WASHINGTON — The Bush administration left the terror threat level unchanged Saturday, despite warning state and local officials that a videotape message from Osama bin Laden may portend a new terrorist attack.
"We don't have to go to (code level) orange to take action in response either to these tapes or just general action to improve security around the country," Homeland Security Secretary Tom Ridge told reporters.
Ridge urged Americans to go ahead with plans to vote in Tuesday's elections without undue concern.
His words and appearance both seemed designed to convey a lack of alarm. The nation's top anti-terrorism official made his remarks in casual clothes standing outside his office, rather than at a formal news conference of the type he and other administration officials have conveyed word of increased danger in the past.
Ridge's department and the FBI issued a memo late Friday to local and state officials, hours after a new videotape of bin Laden surfaced.
"We remain concerned about al-Qaida's interest in attacking the American homeland, and we cannot discount the possibility that the video may be intended to promote violence or serve as a signal for an attack," it said.
Most of the United States has been at code yellow, the midpoint of a five-point color-coded warning scale, for much of the year.
Since August, the terror alert for the financial section in New York, Washington and Newark, N.J., has stood at orange, or high. At that time, administration officials disclosed al-Qaida had conducted surveillance of four buildings.
Injecting himself into the election, bin Laden said the United States must stop threatening the security of Muslims if it wants to avoid "another Manhattan." While he did not directly warn of new attacks, the al-Qaida leader and Sept. 11 mastermind warned: "There are still reasons to repeat what happened."
While Ridge sought to convey reassurance, he also said the government would strengthen anti-terrorism measures.
"In the hours and the days ahead, we'll increase our Coast Guard patrols of the harbors. We'll change some of the inspection protocols at our ports of entry and our airports. We'll work with our cities to reroute, as we've done from time to time in the past, hazard material, be it in truck or railroads, around some of our major urban areas," Ridge said.
"We've already been in contact with the advisory groups we've set up with the private sector," he added.
Government officials also were scrutinizing a tape aired Thursday by ABC News in which a shrouded man claiming to be an American member of al-Qaida promised attacks that will make U.S. streets "run red with blood." The speaker identified himself as "Azzam the American."
The FBI posted on its Web site Saturday video and still images of the tape. "We are hopeful someone will recognize something familiar in these videoclips and contact law enforcement or their local U.S. embassy, bureau spokeswoman Cassandra Chandler said.
Government officials were comparing the tapes with other intelligence gathered on al-Qaida to see if patterns emerge that could lead them to a plot or potential terrorist operatives.
Among scenarios officials are considering is whether the tapes could be a signal to an attack. But a number of broadcasts from al-Qaida leaders haven't followed that pattern, cautioned John Brennan, director of the government's leading terror-threat analysis unit, the Terrorist Threat Integration Center.
"It seems like it is a message to the American people," Brennan said of the bin Laden tape. "Now are there other aspects of it that we have to better understand? That is what we are trying to do right now."
The bin Laden tape, including portions not yet broadcast, contained no overt threat and no specific timetable or method of an attack, according to a law enforcement official, speaking on condition of anonymity.
The official, who was briefed on the entire tape, said much of what has not aired amounts to a sustained diatribe against President Bush and his father, former President George H.W. Bush. It criticizes the current president's economic and jobs programs and contends that the Iraq war is all about oil, the official said.
The president on Saturday directed his national security aides to take any necessary steps in response to the bin Laden tape. Bush held a videoconference call with national security adviser Condoleezza Rice and the heads of the CIA, FBI and departments of Justice and Homeland Security.
Also Saturday, several hundred homeland security officials and some police chiefs held a conference call to discuss the tapes. Security at polling places on Tuesday was among the concerns and questions they raised.
In the video, bin Laden acknowledged for the first time directly that he ordered the Sept. 11 attacks and said he did so because of injustices against the Lebanese and Palestinians by Israel and the United States.
"Your security is not in the hands of Kerry, Bush or al-Qaida. Your security is in your own hands," bin Laden said, referring to the president and his Democratic opponent, John Kerry. "Any state that does not mess with our security has naturally guaranteed its own security."
The television network Al-Jazeera received the 18-minute videotape at its offices in the Pakistani capital, Islamabad, where "somebody dropped it yesterday at the gate," Ahmad Muaffaq Zaidan, the Pakistan bureau chief, said Saturday.
Contributing: Curt Anderson.