Washington The Pentagon declared Friday that combat air patrols over U.S. airspace will resume over the July Fourth holiday. The Federal Aviation Administration will also ban flights in the vicinity of major American monuments.
The increased vigilance was not a response to any specific terrorist threat, administration officials stressed.
"It's a major holiday, and we're just beefing up to be prepared for anything," a senior defense official said, asking not to be identified.
Another administration official said that the reinstituted patrols followed electronic intercepts of increased "chatter" about possible al-Qaida plans.
The decision was based on "part analysis, part hunch," the official said. "There's been a lot of talk out there," he added, asking not to be identified.
The no-fly zones will be in effect around the Statue of Liberty in New York, Mount Rushmore in South Dakota and the Gateway Arch in St. Louis. Fighter jets will patrol the skies in unspecified regions of the country, although one administration official said Washington, New York and Los Angeles would get special attention.
On the ground, security will be equally tight. The FBI has alerted its local offices and state and municipal police to be particularly watchful this Fourth of July.
The National Mall in Washington, a major celebration site, will be enclosed in double fences, with checkpoints manned by police officers who will search backpacks and coolers using handheld metal detectors.
"We're trying to remind every one that just because it's a national holiday we can't let our guard down. Anytime you have large congregations of people, that presents another target," said Gordon Johndroe, spokesman for Homeland Security Director Tom Ridge
Military combat air patrols began immediately after the Sept. 11 suicide attacks when the Pentagon ordered F-16 fighters to carry out 24-hour patrols over major cities, particularly in the Northeast.
In April, officials reduced the number of patrols, saying they would fluctuate according to the level of threat.
The new patrols will be launched at random and fighter jets will not be in the air around the clock, said a defense official who spoke on condition of anonymity. The patrols will continue for an unspecified period.
In testimony before Congress this week, Stephen Cambone, deputy undersecretary of defense, said Air Force, National Guard and Air Force Reserve pilots will work with the FAA, a civilian agency, to identify and intercept suspicious aircraft.
Last week, a small Cessna accidentally strayed into Washington's no-fly zone, prompting the evacuation of the White House. Two military jets intercepted the plane and forced it to land in Richmond, Va. The incident prompted worries that a determined suicide pilot could have breached existing security.
The July Fourth security upgrade was in the works before the Cessna episode, officials said.