WASHINGTON – In the shadow of the Capitol, a surface-to-air missile launcher sits ready and able in case of a terror attack, providing a stark reminder of how seriously the Bush administration is taking the current orange threat level, the second highest alert to citizens.
Reinforced security around the nation's capital has expanded since the level's increase from yellow — or heightened alert — last week, and now includes combat air patrols and Army radar.
FBI personnel assigned to rapid response teams that would react to any terrorist attacks have been told to have a bag packed for three days' deployment and have been put on standby. All U.S. Capitol Police carry gas masks with them at all times.
Officials are reluctant to provide specifics about the precautionary measures.
"Any time there are threats that are perceived, the prudent thing to do is to take steps that seem to be appropriate. To the extent those steps are described in great detail, it vantages nobody other than the terrorists," said Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld.
The heightened state of alert was ordered last week after officials assessed the level and degree of "chatter" that they had been intercepting and reports of increased activities among suspected terror groups. In his second day of testimony on Capitol Hill Wednesday, CIA Director George Tenet said Al Qaeda's top lieutenants are out of commission, but that may not be enough to derail the network's operations.
"They train thousands of people in their camps in Afghanistan. Manpower isn't the issue. The real issue is brainpower, money, infrastructure, support, leadership. That's what you have to focus on," Tenet told the Senate Armed Services Committee.
This week's FBI Bulletin to 18,000 state and local law enforcement says Al Qaeda may be targeting "hard" or heavily secured sites, including U.S. nuclear facilities or chemical plants.
The Interior Department's Bureau of Reclamation has increased security at its 58 hydroelectric dams and 348 reservoirs that serve 31 million people in 17 Western states. Precautions include limiting access, closing visitors centers and some roads and conducting random vehicle inspections at some facilities.
First responders were warned "of the dangers of chemical, biological, nuclear and radiological devices" and told to consult the CIA handbook on what to do if exposed to dangerous substances.
The increased alert has local and state lawmakers worried. They say they are laying off police officers and first responders, even in this desperate hour, because they don't have the money to pay for them.
"These challenges we face in our cities and towns are going to be resolved when our firefighters show up, properly trained and properly equipped, to deal with whatever they may face," said John DeStefano Jr., president of the National League of Cities.
DeStefano, Democratic mayor of New Haven, Conn., has trimmed the New Haven police force by 5 percent, with similar cuts planned for the fire department because of budget shortfalls. Congress still hasn't passed the 2003 fiscal budget, which would provide $3.5 billion to first responders, not enough, say local officials, who claim the money is being offset by lost appropriations in other areas.
In Washington, the threat of a possible strike has sunk in on the individual level. Major retailers continue to report runs on duct tape, plastic sheeting and other supplies named by the Federal Emergency Management Agency as necessities in times of disaster.
Still, the administration cautions people not to overreact.
"Be prudent, maybe stock up on some things around that you want to have in the house, but go about your daily life," Secretary of State Colin Powell said Wednesday.
Despite the possibility of attacks, Democrats are using those comments to slam the overall homeland security plan.
"To tell mothers and fathers across America to put aside some bottles of water, buy some duct tape and plastic sheeting and prepare for the crisis of terrorism is not enough," said Sen. Dick Durbin, D-Ill. "We as a nation should have taken this looming crisis seriously long ago."
"I think that there is a lot of confusion about what people should do once they buy these materials and why they should do it," added Senate Minority Leader Tom Daschle, D-S.D.
Homeland Security officials say this is not about duct tape, it is about being informed, adding that they are pleased the public is listening and responding.
They say the recommendations are just the beginning of a long-term information campaign.
Fox News' Catherine Herridge and The Associated Press contributed to this report.