Americans and law enforcement nationwide braced themselves today for a possibly imminent terrorist attack, with officials focusing on the nation's previous targets — Washington, D.C., and New York.
Tension was high in both New York and Washington as officials prepared for an attack either today or Friday — which coincided with war tension with Iraq and the end of the hajj, a Muslim holy period.
Police around the country stepped up patrols and heightened security measures officers carrying semiautomatic rifles patrolled the U.S. Capitol building and the government warned key industries and utilities to be on alert for employees that may have been planted by al Qaeda and other terrorist organizations.
Despite the warning, Justice Department officials said today that they did not plan to raise the five-stage threat level to red, which would signal an imminent or ongoing attack. The level is currently orange, or high risk of attack.
In Washington, Black Hawk helicopters patrolled the skies, ready to call in F-16 fighter jets if any planes try to violate restricted airspace. On the ground, the military deployed heat-seeking Stinger missiles with a range of up to two miles, to be used if suspicious planes refuse to respond to orders to leave the area.
Hospital officials in New York were warned to be prepared to deal with a possible cyanide attack. The government urged them to build up stocks of sodium thiosulfate, the antidote to cyanide poisoning, as well as treatments for biological and chemical warfare. Doctors were also warned to be on the lookout for clusters of patients with respiratory, neurological or skin conditions.
New York police, armed with radiation detectors and gas masks, were out in force in the subways, at train stations and airports and at the bridge and tunnel crossings into the city.
At a news conference this afternoon, Mayor Michael Bloomberg said 16,000 law enforcement officials trained to combat terrorism were deployed throughout the city. Air patrols have also returned to New York.
"We are constantly changing what we're doing so no one can predict what instruments we'll be using and where we'll be going," Bloomberg said.
The mayor stressed that while people should be vigilant, they should also be aware that New York City has been on code level orange for 17 months — since the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks that destroyed the World Trade Center.
"We have been at code level orange for 17 months, and for 17 months we have not had a terrorist attack," Bloomberg said.
New Yorkers, and people around the country, should not be frozen by fear and must carry on with their daily lives, the mayor said. New York Gov. George Pataki said it is important for people to be alert to anything suspicious around them, but that they should not spread rumors that could create panic.
"We are in a war and there are people who want to kill us, but we're meeting that challenge," said James Kallstrom, the head of the Counterterrorism Task Force for New York. "But people need to carry on. Be a little content with the notion that we've got a great team. We know what we're doing."
Warning to Key Industries
The FBI and National Infrastructure Protection Center issued an alert to critical industries and key facilities that they should take steps to guard against potential terrorist attacks.