WASHINGTON - The Bush administration raised the nationwide terror alert to its second-highest level, closed nine U.S. embassies overseas and heightened security at federal buildings and landmarks in America as new intelligence warned of car bombings, suicide attacks and other strikes linked to the Sept. 11 anniversary.
Americans were urged Tuesday to be alert but unbowed - go to work, to school, on trips - despite specific threats against U.S. interests abroad and less credible concerns that terrorists might attack America again.
After a hectic series of telephone calls and late-night meetings, President Bush's top advisers decided Monday to recommend raising the level from code yellow - "significant risk" of attack - to code orange - a "high risk." Bush met twice with the advisers Tuesday morning, the last time in the top-secret Situation Room, before telling them, "Let's do it."
Despite no evidence of a plot against the United States, the Sept. 11 anniversary and intelligence gathered in the last 48 hours - some from a high-ranking al-Qaida operative - prompted the decision. Tom Ridge, Bush's homeland security director, said plans for multiple attacks on U.S. targets in Southeast Asia were in "an operational phase."
Premium content for only $0.99
For the most comprehensive local coverage, subscribe today.
Attorney General John Ashcroft, appearing at a news conference with Ridge, said U.S. intelligence believes terrorists operating in several South Asian countries hope to explode car bombs or launch other attacks on U.S. facilities abroad.
The plans are believed to be linked directly to al-Qaida, said a government official, who spoke on condition of anonymity.
The al-Qaida operative who provided some of the information has been in the custody of an unidentified foreign country for several months, but he has not been publicly identified.
Ashcroft said the government also has learned of plans in the Middle East to launch one or more suicide attacks against U.S. interests. "At this time, we have no specific information as to where these attacks might occur," Ashcroft said.
The intelligence community believes the most likely targets at home and abroad are transportation and energy facilities or other symbols of U.S. power, such as military facilities, embassies and national monuments, he said.
Code orange is the highest alert level imposed since the system was established in March. The only higher status, code red, reflects a severe risk of attack on U.S. soil based on credible evidence.
"The threats that we have heard recently remind us of the pattern of threats we heard prior to Sept. 11," Bush said on the eve of the anniversary. "We have no specific threat to America, but we're taking everything seriously."
From immigration officers to meat inspectors, government workers were put on high alert as security precautions rivaled measures taken immediately after last year's attacks.
Vice President Dick Cheney canceled a Tuesday night speech and was taken to a secret location to protect the presidential line of succession in case of an attack. He will remain in seclusion at least through the Sept. 11 observances, a senior administration official said.
Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld ordered that live anti-aircraft missiles be stationed near launchers that had been deployed around Washington for a training exercise.
Across the country, access was restricted to public places and events. Colorado Gov. Bill Owens, announcing security at the state Capitol, told residents, "You should probably bring your driver's license" to the building.
The government sent a separate alert to local law enforcement across the United States, warning of possible scattered attacks, prompting discussions in communities on how best to protect potential targets like shopping malls, schools and public gatherings.
Echoing the words of Ashcroft in a news conference earlier, the alert said: "Reporting also indicates that lower level al-Qaida operatives and sympathizers view the Sept. 11 timeframe as a suitable time to lash out in small strikes to demonstrate their worldwide presence and resolve. Widely dispersed, unsophisticated strikes are possible."
Local police were on edge. They urged residents to report any suspicious activity.
"There's no such thing as a stupid phone call," said Lt. Kelly Willis, spokesman for the Des Moines, Iowa, Police Department. "We're here to be bothered."
Among 15 or so U.S. diplomatic posts closed overseas, the embassy in Jakarta and a consular office in Surabaya, both in Indonesia, were shut down because of what officials called credible and specific reports of threats.
At the U.S. Navy base in Bahrain, home to the 5th Fleet, the security level was raised to the highest possible: "delta."
Other U.S. bases overseen by Central Command - those in the Persian Gulf region, the Horn of Africa and Afghanistan and Central Asia - raised their security to the second-highest level.
"The United States government has concluded, based on analysis and specific intelligence of possible attacks on U.S. interests overseas, to call government, law enforcement and citizens - both at home and overseas - to a heightened state of alert," Ashcroft said in announcing the change with Ridge.
U.S. officials found little solace in the fact the threats focused on overseas targets overseas; a similar pattern was detected just before the Sept. 11 attacks, they said.
"Americans need to go about their lives," Bush said. He planned to travel today under extraordinarily tight security to the sites of last year's attacks.