The Department of Homeland Security lowered the terrorist threat level yesterday for five financial institution headquarters in Washington, New York and New Jersey, and U.S. Capitol Police began removing 14 vehicle checkpoints around the Capitol that had frustrated motorists and neighborhood residents since August.
The government dropped the threat index for the financial buildings from orange, or "high risk," to yellow, or "elevated risk," because security measures taken there in the past three months and tightened security in the financial sector nationwide eliminated the need for the higher alert designation, said James M. Loy, deputy secretary of homeland security.
The government does not mean to signal, however, that the terrorist threat to the nation has passed, because officials believe the danger continues to be very high, Loy said.
U.S. Capitol Police Chief Terrance W. Gainer said yesterday that he decided to remove the controversial barriers, erected Aug. 1 at the same time security was stepped up at the financial sites, because "there was a preelection threat, and we all said we would be re-examining the state of play after the election."
Homeland Security Secretary Tom Ridge lowered the alert level for Washington's World Bank and International Monetary Fund buildings, the Prudential Financial headquarters in Newark, and Manhattan's New York Stock Exchange and Citigroup building "with President Bush's blessing." But the move was made because of their improved security and not because the Nov. 2 election passed without incident, Loy said.
He said that since the summertime alarms were raised, U.S. financial regulators and financial institutions have tightened the security of their data linkups to one another "to ensure there are redundant systems to continue the financial solvency of the country" in any attack. They also conducted numerous exercises and drills to prepare for emergencies, he said.
Although U.S. intelligence officials had warned that al Qaeda wanted to disrupt the U.S. electoral process, they remain fearful of a terrorist strike through the presidential inauguration Jan. 20 and beyond, Loy said.
"I don't like the idea of a beginning and an end" to the heightened alert posture, Loy said. "We're as concerned today as we were a month ago," he said. "The whole notion of taking a deep breath and saying 'Wow, we made it through that' is a dangerous train of thought," Loy added.
The heightened threat level was imposed after intelligence officials seized computer disks in Pakistan showing that al Qaeda members had conducted detailed surveillance of the five sites, noting security guards' shift changes, the angles of security cameras and the like.
The buildings were cased in 2000 and 2001, but the computer files -- taken from the computer of an alleged al Qaeda operative -- appeared to have been updated in the past two years. Although officials saw no evidence that al Qaeda had "operationalized" the attack scenarios, the decision to raise the buildings' threat status was made "to err on the side of conservatism," Loy said.
D.C. Mayor Anthony A. Williams said he was "extremely pleased" by Gainer's decision to remove the 14 checkpoints because it recognizes "the disruption that these checkpoints caused to average citizens trying to carry on the business of living and working."
Capitol Police said they will continue to block First Street between Constitution Avenue and D Street NE, which Gainer closed at the same time he erected the checkpoints. He said yesterday that he might resurrect the checkpoints depending on perceived security threats there.
Gainer said that he announced his decisions at a morning meeting yesterday before he was notified of the change in threat level and that the two actions were coincidental.
Michael A. Mason, assistant FBI director in charge of the Washington Field Office, said the capital remains under an intense level of security because it tops al Qaeda's target list, along with New York.
"On days when the water is rough, lifeguards are vigilant," he said. "On days when the water is calm, lifeguards are vigilant."
D.C. Police Chief Charles H. Ramsey said the lowered alert level has prompted him to scale back the overtime detail he had posted at the IMF and World Bank since August.
During the orange alert, the federal government funded police overtime there.
Under the contract with the city's police union, returning to yellow also means Ramsey again must give two-weeks' notice before he alters police shifts.
The high alert had allowed him to immediately order officers onto 12-hour shifts.
In August, several Washington law enforcement officials privately expressed skepticism about raising the alert for the five sites, and some repeated those sentiments yesterday.
"There was never a concrete reason why it was raised to orange in the first place," said one law enforcement official, who spoke on the condition of anonymity because of fear of retribution. "I don't think there is a concrete reason why it is now being lowered, except maybe that time passed and nothing had happened."
Asked whether the August orange designation was timed to the election season, Loy, a retired Coast Guard admiral, said: "We don't do politics at this department. . . . It never crosses my mind."
Tom Ridge lowered the terrorist alert level for five financial institution headquarters.