WASHINGTON — With the nation on high alert for terrorist attacks, Homeland Security Secretary Tom Ridge outlined a national plan Tuesday he said would harden America's defenses as war with Iraq loomed closer.
The plan, dubbed "Operation Liberty Shield," heightens security at the nation's borders, at airports, seaports and railways, at nuclear and chemical plants and elements of the nation's food supply and distribution system. Cars again will be subject to random inspections on roads around airports.
Governors are being asked to deploy National Guard troops or extra state police to help.
Ridge also called on the public to be watchful, saying extra vigilance adds to the nation's homeland defense. But he also urged people not to panic if there are rumors of terrorist attacks.
"There is bound to be disinformation. Don't react to rumors. We will strive to get the facts out there as fast as we can," Ridge said.
Ridge also defended a part of the plan in which asylum-seekers from Iraq and 33 other countries will be held for background checks. That move comes as the FBI stepped up surveillance on certain Iraqis in America and other suspected terrorists or terrorist sympathizers.
"We want to make sure, during this period of time, that you are who you say you are," Ridge said.
Many of the security measures were announced Monday just as President Bush completed his speech giving Saddam Hussein and his two sons 48 hours to leave Iraq or face a U.S.-led invasion.
The Bush administration raised the terror alert from yellow, or elevated, to orange, the second-highest level on a five-color scale. Counterterrorism officials said the decision was based on threats from several quarters: al-Qaida, Iraqi operatives and freelance terrorists.
In his address, Bush warned of the possibility of terrorist attacks and cited some of the steps the government has taken to protect U.S. citizens and interests.
"In recent days, American authorities have expelled from the country certain individuals with ties to Iraqi intelligence services," Bush said. "Should enemies strike our country, they would be attempting to shift our attention with panic and weaken our morale with fear. In this, they would fail."
In a statement, Ridge said "a large volume of reporting across a range of sources, some of which are highly reliable, indicates that al-Qaida probably would attempt to launch terrorist attacks against U.S. interests claiming they were defending Muslims or the Iraqi people rather than Saddam Hussein's regime."
He also made reference to "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."
This is the third time the administration has raised the terror alert since the system was put in place about a year ago. It is the first time the level was raised by the Department of Homeland Security, which took over the color system from the Justice Department on March 1.
U.S. counterterrorism officials say the most specific information points to possible attacks on U.S. forces in the Middle East. A recent statement from Osama bin Laden, the Saudi-born leader of al-Qaida, declared some solidarity with Iraqis, although he referred to Saddam's government as infidels.
In addition, operatives working for Iraq's Mukhabarat, Saddam's intelligence service, could attempt bombings or other traditional terrorist-style attacks, officials said. Many are thought to work out of Iraqi embassies around the world under diplomatic cover.
The State Department recently sought the expulsion of some 300 suspected operatives from more than 60 countries, but many have not been removed.
The FBI is closely watching dozens of Iraqis and others living in the United States under a wide-ranging security plan meant to deter any reprisals for a U.S. invasion, bureau officials said. The plan, a year in the making, is expected to divert several thousand FBI agents away from regular duties to focus solely on counterterror and security.
Some of those under the FBI's watch have been identified through ongoing interviews of up to 50,000 Iraqis. Others are suspected of having links to al-Qaida and other terror groups, possibly including the Hamas and Hezbollah organizations blamed for attacks in Israel.
The interviews with Iraqis are "designed to obtain any information that could be of use to the United States during a possible conflict," Jeffrey Lampinski, special agent in charge of the FBI's Philadelphia field office, said Monday.
At the same time, the FBI sought to assure Muslims and Arab-Americans it will respond quickly to any reports of hate crimes.