The government is not yet ready to lower the "high risk" terrorism alert it ordered 10 days ago but could do so at any time, Homeland Security Secretary Tom Ridge said yesterday.
Based on current intelligence information, Ridge said on CNN's "Late Edition" that "there's still enough out there today for us to remain at an orange [or second-highest risk] level."
But, depending on intelligence reports, he added, "At some point in time we'll make a decision that it is now appropriate to reduce it" back to the lower yellow level, the midpoint of the government's five-step, color-coded alert scale.
Asked on ABC's "This Week" how close the government is to a risk-reduction decision, Ridge said: "Today we are not, tomorrow we could be."
Ridge also indicated the government is moving toward the point where it could more precisely target its warning levels to certain particularly high-risk areas, such as New York or Washington, or specific sectors of the economy. "I think there'll come a time when we'll be able to do precisely that," he said.
Ridge used appearances on several talk shows to reassure anxious Americans while urging them to remain vigilant and take "rational, responsible" protections against another terrorist attack. He reiterated recommendations that families prepare communications plans and an emergency kit, such as they would for a snowstorm or hurricane. But he distanced himself from some of the more controversial recent proposals, such as buying respirators to protect from chemical or biological attack, as has been suggested by Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist (R-Tenn.).
Duct tape and plastic sheeting might be on a "long list" of recommended supplies, he said, although he again advised against sealing up rooms with them now.
Ridge acknowledged that some of the information that led to imposition of the new terrorism alert level Feb. 7 "may have faded in terms of accuracy or relevancy" but emphasized repeatedly that the information came from multiple and "credible" sources.
Ridge did not say what might persuade the government to reduce the alert level but noted that it was raised in part because of warnings that attacks might come with the end of the hajj, or annual Muslim pilgrimage to Mecca. The hajj, as Ridge noted, ended last week.
Responding to Democratic charges that the administration was shortchanging homeland security to cut taxes, Ridge said that President Bush has recommended more than $10 billion in spending increases for domestic security for this year and next year and that Democrats could help by assuring rapid enactment of those increases.