The U.S. government has recently received a high volume of intelligence it considers reliable, including intercepted contacts between known al Qaeda operatives, which helped prompt the high level of alert for the Fourth of July holiday, ABCNEWS has learned.
"There's been a real spike in the intelligence collected by the intelligence community regarding threats, possible operations against the United States," said Vince Cannistraro, a former chief of operations for counterterrorism with the CIA who is now a consultant for ABCNEWS. "And the level of this information is of higher quality than it was just a few months ago."
Among intelligence and law enforcement officials, the level of concern appears just as high as it was in the days just after the Sept. 11 terror attacks.
U.S. combat jets "will be flying over several American cities and randomly throughout the nation," White House spokesman Ari Fleischer said. And the White House's special Homeland Security Coordination Center, created in the months after Sept. 11, will double its staffing to monitor the nation's Independence Day celebrations.
Still, the message U.S. officials want to get out to Americans for the holiday is simple: Go out and have fun, but be careful.
"The president of the United States would encourage the American people to gather, to celebrate, to enjoy America's independence," Fleischer said. "The law enforcement community of the United States will do the worrying. They will take care of the precautions, and that's true at the state, the local and the federal level."
Every Police Agency on Alert
U.S. intelligence officials described the new intelligence information as reliable. However, the intelligence contained no specifics on time or place of terror threats, and officials therefore say there are no plans to boost the nation's color-coded alert level from yellow — the midpoint of the five-color system — to orange.
Nevertheless, the FBI has told every police agency in the country to be on alert, and will monitor festivities with a heavy presence at celebrations across the country. SWAT teams, bomb squads and hazardous materials units will be on standby in most major cities.
Officials at about 2,100 local public celebrations will have direct lines to federal officials at the White House's coordination center, which will be bolstered by liaisons from the FBI, Secret Service, Federal Emergency Management Agency and Department of Health and Human Services, The Associated Press reported. In addition, regional command posts were being set up in other major cities.
The State Department, meanwhile, is telling Americans abroad to avoid large gatherings with other Americans out of fear that such events could become terrorist targets.
Terrorists Targeting Stadiums?
In addition, FBI officials say they have obtained intelligence indicating that individuals with ties to terrorist groups have gathered information via the Web on U.S. and European sports stadiums. These alleged terror operatives, the FBI says, looked at pictures of the Edward Jones Dome and the RCA Dome, homes of the National Football League's St. Louis Rams and the Indianapolis Colts, respectively.
FBI field offices nationwide were told to advise stadium operators of this information last week, and law enforcement agencies have been alerted to report any suspicious activities around sports stadiums to the nearest FBI office. The bureau issued an intelligence bulletin on the subject today.