U.S. raises terrorism alert, steps up food and health security

Mar 19, 2003 (CIDRAP News) – Citing the likelihood of war with Iraq within days, federal officials have raised the terrorism alert level to "high" and launched "Operation Liberty Shield," a set of protective measures that includes increased food security and public health vigilance.

The Department of Homeland Security (DHS) raised the terrorism alert level from elevated to high—or from yellow to orange, the second highest of five levels—after President Bush issued an ultimatum to Iraqi President Saddam Hussein on Mar 17. Bush said the United States would attack Iraq if Hussein and his sons don't leave the country within 48 hours, or by 7 p.m. today.

In announcing the heightened alert, Homeland Security Secretary Tom Ridge stated, "The intelligence community believes that terrorists will attempt multiple attacks against U.S. and coalition targets worldwide in the event of a U.S.-led military campaign against Saddam Hussein. A large volume of reporting across a range of sources, some of which are highly reliable, indicates that Al-Qaida probably would attempt to launch terrorist attacks against U.S. interests claiming they were defending Muslims or the 'Iraqi people' rather than Saddam Hussein's regime."

Ridge said the Mar 1 arrest of Khalid Shaykh Muhammad, a senor Al Qaida agent, does not necessarily affect operations that are ready or nearly ready for execution. "There are many recent indications that Al Qaida's planning includes the use of chemical, biological, and/or radiological materials," he added.

Ridge said DHS has begun to implement Operation Liberty Shield, which aims to increase protection of the borders, transportation systems, and critical infrastructure facilities, and to boost public health preparedness.

At a news briefing yesterday, Ridge said federal officials are increasing inspections of imported food and have asked the food industry to step up monitoring of feedlots, stockyards, processing plants, and import and storage areas.

A White House fact sheet about Operation Liberty Shield said the US Department of Agriculture is advising food producer organizations of the increased threat level and urging them to take steps such as inspecting all vehicles and escorting facility visitors.

In related news, the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) today announced the availability of four guidance documents on security for various segments of the food and cosmetics industries. These include a revised guidance document for food producers, processors, and transporters; a revised guidance document for food importers; a draft guidance document for food stores and food service operations, and draft guidance for cosmetics processors and transporters.

Ridge, in his news briefing, also said the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) has advised state and local health departments, hospitals, and healthcare providers to report any unusual disease or disease patterns. In addition, HHS has put the Public Health Service's Commissioned Corps Readiness Force on alert and "alerted emergency support and management teams to possible deployment," according to the White House fact sheet.

Ridge said he had asked the nation's governors to deploy the National Guard or extra police forces to boost security at critical locations in their states.

The last time the terrorism alert was raised to high was in mid-February, shortly before the annual Muslim pilgrimage, or Hajj.

See also:

White House fact sheet on Operation Liberty Shield

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