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.
The FBI has also told law enforcement officials to be mindful that terrorists may be interested in using general aviation and charter aircraft in attacks. Noting that 41 aircraft have been reported stolen — and not recovered — in the Western United States, particularly in California, Texas and Arizona, the FBI has asked law enforcement to be on alert. However, FBI officials note that none of the stolen aircraft has been linked to terrorism.
‘Not Going to Hide’
From California to the New York island, even as they watch the extra security measures fall into place, revelers say they won't let the threat of terror dampen the nation's 226th birthday celebration.
"I'm not going to hide in my own country," Dan Ayala, 52, of Whittier, Calif., told The Associated Press in Washington. "If I was worried about what might happen, I never would've left California."
In Washington, President Bush urged Americans to "celebrate heartily" despite the concerns. The president plans to watch the traditional fireworks show from a White House balcony as an expected crowd of more than 500,000 people — after passing through extra security this year — look on from the National Mall. Officials will have help from a network of newly installed surveillance cameras, as well as about 2,000 officers on the ground.
Californians will see extra police aircraft in the sky, more Coast Guard boats in the water and more patrolmen on the highways.
"Just kind of be on the alert," George Vinson, Gov. Gray Davis' security adviser, told residents. "We're living under a new reality."
Police in Boston and St. Louis are so worried about being caught shorthanded this July 4 that they will, for the first time, call up the National Guard.
"We've got a much more intensified attentiveness to the possibility of any kind of terrorism attack," St. Louis Police Chief Joe Mokwa said.
In Nebraska, local officials were making preparations that weren't considered necessary for last year's Independence Day celebration.
"All of our special events planning has changed since Sept. 11," said Lincoln, Neb., Police Chief Tom Casady. "We've got a little more to think about than traffic and crowd control this year."
In Omaha, spectators at the World-Herald Fireworks Night in the 23,000-seat Rosenblatt Stadium will pass through security checkpoints. Inside, snipers will be positioned on the stadium's upper deck and at other points — as they were during the College World Series last month.
In New York, the city hardest hit by the Sept. 11 attacks, police say they are always on alert when large numbers of people get together, and will be ready again this year.
"Counterterrorism teams armed with heavy weapons will be assigned to strategic locations around the city," Police Commissioner Ray Kelly said.
In addition, last week, the Federal Aviation Administration banned flights near New York's Statue of Liberty. The ban will continue through to Sept. 30.
Poll: Few Changing Plans
Nevertheless, New York's mayor said people should let the police do the worrying.
"The overriding message that we have concerning security on the Fourth is, 'Relax, and let our law enforcement professionals do the worrying for you,'" Mayor Michael Bloomberg said. "Most importantly, honor our nation's birthday and the freedoms we hold dear, by celebrating this Independence Day. It will be the best way to stick it to the terrorists. It will show them that we are not afraid and that they have not succeeded."
A Quinnipiac University Polling Institute survey suggested New York state residents were heeding the governor's suggestion — with just 7 percent of voters questioned saying they'd changed holiday plans out of concerns for terrorism.
"In a typical in-your-face New York style, almost no one in the Empire State admits that they are running scared," Maurice Carroll, director of the Connecticut-based polling institute, told The Associated Press.
At the Colonial Williamsburg tourist village in Virginia, visitors — many clad in red, white and blue — appeared more concerned about getting a good seat for fireworks and coping with the oppressive heat than they were about any terrorists lurking around the blacksmith's shop.
"I don't have a fear in the world," said Brian Smith of Winston-Salem, N.C. "I think to have fears would be falling into exactly what they want."
In Dania Beach, Fla., Neptune Fireworks is taking extra precautions, asking for license information from anyone who buys anything. The store says red, white and blue fireworks are especially popular this year.
In Boone Country, Mo., fireworks dealer Jack Slaughter said the "exploding bin Laden Noggin" is flying off the shelves.
A sense of defiance also seems to be behind Gary Cronk's Fourth of July display in Penn Yann, N.Y., which is visible from the sky. On his Yates County farm, he has spelled out "U.S.A." in 360-by-70-foot letters made out of wheat illuminated by 5,000 feet of Christmas lights.
"It's a statement saying, 'Yeah, you got your first licks in, but we're still here, and we're not going away,' " Cronk told The Associated Press.
ABCNEWS' Pierre Thomas, Pam Coulter in Williamsburg, Va., and Lauren Rogers in Washington contributed to this report.