” around their respective states.

The Department of Treasury has taken steps to protect the financial network and payment systems, according to Ridge, the Department of Health and Human Services has increased disease surveillance, and the Department of Agriculture will oversee greater inspection of imported food.

Ridge also said there will be increased Coast Guard patrols near key petroleum and chemical facilities and heightened security at facilities handling radioactive materials. Answering reporters’ questions following the press conference, he acknowledged vulnerability at the facilities but stressed additional security measures will be taken.

“We have taken these actions because intelligence reporting indicates that al-Qaida and those sympathetic to their cause are still a principle threat – the principle threat,” said Ridge. “Iraqi state agents, Iraqi surrogate groups, other regional extremist organizations and ad hoc groups or disgruntled individuals may use this time period to conduct terrorist attacks against the United States and our interests either here or abroad.”

As an additional precaution Ridge said authorities would be scrutinizing all asylum seekers, paying particular attention to those coming from countries that are supportive of al-Qaida or where other terrorist organizations are known to be operating.

“We just want to make sure that those who are seeking asylum are who they say they are and are legitimately seeking refuge in our country because of political repression at home, not because they choose to cause us harm or bring destruction to our shores,” said Ridge.

He said the precedent for the temporary detentions was set last year when 600 people were temporarily detained, 60 percent of whom were Iraqis.

Word of the detentions comes amid reports that several Iraqi nationals recently have been caught sneaking illegally across the U.S.-Mexican border into Arizona.

The secretary encouraged individuals to stay informed and learn about precautionary measures they can take by visiting the federal website set up last month.

“There is bound to be misinformation. Don’t react to rumors. We will strive to get the facts out as soon as we can,” Ridge urged.

The five-point color scale of risk was developed after the 9-11 attacks. The highest alert level is red. It represents a “severe” level of risk.

The threat condition designation alert has been raised to “orange” two other times, most recently on Feb. 7. WorldNetDaily reported at that time that Attorney General John Ashcroft cited reports that al-Qaida leaders were planning for attacks on apartment buildings, hotels and other “soft” or lightly guarded targets. Synagogues, Jewish community centers and Jewish hospitals were also considered targets.

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Feds probe suspicious activity at Norris Dam

Terror threat goes to ‘high’

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