WASHINGTON - The Bush administration today lowered the national terror alert from orange to yellow, suggesting the threat of an imminent terrorist attack on U.S. soil has eased somewhat.
The conclusion of the Muslim hajj holiday period played a role in the decision to lower the threat level from orange, the second-highest level on the five-part scale, Attorney General John Ashcroft and Homeland Security Secretary Tom Ridge said in a joint statement.
Counterterrorism officials had said a significant amount of intelligence pointed toward an attack during the early February holiday.
Nevertheless, officials warned that al-Qaida still has the capability to strike in the United States.
"The lowering of the threat level is not a signal to government, law enforcement or citizens that the danger of a terrorist attack is passed," Ashcroft and Ridge said. They said that lowering the alert status "is only an indication that some of the extra protective measures enacted by government and the private sector may be reduced at this time."
Other, unspecified intelligence suggested that an attack was somewhat less imminent, officials said.
A yellow, elevated alert is the third-highest alert on a five-step scale. It means the intelligence suggests a significant risk of terrorist attacks. The orange alert is a step higher and means there's a high risk of an attack. The highest alert level is red.
The level was raised to orange on Feb. 7, prompting the government and businesses to impose extra security measures at buildings, utilities and other key infrastructure sites.
But no attack occurred, and it is possible the intelligence was incorrect or misinterpreted.
It is also possible that enhanced security measures or other factors caused the terrorists to change their plans.
Law enforcement, intelligence and homeland security officials debated for days about the proper time to lower the alert status as chatter among suspected terrorist waned and some leads on possible threats were discredited.
The discussions were held in the shadow of a potential war with Iraq, which is expected to increase the risk of terror attacks against Americans.
As recently as Monday, Attorney General John Ashcroft said there were no plans to lower the national alert level.
Homeland Security Secretary Tom Ridge has said that any decision to lower the alert level would be based on an evaluation of intelligence over several days.
Nearly three weeks of orange alert rattled a nation that has been subject to repeated, dire warnings of imminent al-Qaida terrorism since the Sept. 11 attacks. While al-Qaida has since orchestrated some successful attacks overseas, the group has not struck inside the United States.
In some cities, anxious Americans stocked up on water, food and other materials, as recommended by the Department of Homeland Security.
The move marks the second time the nation has gone from yellow to orange and back since the color-coded terror alert system was instituted last year. The alert level has never been below yellow since the warnings were first issued.
The previous change in status came in September, when a high-level al-Qaida prisoner suggested attacks were imminent on U.S. embassies in southeast Asia. The alert went to orange and several embassies were temporarily closed. No attack took place, and the alert status returned to yellow later in the month.
The lowest level is green, followed by blue, yellow, orange and red.