NEW YORK – Assured that improved security has diminished the possibility of an attack, local officials and workers at five eastern financial institutions expressed relief — tempered with caution — after federal authorities lowered the terror threat alert status there from orange to yellow.
"I just hope they're right," Rafael Camargo, an employee at the Citigroup Center building (search) in Manhattan, said Wednesday after the announcement in Washington.
Robert E. Selsam, senior vice president of Boston Properties (search), manager of Citigroup's 59-story tower, called the decision "welcome news," but added that security measures would not be loosened.
"We're going to continue to maintain the highest standards of security for all our buildings," he said.
Federal officials said better security precautions had reduced the threat at Citicorp building, the New York Stock Exchange (search) in New York, the International Monetary Fund and World Bank buildings in Washington and Prudential Financial Inc.'s headquarters in Newark, N.J.
The lowering to yellow, the midpoint on the government's five-level terror warning system, comes three months after the alert was raised because of concerns the institutions and the areas around them could be al-Qaida targets. Yellow is "elevated," while orange is considered a "high" threat of attack.
Authorities had raised the alert on Aug. 1 in response to intelligence indicating al-Qaida had conducted surveillance of the buildings. However, counterterror officials later acknowledged that much of the intelligence was at least several years old. They defended their decision to raise the alert because of al-Qaida's record of extensive planning and plotting.
During the weeks leading up to the election Bush administration officials repeatedly warned that al-Qaida could mount an attack aimed at disrupting the democratic process. They cited March train bombings in Madrid linked to al-Qaida just prior to Spain's elections. Spanish voters elected new leadership.
The Homeland Security Department faced criticism throughout the year that terror warnings were designed to boost support for the Bush administration during an election year. Homeland Security Deputy Secretary James Loy said politics didn't pay a role in any decisions to raise or lower the threat level.
In a conference call with reporters, Loy said said the decision to lower the alert was made because government officials and the owners and operators of affected buildings worked for the past three months to boost security and preparedness. That included drills to test cyber-security backup systems and efforts to secure parking or other features of the buildings that the al-Qaida surveillance had noted.
But Loy warned that the threat of an attack remains.
"We are as concerned today as we were a month ago," Loy said. "My sense is this particular enemy will pick their time and pick their place."
When the nation is at heightened alert, state and local security officials take added precautions such as adding patrols at ports and increasing undercover officers monitoring potentially attractive targets. The announcement signals to local authorities that they can scale back some of the extra security personnel assigned to specific sites mentioned in the warning.
New York officials have chosen to keep the city at orange since the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks, even though the rest of the country has been at yellow most of the time.
The city "continues to be considered a terrorist target and remains at a higher threat level," New York Police Department spokesman Paul Browne said Wednesday.
However, Browne added that police would make some "adjustments" in response to the decision in Washington. He declined to elaborate.
Though concrete barriers were installed around the Prudential Center in Newark will remain in place, the city's beefed-up police presence will not, police Director Anthony Ambrose said.
Fewer uniformed officers will be assigned to Prudential, and securing the building will no longer result in overtime costs, Ambrose said.
Prudential-related police overtime has cost $500,000 since Aug. 1, for which the city will be reimbursed by the federal Department of Homeland Security, he said.
One worker, Chris Hayeve, said the reduction made no difference to him.
"I didn't really have a problem before," said Hayeve, an auditor. "It always seems like there's more than enough of a police presence."