Terror alert issued by U.S. State Department
WASHINGTON -- The United States issued a worldwide travel alert on Friday warning Americans that al Qaeda may be planning attacks in August, particularly in the Middle East and North Africa.
The State Department travel alert was based on the same intelligence that prompted it to close 21 U.S. embassies and consulates on Sunday, August 4, chiefly those in the Muslim world, a U.S. official told Reuters on condition of anonymity.
"The Department of State alerts U.S. citizens to the continued potential for terrorist attacks, particularly in the Middle East and North Africa, and possibly occurring in or emanating from the Arabian Peninsula," its statement said.
"Current information suggests that al Qaeda and affiliated organizations continue to plan terrorist attacks both in the region and beyond, and that they may focus efforts to conduct attacks in the period between now and the end of August," it added, saying the travel alert would expire on August 31.
Among the most prominent of al Qaeda's affiliates is Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula, a Yemen-based group whose attempted attacks included the Christmas Day 2009 attempt to blow up a Northwest Airlines flight from Amsterdam to Detroit.
U.S. security sources, speaking on condition of anonymity, said the threat was related to AQAP but there was not a specific target. They also said that it was aimed at Western interests, an assessment later confirmed by the top U.S. military officer.
"The intent is to attack Western, not just U.S. interests," General Martin Dempsey, chairman of the U.S. Joint Chiefs of Staff, told ABC News in an interview to be broadcast on its "This Week" program on Sunday.
"There is a significant threat stream and we're reacting to it," he said, adding that the kind of potential attack was "unspecified."
Britain said it would close its embassy in Yemen on Sunday and Monday. "We are particularly concerned about the security situation in the final days of Ramadan and into Eid," Britain's Foreign Office said in a statement, referring to the Muslim holy month which ends on Wednesday.
A U.S. official who spoke on condition of anonymity said the threat was serious and that the U.S. government had reacted in such a dramatic manner "because we have some specificity but not enough."
On Thursday, the State Department said U.S. embassies that would normally be open on Sunday - chiefly those in the Muslim world - would be closed that day because of security concerns, adding that they might be shut for a longer period.
The embassies in the following countries will be closed: Afghanistan, Algeria, Bahrain, Bangladesh, Djibouti, Egypt, Iraq, Jordan, Kuwait, Libya, Mauritania, Oman, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, Sudan, the United Arab Emirates and Yemen.
The consulates in Arbil, Iraq; Dhahran and Jeddah, Saudi Arabia; and Dubai, United Arab Emirates will also be shut.
The U.S. Embassy in Tel Aviv, which is normally closed to the public on Sunday, said all its facilities would be shut on Sunday and workers not essential for the building's security had been told not to come in.
It also said the American Center in Jerusalem and the Haifa Consular Agency would be closed on Sunday.
While the U.S. State Department routinely releases what it describes as a "Worldwide Caution" warning U.S. citizens of the general potential danger of attacks around the world, Friday's travel alert was based on more specific information, said one U.S. official who spoke on condition of anonymity.
The previous "Worldwide Caution" was issued on February 19.
U.S. officials declined to provide additional details about the intelligence that led them to close the diplomatic missions and to issue the worldwide travel alert.
However, a second U.S. official said there was no information on a specific target, which was the reason for the broad alert.
The State Department referred travelers to its website for travel safety tips and the Smart Traveler Enrollment Program that puts those abroad on the nearest embassy or consulate radar in case of the need to convey specific threats detected in their area.
The alert may have been prompted by concern over the sheer volume of Americans traveling abroad in August, providing convenient “soft targets” at popular tourist sites and on public transportation. But with the exceptions of Egypt and Israel, the countries where U.S. diplomatic missions will be closed are not major tourism destinations.
U.S. officials may be moving more proactively in response to the latest intelligence because of “lessons learned” during last year's anniversary of the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks in the United States. An armed assault on the U.S. mission in Benghazi, Libya, on the 9/11 anniversary last year killed U.S. Ambassador J. Christopher Stevens and three other Americans.
