Barrage of warnings hits Americans at start of holiday weekend

Click to follow

Americans packed their picnic blankets and their barbecue briquettes for the long Memorial Day weekend yesterday amid a cacophony of warnings of possible terror attacks and tightened security on transport networks and at tourist sites across the country.

Americans packed their picnic blankets and their barbecue briquettes for the long Memorial Day weekend yesterday amid a cacophony of warnings of possible terror attacks and tightened security on transport networks and at tourist sites across the country.

Authorities in New York, Washington, San Francisco, Los Angeles and other cities were reacting to an alert from the Department of Transport suggesting that rail systems, including underground trains, could be attacked by terrorists.

This came after a week-long barrage of rhetoric from the federal government aimed at underlining the inevitability of new terror strikes, eight months after almost 3,000 died when hijacked planes were flown into the World Trade Centre and the Pentagon.

The message was most strongly felt in New York. The Brooklyn Bridge was closed for an hour on Wednesday soon after a new alert suggesting that city landmarks might be attacked. The Statue of Liberty was also closed for a day.

Officials said they would be closely watching the New York subway system, with large numbers of tourists expected in town for the holiday. "We have about 35,000 cops and a good number of them are going to be down there," said Detective Kevin Czartoryski.

In spite of the surge of warnings, there has been no change in the official state of alertness. America remained yesterday on the middle-ranking "yellow" alert under a system of colour-coded levels of concern introduced by the government in March.

New Yorkers seemed to be taking the fresh atmosphere of alarm in their stride, while Fleet Week, the annual parade of naval power in New York harbour, is going on as usual this weekend. "I'm a World War Two veteran and I'm not going to let anyone scare me away from a show," said Jesse Harris, 81, queuing in Times Square for Broadway tickets.

Governor George Pataki urged New Yorkers to carry on normally, saying he planned to visit the Statue of Liberty this weekend. "We can't let our freedom and our confidence be sapped by evil barbarians who would try to intimidate us into giving up our freedom," he said. Another milestone in the city's journey to recovery after last September comes on Thursday when emergency workers and relatives of victims will crowd into ground zero for a religious service to mark the end of the clean-up and recovery of body parts at the site.

On Sunday the HBO cable channel will show a documentary about 11 September, using little-seen video footage of the Trade Centre conflagration taken by ordinary citizens. It is calle In Memoria: New York City, 9/11/01 and has been much praised by critics after previews.

Officials said most of the recent alerts were triggered by information given by Abu Zubeida, the associate of Osama bin Laden arrested in Pakistan. Over several days, the alerts identified not only New York landmarks as potential targets, but also apartment towers, banks and shopping malls.

With the alerts comes the drumbeat of warnings from officials. On Monday, Robert Mueller, director of the FBI, said suicide bombings like those in the Middle East were bound to be tried in America. The next day Donald Rumsfeld, the Defence Secretary, said terrorists would "inevitably" get their hands on weapons of mass destruction and use them in US cities.

The people have been listening. A poll for CBS in midweek showed that 33 per cent believed a fresh attack in America was "very likely", compared with 25 per cent a week earlier. That is the highest since October, when 53 per cent said another attack was very likely.

That did not stop comment in much of the media on the coincidence of the new alerts with the political controversy stirred up in Washington by revelations that more clues were available to the FBI about plans for the 11 September attacks than had been realised previously. Some news organisations sought to play down some of the new warnings.

Thus on Tuesday viewers of the ABC evening news saw John McWethy, the national security correspondent, noting that "the Bush administration, burnt by accusations that it failed to tell all it knew about terrorist threats, has now decided the public must be told more ... even if there is not much new to tell."

There has been scepticism not just about a government that may be being over-zealous in disseminating new information for reasons of political self-preservation, but also about the statements from Abu Zubeida. Robert Baer, a former CIA officer, said: "He's playing us. There are too many threats. It's got the ring of fabrication to me."

Whatever the validity of the warnings, a few things will be different about this Memorial Day weekend, which traditionally heralds the start of summer. Fewer people will be flying, for instance. Air travel is expected to be down 5 to 10 per cent compared with last year, in part because of the unwillingness of Americans to deal with lengthy screening procedures at airports.

Meanwhile security will be more visible at almost all the leading tourist destinations, including National Parks, where rangers normally concerned with flora and fauna will be on anti-terrorist duty.

The Park Service said that 15 per cent of rangers had been given special training in recent weeks to guard against possible attacks.

In some corners, however, the latest alerts have left officials stumped as to how they can increase security any further than they have already. A spokesman for the commuter train system in the San Francisco area of California said of the latest alert: "We are taking this seriously, but we're left shrugging our shoulders. There's nothing extra we can really do."

That is another danger that the White House must surely consider: terrorist alert fatigue.