U.S. Bolsters Security on Terrorism Threats, Adds New Alert

  • Homeland Secretary Johnson says no imminent threat seen
  • U.S. on edge after mass shooting by Islamic State sympathizers

The Obama administration is bolstering aviation security, tightening screening for visa and refugee applications and adding a third level of terrorism warnings to provide more information to a nation fearful of attacks by extremists.

Homeland Security Secretary Jeh Johnson said Wednesday that the U.S. is on a “heightened state of readiness” in the wake of the broadening fight against Islamic State and the threat of “self-radicalized” lone-wolf terrorists striking on American soil. He said he wants his agency to more closely monitor social media postings by prospective visitors.

Johnson issued a threat “bulletin,” a new intermediate step for the National Terrorism Advisory System, that reflects “general developments or trends for threats” but doesn’t indicate an imminent threat. The new alert, which fits between “elevated” and the highest level of “imminent,” summarizes the threat, outlines the government response and recommends ways the public can assist in counterterrorism efforts, he said, and will be in place for six months.

“We know of no intelligence that is both specific and credible at this time,” Johnson said at the Federal Emergency Management Agency’s national response coordination center in Washington. “We urge the public to continue to travel, attend public events and freely associate with others but be aware of surroundings."

Nation on Edge

Johnson spoke with the nation on edge following the mass shooting in San Bernardino, California, by a man and woman who pledged support to Islamic State. In a sign of national anxiety and confusion about terrorism risks, Los Angeles on Tuesday closed all its schools after it received a threat that it later determined to be a hoax. New York City received the same threat and elected to keep its schools open.

Johnson gave no details about tightened aviation security, saying guidance would be forthcoming. He said there would be more scrutiny of visa applicants and that DHS had increased monitoring of social media in immigration investigations earlier this year, though policies that had been in place have been too restrictive.

“I believe we need to do more of it,” Johnson said. “There are some legal limits to what we can do.”

The couple who carried out the attack in California, Syed Rizwan Farook and Tashfeen Malik, are reported to have used social media to show their support for Islamic State well before the shooting that killed 14 people and injured 21 others.

FBI director James Comey, speaking separately at a news conference in New York, said no evidence has been uncovered of any public postings on the Internet that would have drawn attention from intelligence or law enforcement agencies. Instead, he said Farook, who was born in the U.S., and Malik, who emigrated from Pakistan, used private, direct messages to talk about jihad and martyrdom.

Johnson said last week that the national terror alert system presented too high of a bar for triggering an alert.

“What we are concerned about here in the homeland is copycat-style attacks,” Johnson said. “Regrettably we have seen that in recent months and recent weeks.”

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