Sun, Dec 21, 2003 - Page 1 News List

US officials warn of terror threat in the holiday season


US officials are telling holiday travelers to be vigilant about the threat of terrorist attacks, a warning prompted in part by a raised level of ominous intercepted communications that hasn't quieted for months.

The significance of the sustained level of intelligence "chatter" is unclear, the officials said.

Homeland Security officials said they did not expect the national threat warning to be raised from yellow -- the midpoint on its five-color scale -- to orange unless more specific intelligence was received.

Since the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks, analysts have observed a pattern of spikes in the chatter and other threat intelligence suggesting possible new assaults. Those spikes were always followed by periods of relative calm.

But since late summer, that pattern has been broken. The threat intelligence has poured in at a sustained rate, officials said, but it has been frustratingly short of specifics -- no credible information to suggest a time, target or method of attack.

"The Department of Homeland Security remains very concerned about the volume of reporting of threats against US interests both here and abroad," said spokesman Brian Roehrkasse.

"We continue to encourage our homeland security professionals to be on a heightened state of alert, especially as we enter this busy holiday travel period," he said.

Intelligence officials said they don't know what to make of the new pattern in threat chatter -- a shorthand term that describes intercepted communications and other intelligence.

The change could mean an attack is in the offing, officials acknowledged.

But it could, instead, be the product of terrorists' efforts to scare people and fool the warning system by making false threats over communications channels, on the assumption that US intelligence will hear them.

Or it could mean nothing at all, the officials said. Some increases in chatter have not been associated with attempted terrorist strikes.

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