The weeks before Christmas brought no hint of terror. But by the afternoon of December 21, 2003, police stood guard in heavy assault gear on the streets of Manhattan. Fighter jets patrolled the skies. When a gift box was left on Fifth Avenue, it was labeled a suspicious package and 5,000 people in the Metropolitan Museum of Art were herded into the cold.
It was Code Orange. Americans first heard of it at a Sunday press conference in Washington, D.C. Weekend assignment editors sent their crews up Nebraska Avenue to the new Homeland Security offices, where DHS secretary Tom Ridge announced the terror alert. “There’s continued discussion,” he told reporters, “these are from credible sources—about near-term attacks that could either rival or exceed what we experienced on September 11.” The New York Times reported that intelligence sources warned “about some unspecified but spectacular attack.”
The financial markets trembled. By Tuesday the panic had ratcheted up as the Associated Press reported threats to “power plants, dams and even oil facilities in Alaska.” The feds forced the cancellation of dozens of French, British and Mexican commercial “flights of interest” and pushed foreign governments to put armed air marshals on certain flights. Air France flight 68 was canceled, as was Air France flight 70. By Christmas the headline in the Los Angeles Times was “Six Flights Canceled as Signs of Terror Plot Point to L.A.” Journalists speculated over the basis for these terror alerts. “Credible sources,” Ridge said. “Intelligence chatter,” said CNN.