WASHINGTON – U.S. interests at home and abroad were at code orange or high risk of terrorist attacks on the Sept. 11 anniversary following intelligence from a senior Al Qaeda officer.
The senior Al Qaeda officer provided U.S. intelligence agencies with "specific intelligence on specific attacks on U.S. interests overseas," apparently timed to coincide with the anniversary of the Sept. 11 attacks, Attorney General John Ashcroft said at an afternoon press briefing Tuesday.
Code orange is the highest alert level imposed since the system was established in March. The only higher status, code red, reflects a severe risk of attack on U.S. soil based on credible evidence.
Coupled with increased "background chatter" that the agencies have been picking up in the past week, analysts told Fox News that the situation looks eerily similar to Sept. 10 of last year.
Tom Ridge, Bush's homeland security director, said plans for multiple attacks on U.S. targets in southeast Asia were in "an operational phase."
A grim-faced Ashcroft said U.S. intelligence believes terrorists operating in several South Asian countries hope to explode car bombs or launch other attacks on U.S. facilities abroad.
Ashcroft said the government also has learned of plans in the Middle East to launch one or more suicide attacks against U.S. interests.
U.S. officials found little solace in the fact that the threats focused on targets overseas; a similar pattern was detected just before the Sept. 11 attacks, they said.
"The threats that we have heard recently remind us of the pattern of threats we heard prior to Sept. 11," Bush said on the eve of the anniversary. "We have no specific threat to America, but we're taking everything seriously."
The intelligence community believes the most likely targets at home and abroad are transportation and energy facilities or other symbols of U.S. power, such as military facilities, embassies and national monuments, Ashcroft said.
The government sent a separate alert to local law enforcement across the United States warning of possible scattered attacks, prompting discussions in communities on how best to protect potential targets like shopping malls, schools and public gatherings.
Echoing the words of Ashcroft, the alert said: "Reporting also indicates that lower level Al Qaeda operatives and sympathizers view the Sept. 11 timeframe as a suitable time to lash out in small strikes to demonstrate their worldwide presence and resolve. Widely dispersed, unsophisticated strikes are possible."
Sources told Fox News that the Al Qaeda official who provided the information was captured in South Asia in the last few months, but only recently started to cooperate. For that reason, any information he provides is questionable, but it is consistent with information received from other sources.
The official was described as being close to the level of Abu Zubaydah, the captured Al Qaeda leader said to be third in command behind Usama bin Laden.
The State Department issued a notice of "worldwide caution" to Americans abroad.
Among 15 or so U.S. diplomatic posts closed overseas, the embassy in Jakarta and a consular office in Surabaya, both in Indonesia, were shut down due to what officials called credible and specific information about security threats.
At the U.S. Navy base in Bahrain, home to the 5th Fleet, the security level was raised to the highest possible -- "delta."
Other U.S. bases overseen by Central Command -- those in the Persian Gulf region, the Horn of Africa and Afghanistan and Central Asia -- raised their security to the second-highest level.
Security at Home
Americans were urged to be alert but unbowed -- go to work, to school, on trips.
From immigration officers to meat inspectors, government workers were put on high alert as security precautions rivaled measures taken immediately after last year's attacks.
Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld ordered that live anti-aircraft missiles be stationed near launchers that had been deployed around Washington for a training exercise.
Military bases worldwide were put on higher alert this week because of the anniversary, and the military resumed 24-hour fighter jet patrols over New York City and Washington.
The General Services Administration, which operates and provides security for most federal buildings, implemented new security procedures.
The Environmental Protection Agency ordered water system operators to bolster security.
The Agriculture Department told meat inspectors to look for anything suspicious.
Bush planned to travel Wednesday under extraordinarily tight security to the sites of last year's attacks in suburban Washington, New York and Pennsylvania.
Vice President Dick Cheney canceled a Tuesday night speech and was taken to a secret location to protect the presidential line of succession in case of an attack. He will remain in seclusion at least through the Sept. 11 observances, a senior administration official said.
The Secret Service bolstered security around the White House, paying special attention to vehicles riding on a nearby road recently closed to trucks.
On Capitol Hill, the House sergeant at arms installed steel cabinets in the press gallery to store "escape hoods" that allow people to breathe in case of a biological or chemical attack. Congress has bought 25,000 of them.
Across the country, access was restricted to public places and events.
Local police were on edge. They urged residents to report any suspicious activity.
Fox News' Jim Angle, Brian Wilson and The Associated Press contributed to this report.