The State Department's failure to order protective measures upon receipt of intelligence reports warning of a possible terror attack have subjected the Obama administration to withering criticism from Congress and political rivals.
California prisons: U.S. Supreme Court rejects state bid to avoid removal of more inmates
by Howard Mintz
Gov. Jerry Brown and his top prison officials may be running out of options to avoid having to remove another 10,000 inmates from the state's prisons by the end of the year.
In a brief but significant order, the U.S. Supreme Court on Friday rejected the Brown administration's bid to stall a federal court demand that the state shed the inmates to resolve California's prison overcrowding crisis. It was the latest setback in a long-running case that has stirred fears of thousands of criminals walking free, although the state would likely seek to place many of the prisoners in other facilities, including county jails.
The Supreme Court without explanation denied California's attempt to stay the orders while the justices consider whether to take up the state's broader appeal, an ominous sign for the governor. Three justices dissented and voted to put the inmate release order on hold, including Justice Antonin Scalia, who labeled it a "terrible injunction."
The Supreme Court did not indicate whether it will accept the full appeal of the order for its upcoming term, but with six justices refusing to put it on hold, the odds appear to weigh against the governor and his top prison aides.
Nevertheless, state officials vowed to press forward with their legal fight. The governor did not respond to the Supreme Court's order, but Jeffrey Beard, head of the state prison system, issued a brief statement saying the state now hopes to get the justices to consider the heart of the appeal.
But legal experts say the state may have no choice but to remove the inmates. Douglas Berman, an Ohio State University law professor and author of the Sentencing Law and Policy blog, said the Supreme Court's refusal to act immediately signals a majority of the justices are disinclined to intervene, perhaps a reason Scalia's dissent was so forceful.
As a result, the state is faced with a late December deadline to reduce its prison population to meet the requirements of a 2009 court order meant to cure California's decades-old prison overcrowding problems. A special three-judge panel has concluded the state's 33 prisons were so overcrowded that they are unable to give prisoners adequate medical and mental health care.
The state has argued the prison system is no longer overcrowded, having shed more than 30,000 inmates since the court orders went into effect, and that the medical care now meets or exceeds constitutional standards. The governor has met most of the court's goal of reducing the inmate population through his realignment program, which has shifted nonviolent, low-level offenders from state prisons to county jails.
State officials have warned that removing more inmates could threaten public safety, and law enforcement officials have opposed the release of any more, often equating the court-ordered "release" with criminals walking free. The California police chiefs' association decried the Supreme Court's refusal to block the releases, saying it would "allow for the release of more felons into already overburdened communities."
However, it is not clear exactly how a mass release would play out. In May, the Brown administration proposed what it called "an ugly plan" to reduce the prison population by nearly 10,000 inmates if the state's legal maneuvering fails. Among other solutions, prison officials propose slowing the rate of return of inmates being held in out-of-state prisons, leasing beds from larger county jails, increasing good-time credits and housing inmates at firefighting camps, some of which would require the Legislature's approval. It is not certain how many prisoners would be free before the ends of their sentences under such a scenario.
But lawyers for the inmates have urged the federal judges to reject the state's bid, arguing that medical care remains inadequate in much of the prison system. The federal judges have agreed, threatening the Brown administration with contempt if the state does not obey the court orders to further reduce the inmate population.
"They lost," said Michael Bien, a lawyer for prison inmates. "The stay was the ballgame here. It's time for (the governor) to comply."
The Supreme Court, in a 5-4 decision, previously upheld the three-judge panel's sweeping ruling requiring the state to reduce its overall prison population to about 110,000 inmates, or roughly 137 percent of its design capacity -- a goal the state is about 10,000 inmates short of now. California officials are now asking the justices to revisit that divided ruling, which indicated that the state could have an opportunity to demonstrate that it would not need to take further steps to address prison overcrowding.