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State Department Exercises Caution

The first concrete signal the Bush administration gave to increasing the threat level from yellow to orange — or "elevated" to "high" — came Thursday when the State Department issued an updated Worldwide Caution.

The latest Worldwide Caution reminded Americans abroad to be vigilant "due to a heightened threat of terrorist actions that may target civilians, including the possibility of attacks by non-conventional weapons." This was the first time such a warning had included a reference to possible attacks using non-conventional weapons, according to a State Department official.

The caution advised that "while conventional weapons such as explosive devices pose a more immediate threat in many areas overseas, terrorist use of non-conventional weapons, including chemical or biological agents must be considered a growing threat."

U.S. citizens abroad were reminded that since security has been tightened at such locations as embassies and consulates "terrorists and their sympathizers will seek softer targets." This is a reference to places Americans might gather such as "residential areas, clubs, restaurants, places of worship, schools ... or resorts and beaches."

Why was this caution issued? There is the obvious tie to a U.S. military buildup which may well lead to a war against Iraq. But administration sources also point to "increased chatter" being picked up by U.S. intelligence, one administration official saying "this is the most concern we've seen in the past year." The first-time mention of possible use of non-conventional agents is related, the source says, to the recent arrests in London of terrorist suspects in a location which had traces of ricin, a biological toxin.

Americans may think the State Department's job is simply dealing with foreign governments in a formal way, through ambassadors and other foreign service officials. But officials also take responsibility for dealing with the problems of Americans abroad, ranging from lost passports to providing access to U.S. officials if someone lands in a foreign prison.

Another thing officials do is make Americans aware of possible threats overseas, whether due to terrorist activity or local demonstrations expected because of political activity in countries around the world. The department's Bureau of Consular Affairs issues and updates these warnings and keeps the public informed on its Web site, http://travel.state.gov.

With more and more American soldiers arriving in the Persian Gulf region, and following the attack on two civilian contractors in Kuwait (including the murder of one), last week the department issued travel warnings for Saudi Arabia and Kuwait, authorizing the departure of non-emergency personnel and family members of U.S. officials.

Washington has now authorized the departure, on a voluntary basis, of non-essential personnel and all family members of American officials from Jordan, Syria, Lebanon and Israel.

Because Americans overseas might have to leave suddenly, State Department officials recently issued some basic advice: keep vital documents such as passports updated and in an accessible location; keep medicine and medical records handy and, for those who live abroad, make an inventory of household effects.

By Charles M. Wolfson