Administration: Prepare, don't panic
Higher threat level is 'precaution,' Ridge says
WASHINGTON (CNN) -- As the Department of Homeland Security issued advice on how to prepare for biological or chemical attack, Attorney General John Ashcroft said Monday that Americans should not curtail their activities because of the nation's recently elevated threat level but should carry on with greater awareness.
Meanwhile, the Department of Homeland Security urged Americans to take steps to prepare for a possible attack, but said its advice that was intended not as a "dire" warning but as cautionary advice.
"Al Qaeda's interests in obtaining chemical or biological or radiological weapons is not declining," Homeland Security spokesman Gordon Johndroe said, "and therefore, should they be successful in their attempts to obtain these types of weapons, we want the American public to be ready."
President Bush's Homeland Security Council decided Friday to raise the national threat level from yellow to orange. Orange indicates a "high" risk of terrorist attack, and yellow indicates an "elevated" risk.
The level was raised in part because of a high amount of "chatter" being intercepted by intelligence agencies, and that level has not declined, an administration official told CNN on Monday.
The official could not predict when the threat level would return to yellow but said it would not drop before Friday's end of the Hajj, the annual Muslim time of pilgrimage to Mecca.
Ashcroft, speaking to a gathering of the Council on Foreign Relations, said the higher threat level is not intended to make people prisoners of fear.
"We are frankly very energized, and we've asked the law enforcement community in America to be energized," he said. "One of the reasons we are at higher levels of activity and alert is so America can continue to operate in freedom and industry."
Homeland Security Secretary Tom Ridge said the threat level was raised as a precaution.
"The accumulation of information ... leads us to believe that this is probably the most significant, the most serious threat we've seen to American interests both in this country and abroad since September 11," Ridge said.
He said information provided by sources was vague about where and when an attack might occur, but several sources indicated an attack was more likely to occur around the Hajj.
The attorney general said the new priority in the war on terrorism is the "priority of prevention."
"We are working to bridge gaps in our domestic law enforcement and security activities with greater cooperation and information-sharing," Ashcroft said. "We've broken down some of the artificial barriers separating, needlessly, our law enforcement and intelligence communities."
Ashcroft praises international anti-terrorism efforts
Ashcroft also said diplomatic differences between nations had not hindered international cooperation in the fight against terrorism. He spoke positively of relations with China and Germany, which have opposed military intervention in Iraq.
Ashcroft said the Beijing government "aspires toward the rule of law and is making improvements." He said the Chinese also have supplied evidence in criminal cases and have cooperated with the United States in establishing a counterterrorism working group.
Since September 11, 2001, 90 countries have joined to fight terrorism because those nations share a commitment to the rule of law, he said.
"I totally reject the idea that one man's terrorist is another man's freedom fighter," the attorney general said.
With concerns growing about al Qaeda's interest in acquiring weapons of mass destruction, a U.S. emergency official cautioned that aid after an attack could be hard to come by, at least initially.
U.S. Fire Administrator David Paulison said in the first 48 to 72 hours of an emergency, many Americans will likely to have to look after themselves.(Red Cross on preparedness)
Paulison recommended that households have on hand three days' worth of water and food, an emergency supply kit for both home and automobile, radios with extra batteries, and plastic sheeting and duct tape to seal windows and doors. (What to do)
If an attack occurs, Paulison said, households should tune in to local media outlets and not evacuate unless they are told to do so.
-- CNN correspondent Jeanne Meserve contributed to this report.