WASHINGTON -- President Bush put America on high alert Monday for possible terrorist strikes during the holiday season after U.S. intelligence officials reported an increase in credible threats.
Homeland Security Director Tom Ridge, standing in for Bush to announce the third government alert since the Sept. 11 suicide hijackings, said the information does not point to a specific target or type of attack, either in the United States or abroad.
''The convergence of information suggests, ladies and gentlemen of America, you know, we're at war, be on alert,'' Ridge told reporters in the White House briefing room.
''Now is not the time to back off,'' Ridge said, echoing a warning he issued the nation's governors in a conference call Monday.
The FBI put 18,000 law enforcement agencies ''on the highest alert'' because of threats culled from intelligence sources across the globe, he said.
Ridge said the convergence of Christmas and Ramadan, the Islamic holy month that ends in mid-December, could be tempting to terrorists who have a history of striking during religious observances.
The Bush administration issued its first alert Oct. 11, followed by a one-week advisory Oct. 29. Ever since, Ridge, the president and Attorney General John Ashcroft have warned Americans to remain vigilant.
In the last several days, intelligence and law enforcement officials reported increased threats. A U.S. official, speaking on condition of anonymity, said the threat comes from people with links to al-Qaida, the terrorist network headed by Osama bin Laden and suspected in the Sept. 11 attacks that killed almost 3,500.
The threat is not tied to the weekend attacks and retaliation in Israel and may not be a direct response to events in Afghanistan, as al-Qaida is known to plan attacks far in advance, the official said.
''The sources are more credible and, let me just say, the decibel level is higher as they talk about potential attacks,'' Ridge said.
White House officials said the level of concern Monday was not any greater than for the two previous alerts.
They said Ridge pushed for the alert because of the new information and out of the apprehension that public, politicians and police were getting complacent.
''The further removed we get from Sept. 11, I think the natural tendency is to let down our guard,'' Ridge said. ''Unfortunately, we cannot do that.''
Americans can help by reporting suspicious activity to police, Ridge said.
The action comes in the middle of the holiday shopping season, an important time for recession-weary retailers.
''A terrorism alert is not a signal to stop life. It is a call to be vigilant, to know that your government is on high alert and to add your eyes and ears to our efforts to find and stop those who want to harm us,'' Ridge said.
He said the alert was intended to ''remind our citizens, no matter where you live -- it can be a big state with a dense population, or you can be a smaller state with a lot of rural communities -- we have no way of assuring or guaranteeing or pinpointing where the terrorists will attack,'' he said.
Ridge made the announcement because Attorney General John Ashcroft was out of town.
Bush has distanced himself from the alerts, which have been criticized for unduly alarming Ameri-cans.
Ridge offered little hope of finding the source of anthrax attacks that shook the nation in the aftermath of the Sept. 11 suicide hijackings over Washington, New York and Pennsylvania.
Evidence of trace anthrax in a postal center in Wallingford, Conn., bolsters theories that the death of 94-year-old Ottilie Lundgren was a case of cross-contamination from the mail, Ridge said.
He said there was no disagreement within the administration over whether to issue the alert. There was great debate before the first alerts.
''Over the last several days, our intelligence and law enforcement agencies have seen an increased volume and level of activity involving threats of terrorist attacks. The information we have does not point to any specific target either in America or abroad, and it does not outline any specific type of attack,'' Ridge said.
''However, the analysts who review this information believe the quantity and level of threats are above the norm and have reached a threshold where we should once again place the public on general alert, just as we have done on two previous occasions since Sept. 11,'' he said.
Ridge said that figuring out whether information is credible enough to merit an alert ''is an art, it's not a science.''
''It would be so much easier, admittedly, if there were a little more specifics we could refer to,'' he said. ''But there are not.''
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