WASHINGTON # The Pentagon Tuesday morning is scheduled to conduct a so-called “continuity-of-government” exercise, scheduled as a direct result of the heightened terror threat level, U.S. officials said.
During the exercise, key Pentagon officials are to be notified that they are to move immediately to secret locations where the government has established alternative facilities, according to the officials.
The exercise involves only high-level Pentagon officials, although Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld is not expected to participate, officials said. The drill is designed to protect Pentagon authorities in the event of an attack.
With U.S. military officials taking steps to protect big cities and security tightened at airports and commuter trains at the start of a busy holiday travel period, President Bush assured Americans Monday, “Our government is doing everything we can to protect our country.”
Based on intelligence information, the Department of Homeland Security on Sunday raised the nation’s terror threat level from “elevated” (yellow) to “high” (orange).
The threat level has been raised to high several times since the attacks on September 11, 2001, but officials at all levels said the threat this time around seems more serious than prior threats.
Missile batteries were being moved into place around Washington, and possibly around New York City, and “irregular air patrols” were ordered because of what one senior Pentagon official called “specific, reliable, credible” intelligence regarding a possible terror strike.
Some of that relates to the possible use of aircraft originating in other countries as weapons in suicide attacks, a homeland security official said.
There are particular concerns about Washington, New York, Los Angeles, Las Vegas and a handful of other cities and, according to some sources, two rural areas # one in the East and one in the Southwest, the official said.
The United States is working with airlines and governments of other countries to improve their security postures, the official said.
There is concern about Mexico and Canada, because of their contiguous airspace, and about France and a number of other countries, and governors have been given lists of specific measures and sites to be protected, including critical infrastructure which, if hit by an aircraft, could cause extensive problems, an official said.
“International aviation security standards are still voluntary,” said Rafi Ron, an airline security analyst. “We know that many countries around the world do not exercise those standards.”
Some homeland security officials predicted the increased security could last into February, at a cost of about $1 billion per week # much of it in increased overtime costs for law enforcement personnel.
New York Gov. George Pataki told reporters that he signed an executive order to allow state troopers from New York, Connecticut and New Jersey to ride commuter trains.
In addition, he said, “we’ve increased patrols along the Canadian borders and … are working to make sure everything from airports to bridges, tunnels and other mass transit facilities have heightened security.”
But Pataki urged visitors and residents to get out and enjoy the season. “Go to the restaurants, see the shows; there’s no more exciting or better place to be.”
Los Angeles Mayor Jim Hahn said security efforts were escalated at Los Angeles International Airport and the Port of Los Angeles by increasing police patrols and perimeter checkpoints, and performing random vehicle inspections.
Police dogs roamed many airports, most trained in sniffing out explosives.
Some travelers expressed annoyance at the delays, but most appeared to take the changes in stride.
“I travel international and I don’t feel it’s giving me a lot of comfort,” one Los Angeles airline passenger told CNN. “It seems like there’s a lot of confusion.”
The airport is expected to handle 2.6 million passengers between December 19 and January 6.